You Must Remember This

Actress, Opera Star, Congresswoman

Helen Gahagan Douglas fought for liberty—and watched Richard Nixon end her political career.

Helen Douglas, U.S. Representative from California.
Helen Gahagan Douglas

United States Congress

You Must Remember This, the podcast that tells the secret and forgotten history of 20th-century Hollywood, is back for a new season. When each episode airs, creator and host Karina Longworth will share some of the research that went into the episode in an excerpt here on Slate. Listen to the complete Episode 9 below, on Helen Gahagan Douglas and the blacklist, and subscribe to You Must Remember This on iTunes.

If you lived in the Los Angeles area in the mid-to-late 1940s, depending on which district your home fell into, you may have been represented by one of two members of Congress: future president Richard Nixon or former actress and opera singer Helen Gahagan Douglas, who was also one-half of a Hollywood power couple with her husband, actor Melvyn Douglas. Nixon and Douglas, who were elected to the House of Representatives in 1946 and 1944 respectively, were on opposite ends of the political spectrum at the tail end of a time when there was an actual spectrum—when there were liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats and politicians occasionally broke from party ranks and collaborated with rivals. Our current state of political polarization is the result of processes that began around this time, and the flattening down of political possibility into two equally compromised parties would get worse over the 1950s, as candidates began managing their platforms for television. A major flashpoint in this transition was the California Senate race of 1950, in which Douglas ran against Nixon. It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that Nixon won that election, and from the Senate seat he vaulted into the top tier of American politics. Two years later, just six years after his political debut, he became Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president, and though he’d lose to John F. Kennedy in 1960, by 1968, Nixon was president.

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Her defeat to Nixon marked the end of Douglas’ time in public office, thus ending one of the most promising political careers of any woman of the era, not to mention the first nationally prominent political career of any man or woman from Hollywood. And though there were many factors that went into Nixon’s win—including, as we’ll see, dirty tricks and endemic corruption—the major issue of the campaign was communism. Nixon had been a key member of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the 1947 Hollywood hearings; while he and Douglas were on the campaign trail in the summer of 1950, the Hollywood Ten finally exhausted their appeals and started going to prison. In this climate, Nixon was able to brand himself as a successful hunter and prosecutor of reds and paint Douglas, who had vocally opposed HUAC and its activities, as not just soft on communism, but herself a Hollywood pinko.

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She, producer Merian C. Cooper’s nutty 1935 follow-up to his smash hit King Kong, was Helen’s first, last, and only film, to the mutual satisfaction of the actress and the industry. But just as she was becoming fully certain that she wanted no work in Hollywood, her husband’s screen career began to click. With films like She Married Her Boss, The Gorgeous Hussy, and Theodora Goes Wild, Melvyn was establishing himself as a handsome matinee idol who was a worthy object of desire for strong female superstars such as Claudette Colbert, Joan Crawford, and Irene Dunne. He was regularly seen around town escorting such stars to parties and premieres, and gossip columnists began speculating that these photo-op dates were less than strictly professional.

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While Melvyn’s career was booming, Helen left for a European opera tour, which led to a contract to sing Tosca in Vienna—a dream come true for her. But before her debut, Helen found herself having coffee in Vienna with a British music critic who began trying to recruit Helen to the Nazi cause—apparently unaware that Helen was married to a Jew. Helen was so sickened by the experience that she canceled her contract and flew straight back to Los Angeles, and then upon arrival, took a taxi straight to the MGM set where Melvyn was shooting. She showed up in his dressing room and said, “I’m not going back. I’m not going to sing Tosca in Vienna.” Then she burst into tears. Her opera career was all but over. Weeks later, Hitler invaded Austria, where Helen would have been singing Tosca at the time had she not chosen principle over professional success.

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This was, in essence, Helen Gahagan Douglas’ first political action, and it would set a template for her future as a politician: In the long view, it was the morally correct, right-side-of-history move, but in the moment, it was the hardest thing to do, and doing it put her at a personal disadvantage.

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After giving birth to her second child at the age of 38, Helen threw herself wholeheartedly into activism. She and Melvyn both joined the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and began speaking out against Hitler and the march of anti-Semitism in Europe. Helen was also was moved by the plight of the Okies, the migrants who were pushed off Midwestern farmlands by the Dust Bowl, and through her friendship with Dorothea Lange, Helen began advocating for aid to these displaced Americans. Helen’s efforts on this front attracted the attention of Eleanor Roosevelt, and soon Helen was taken under the wings of the president and first lady. Helen was appointed to the advisory board of the Works Progress Administration, the massive New Deal agency designed to create all manner of federal projects to put Americans back to work. When FDR ran for a third term in 1940, Melvyn became the first Hollywood star to be named a delegate at the convention, and Helen came along. There she both sang the National Anthem and was elected the Democratic National Committee chairwoman for the state of California.

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Helen was perhaps given this position in part because of the expectation that she would be able to mobilize Hollywood to vote for Roosevelt, which she did, and in part because the Roosevelts liked having her around; when FDR needed a break from the stress of being president in a time of world war, he’d invite Helen over for cocktail hour and press her for the true stories behind the gossip reported in the movie rags. But the chairwomanship wasn’t an honorary or empty title. This was Helen’s real entrée into politics, and she immediately discovered that as far as the establishment was concerned, she wasn’t suited for it. For one thing, she was a woman, and the men in charge all seemed to harbor an open or veiled contempt for women in power. In order to keep them in check, women were often tasked with menial tasks, like making coffee, while the boys did the real work. And Helen was a particularly dangerous woman, because she didn’t believe that donors should be able to influence politicians with cash. This was the other area of rude awakening for her: the extent to which political change occurs not because a politician believes it’s in the best interest of his constituents, but because a special interest paid for it.

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When the U.S. entered the war, 41-year-old Melvyn enlisted and was sent to India. He and Helen would be apart for the duration and would never again really live together romantically. Even putting the strain on the relationship aside, with Melvyn not collecting a movie salary, it was up to Helen to support their two kids. She had to let all of their household help go, and for the first time in her life, she learned how to cook and clean herself. Finally, she put her kids in boarding school and embarked on a trip to Washington. It was time to get serious about getting into politics.

In Washington, Helen stayed with her best friends in town—which meant she was staying at the White House. She sat in on sessions of Congress and was amazed that nothing happened, nothing got done. When a local Los Angeles congressman approached her, told her he was retiring, and asked if she’d run for his seat, Helen said no—but FDR talked her into it.

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Despite Helen’s cozy relationship with the Roosevelts, her first election was an uphill battle. Most of the women in Congress in the mid-1940s had inherited their positions after their congressman husbands had died, and there were only seven of them in a body of more than 400. And the seat she was running for was to represent a district that was mostly foreign to her. Though the district included a portion of Hollywood, it also stretched south to include what is now called South Central. Many of the constituents were blacks and immigrants living in segregated neighborhoods and struggling to rise above the poverty line.

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Though the Los Angeles Times and other papers branded her a “red” from the beginning, that didn’t mean as much as it would a few years later, and the stars were on Helen’s side. Samuel Goldwyn and David O. Selznick helped fund her campaign, and Rita Hayworth and Ronald Reagan vocally supported it. She won—by a narrow margin, but she won. It took so long for letters to arrive to Melvyn in India that he had to learn that his wife had become a congresswoman by reading it in the military newspaper Stars and Stripes.

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Helen Gahagan Douglas’ six years in the House of Representatives seem to have been a mixed bag, although it’s a bit hard to tell from the press coverage she got at the time, which was apparently almost entirely focused on her looks. It should be noted that she didn’t manage to pass a single piece of legislation. But she made an impact, largely through protest. She was one of just a handful of representatives to vote against funding HUAC permanently. And as a supporter of the United Nations, Helen believed that the U.S. should share nuclear information with other countries, including the USSR, in order to avoid an arms race.

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J. Edgar Hoover had been keeping tabs on Helen since she first started dipping her toe in political waters, and now he really amped up his investigation of her. Her nuclear position just solidified what the FBI director already suspected, and in his eyes, it was part of a pattern. Always an advocate for the poor and oppressed, as congresswoman of a district with a significant black population, Helen out of compassion but also political savvy had hired an black congressional aide and generally went out of her way to support civil rights. She sponsored an anti-lynching bill that made it through the House but failed in the Senate. Hoover believed that black communities had been infiltrated by communists and that the civil rights movement was just a crafty manifestation of the red grab for power.  

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With no desire to protect herself by playing the game, Helen became a committed thorn in the side of HUAC and its leader, the vile racist John Rankin. A year or so after their first encounter on the floor of Congress, she called out Rankin’s HUAC for employing an investigator who had made very ugly anti-Semitic statements in the press and then warned the whole of the House that HUAC was giving them all a bad name: “We are made a laughingstock. We become parties to the creation of a new Gestapo. We are completing the late Adolf Hitler’s unfinished business.”

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It would be foolish to pretend that Helen was at the peak of her powers until Richard Nixon came along and beat her into submission. The fact was that a broom was coming along and sweeping most of the country and the culture to the right. Helen refused to be swept, and this caused her to lose power. In this context, her Senate campaign in 1950 almost seems less driven by ambition—even though she was aware that she was the first woman in the history of California to run for the Senate—and more by desperation. She was popular enough in her district that she could have kept her own job in Congress for a long while. But she saw that the more the Senate shifted to the right, the harder it would become for her to get anything done. It seems like she ran for the Senate in an effort to protect one seat from the rising tide of insanity.

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Nixon’s campaign passed out half a million “pink sheets,” leaflets printed on pink paper, printed with vague but ominous suggestions that Helen Douglas had secret communist ties. In the days before robocalls, human Nixon campaign staffers would call voters at home and ask if they knew that Helen Douglas “was married to a Jew” and suggest that she was just another “movie Jew” trying to take the country away from “real” Americans. And white communities were mail-bombed with postcards in support of Helen, signed by the Communist League of Negro Women—a completely made-up organization whose name alone was crafted to strike fear in the hearts of white homeowners.

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In the middle of the election came Helen’s most controversial vote. Among other things, the McCarran-Wood bill sought to allow the president to detain, imprison, or deport potential subversives and barred communists from working in government. It was as close as Congress got to actually outlawing communism, and Helen thought it was unconstitutional. Eventually, the Supreme Court agreed with her and struck down part of the law, but in 1950, most members of Congress either passionately supported it or thought they ought to go along to get along. Those who were opposed to it believed that President Harry Truman would veto it, so there was no harm in voting to pass it. Her colleagues begged Helen: Don’t vote no. It won’t matter, the bill pass anyway, and it will only hurt your campaign and your career. But Helen couldn’t do it. She couldn’t vote for a bill that she believed was un-American. After this, members of her own party began to turn their backs on her. Ronald Reagan, who had been a friend and supporter of Helen’s for years, allowed his wife, Nancy, to take him to a Nixon rally, and he switched allegiances that day.

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Helen Gahagan Douglas lost the Senate election to Richard Nixon by about 700,000 votes. With this defeat, Helen gave up on public office. While Helen and Melvyn’s romantic relationship did not resume, for the sake of the kids she moved to New York with Melvyn, who would spend the next decade on the stage and on TV before reviving his screen career in the early 1960s, winning an Oscar for Hud. Meanwhile, Helen devoted herself to activism, tirelessly advocating for smart nuclear weapons regulation. In 1979, Melvyn won a second Oscar, for Being There, and two years later he died. By that point, Nixon had long since disgraced himself, and by that point, everything Helen Gahagan Douglas stood for, which hadn’t changed since the 1930s, had acquired a new cachet. Reportedly, in the aftermath of Watergate, bumper stickers started popping up all over California, reading “DON’T BLAME ME, I VOTED FOR HELEN GAHAGAN DOUGLAS.”

To hear the rest of the story, listen to You Must Remember This Episode 9, She: Richard Nixon and Helen Gahagan Douglas.”