Sixty years before Hillary Clinton ran for president, and Sarah Palin for Vice President, Helen Gahagan Douglas was the first woman in America who had the capacity, the credentials, the ambition, and the political gravity to realistically aspire to the highest office in the land. During her rise as an American female politician she struggled to define herself in the highly charged climate of Red Scare America. Her trajectory from Broadway star, to California congresswoman, to vice-presidential contender, to senatorial candidate seemed unstoppable—until her 1950 Senate race against Richard Nixon.
Smears had happened before in political history, but not with such blatant lies and sophisticated orchestration.
In a carefully orchestrated whispering campaign of smear, fear, and innuendo that would go down in American history as the dirtiest ever—while also becoming the model for the next half-century and beyond—Nixon exploited America’s xenophobic suspicions and reflexive chauvinism with devastating consequences. Nixon’s henchman, Murray Chotiner, introduced his own brand of dirty tricks to the political campaign. Five years after the historic 1950 California match, Chotiner spoke to a Republican National Committee school for campaign workers about the Douglas-Nixon race and political strategy for the future. It would be one of many secret lectures Chotiner would give to “GOP schools” and where he would meet the protégés who would succeed him: Lee Atwater and Karl Rove. His 14,000-word syllabus, which became a legendary GOP dirty tricks manifesto, laid out a simple formula: “Discredit your opponent before your own candidate gets started…associate your opponent with an unpopular idea or organization, with just a suggestion of treason…above all, attack, attack, attack, never defend.”
It was September 11, 1950. Eleanor Roosevelt addressed the record crowd on a balmy Southern California afternoon. Journalists noted that she wore a gray suit over a black blouse, and the Los Angeles Daily News reported on her “right nice hair-do.” Fashion and triviality aside, the former first lady and widow of FDR was eloquent and animated in her speech to the thousands who had gathered. She had traveled here from New York to support her dear friend, Helen, who was locked in one of, if not the, most bitter Senate campaigns in U.S. history.
It was here, at Bixby Park in Long Beach, while Mrs. Roosevelt appealed to the crowd, that Helen’s supporters first noticed Republicans passing out pink slips of paper. “The Pink Sheet”—implying that she was a communist, “hinting darkly at secret ties,” as one historian put it—would become notorious in the annals of political dirty tricks. It would earn for its creator the sobriquet of “Tricky Dick.” The nickname, which Helen attached to her adversary, would haunt Nixon for decades to come. Forever branded as the “Pink Lady,” Helen was the first Hollywood figure to rise meteorically in national politics, the first female to gain entrée into the male-dominated smoke-filled rooms of a Democratic national convention, the first American woman seriously considered as a vice-presidential contender.
This day in the park, Helen laughed at the ludicrousness of the Pink Sheet, dismissing it as an unsophisticated, sophomoric attempt to deflect attention from the many real issues and challenges facing the nation. Eleanor Roosevelt was less sanguine, urging her friend to “set the record straight.” Helen was neither a communist nor a communist sympathizer. She was a New Deal progressive, an unabashed liberal. “I failed to take his attacks seriously enough,” she later remarked, upon realizing that her enemies had distributed more than a half-million copies of the slander sheet throughout California. “I just thought it was ridiculous, absolutely absurd.” Only later did she grasp the full impact.
Helen and Nixon had served two simultaneous terms in Congress from 1946 until 1950. He was the 37-year-old up-and-coming star in the increasingly reactionary national Republican Party. She was the Democratic Party’s bright and shining hope—rich, smart, and charismatic—who, as one of the first women in the U.S. Senate, would be a powerful voice for an enlightened social policy. At the beginning, she was widely favored to win. But the “fifty campaign” would go down in American history as the dirtiest ever—the contest that historians and scholars have concluded was pivotal in gender politics.
“Did you know that she’s married to a Jew?” So began the telephone slander campaign against her, Nixon himself calling her “Helen Hesselberg,” and inciting the terror of the “movie Jews” conspiring to take over the country. “You can’t elect this woman that sleeps with a Jew,” was one of the soon-to-be-familiar slogans.
The race between Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady, as it came to be known, would become the focal point for the right and the left in America, as both sides struggled to define the postwar national ethic and the business of electing officials. Symbol and metaphor of the direction the country would take, the Douglas-Nixon match was the breeding ground for unseemly tactics that would dominate politics for decades to come—teaching a generation of campaigners how using fear-based smear and sexist stereotypes could transform the electoral process and assure huge victories at the polls. The first mass media campaign of its type—the first marriage of television and politics—it would be marked by slush funds, slander, voter intimidation, and ad hominem attacks, and signal the beginning of the unparalleled influx of money into the political process…
The campaign was brutal and took a physical toll on Douglas. On the campaign trail, she found little time for what a reporter called the “feminine necessities” of getting her hair and nails done, and her 10-pound weight gain from skipping meals and eating candy bars became a topic for the press. “A man goes straight to bed at night after a final speech,” wrote one campaign observer, “but a woman ‘has to get a shampoo at midnight. She has to go to bed with her head in a towel to dry while she sleeps.’” She had been pelted with stones, spit on, doused with seltzer, showered with hay, barraged by raw eggs, and still she tried to hold her head up high and maintain a buoyant front. She felt that “Nixon and Chotiner had woven a spider’s web of sticky lies” from which she could not extricate herself, “a deadly whispering campaign that was impossible to fight.”
Those closest to her thought she had lost her effectiveness as a campaigner. She spoke too long and her voice was too shrill, but no one in her inner circle had the courage to tell her. Addressing the crowds, she could feel the defections—“Democrats, Catholics, union people from the building trades”—even though they were mostly polite and promised to vote for her. Many Democrats felt she had betrayed the party by challenging the incumbent Downey. The Catholics had not forgiven her for denouncing the Spanish fascist dictator Franco. While she maintained her support from both the AFL and the CIO, the building trades—which were controlled by Ziffren partner Sidney Korshak—were solidly against her.
The movie industry became increasingly ambivalent about her; while many had supported her in the primary, the HUAC investigation of the film colony was at a fever pitch and had “torn the community apart,” as she recalled the schism. Ronald Reagan remained one of her staunchest allies. But near the end of the campaign, his future wife, Nancy Davis, took him to a Nixon rally, where he heard the actress Zasu Pitts rail against the Pink Lady. He was converted on the spot. Though Reagan’s defection was apparently never known to Helen, he hosted a clandestine impromptu fundraising dinner for Nixon shortly after the Pitts speech. While a relatively few small donations came in to the Douglas campaign, only a handful of Hollywood celebrities wanted to be publicly associated with her, and in stark contrast to all of her previous congressional campaigns she was unable to coordinate a single movie star gala. Only the diehard loyalists—Myrna Loy and Eddie Cantor—came forward enthusiastically. Instead, it was Nixon who garnered the most Hollywood support with such bigwigs as Cecil B. DeMille, Howard Hughes, Anne Baxter, John Wayne, Rosalind Russell, and dozens more.
On Oct. 27 her longtime close friend and supporter, the Jewish actor Edward G. Robinson, finally agreed to answer HUAC investigators’ questions about the political activities of his Hollywood colleagues. Robinson had done so reluctantly, out of fear of being professionally blacklisted, but it was widely seen in their circle as a betrayal of his liberal friends in the film community. While she could empathize with Robinson’s predicament, she saw it as a devastating personal and political setback. Rather than face contempt, Robinson set a precedent of answering the very kinds of questions Helen had been calling unconstitutional. Robinson’s testimony set off the period in Hollywood referred to as “naming names” and sent fear throughout the film community. “The question of naming names was at some level a struggle between the right and the left within the Jewish community,” author Victor S. Navasky wrote of the Hollywood Red Scare. “…As the Cold War heated up, so did the Jewish community’s fear of McCarthyite anti-Semitism. First, it was a fact that many Jews were or had been in the socialist movement, and the professional patrioteers were unable or unwilling to distinguish between socialist and communist.” Nixon had managed to gain the support of Rabbi Max John Merritt—a strong Jewish leader in Los Angeles—and with his endorsement came money from Hollywood tycoons and executives including Louis B. Mayer (MGM), Harry Cohn (Columbia Pictures), and Darryl Zanuck (Twentieth Century-Fox).
Even Vito Marcantonio, apparently lacking any sense of irony, sidled up to Nixon when the two found themselves waiting to cross a street near the Capitol. “I hope you beat that bitch out there in California,” Marcontonio said—a remark Nixon would retell with relish for the rest of his life.
The Nixon-Chotiner camp never relented. In the final days of the campaign, thousands of postcards were mailed to voters in the white suburbs and Northern California communities. Signed by a fictitious organization called the “Communist League of Negro Women,” the postcards carried the message: “VOTE FOR HELEN FOR SENATOR. WE ARE WITH HER 100%.” Then, cities were showered with leaflets offering prizes of silver tableware to people who answered their telephones saying “Vote for Nixon” rather than “Hello.”
Smears had happened before in political history, but not with such blatant lies and sophisticated orchestration. Columnist Drew Pearson called it “one of the most skilled and cutthroat campaigns… I have ever witnessed” and branded the Pink Sheet “one of the most skillful pieces of propaganda I have seen.”
As for the men in her life, Lyndon Johnson was verbally supportive but, like most high-level Democratic men in Washington, went to lengths to distance himself. No political figure, regardless of power, could afford to be painted with the red brush of “communist,” and what was happening to Helen in California only validated the danger. For his part, Noel-Baker was extremely worried about her. He thought the race “a great disaster” and blamed her fellow Democrats for urging her to run against Nixon and then betraying her.
Sally Denton is a writer based in Santa Fe and author of six books, including The Money and the Power: The Making of Las Vegas and Its Hold on America and The Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas (Bloomsbury Press).