The Pink Lady
The Many Lives of
Helen Gahagan Douglas
(Bloomsbury)Oh she was a study. Born rich, beautiful, eloquent ... passionate in her careers (acting, singing, politics). She had a good enough voice to consider a career in opera. She was a highly paid stage and movie star, married to the equally successful actor Melvin Douglas.
Then she did politics. For five years she was a star in the U. S. House of Representatives, representing the fourteenth district of California. She was mentioned as possible speaker of the House a half-century before Nancy Pelosi got there. They also thought she might make a good vice-presidential candidate for the Democrats in 1948.
But in 1950, Helen Gahagan Douglas decided to run for the U. S. Senate against Richard Nixon. Bad move. He was assisted by that most devious troublemaker, Murray Chotiner. It was during the time that the Communists were seen as taking over the world. They had taken over much of Eastern Europe, China. They were active in Greece, invading Korea, a burgeoning force in Viet Nam. Gahagan Douglas was labeled "soft on Communism."
She didn't know what had hit her. Nixon's train-wreck style was a stark change from the polite world of Gahagan Douglas's friend Roosevelt. Murray Chotiner came up with a "Pink Sheet" (printed on pink paper) comparing her voting record to the leftist Vito Marcantonio of New York. Nixon picked up support from the Los Angeles Times and other major California newspapers. The final blow to her campaign was an anonymous brochure issued by the non-existent "Communist League of Negro Women."
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The Pink Lady is an unfortunate title, for it's the label that Nixon used on her in 1950. "Pinks" were liberals considered to be in bed with the communists. But in Gahagan Douglas's case, it was not so. She was in more in bed with the likes of Nobel Prize Winner Philip Noel-Baker and, later, with Lyndon Baines Johnson himself.
Evidently Gahagan Douglas and Johnson carried on something awful in Washington during his early days as representative from Texas. They didn't seem too particular --- such innocent times! --- to hide their liaison.
Fifteen years later, when he became president, she and Johnson did a few turns in the White House as well. "He had supplied her apparently with my nightgown and robe and there she was on the third floor," Lady Bird Johnson wrote tartly in her diary.
One gets the feeling that Douglas was a gruesomely bad judge of character. And not only choosing Johnson as a bedmate, but others as well. Her fundraiser in 1950, Paul Ziffren, was, according to Denton, actively working against her and possibly connected "to organized crime figures." Gahagan Douglas was bright, and very pretty, and non-stop ... but she was also blind.
The details of the 1950 campaign may create excessive pain for old time liberals like you and me, but it is the heart of the book. Despite that, there isn't much here: heart, that is. The early history of Gahagan Douglas drags, the middle part wambles, and only when Nixon hoves into view do we get a whiff of fire. Ms. Denton is not what you would call a felicitous stylist.
She also makes some factual errors. When he was running for his first term of office in the white house, FDR was not considered a "radical" by anyone. An examination of his campaign speeches show an almost tedious middle-of-the-road figure.
We also don't believe it when she tells us that Roosevelt's eyes "filled with tears" when he spoke to Douglas about migrant children. He was a tough old nut, certainly no weeper.
And he was not "confined to a wheelchair." Polite liberals don't use that phrase. Moreover, FDR was able to stand and get about, although with extreme difficulty.
Executive Order 9066 did put the Nisei in "relocation centers" in 1942, but these were not "concentration camps" as Denton avers. That phrase is reserved for harsher locales in other lands ... with considerably more tortured outcomes.
Finally Clare Booth Luce was never "a glamorous femme fatale." Like FDR, she was a tough old nut: as for her style, see Curzio Malaparte's riotous stories about her in Skin.
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Denton would have constructed a better volume if she had pared down the early history of Gahagan Douglas, spent more time, in more detail, on the violently vulgar Senate race of 1950. She could have drawn in parallel stories from other, equally vile campaigns of the same era: Claude Pepper's tragic defeat in Florida, for instance, or Millard Tydings' brutal race in Maryland.
The hasty end of Pink Lady --- fifteen years crammed into eight pages --- suggests that perhaps Denton soon got to be as weary of her subject as the rest of us.--- Carlos Amantea