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“Long before Geraldine Ferraro or Sarah Palin came on the scene, Douglas was the
first woman politician to be seriously considered as vice presidential timber, and Denton’s absorbing portrait of this courageous politician sheds welcome light on an oft-maligned public figure.”—Booklist
“Sally Denton does a handsome job exploring Helen Gahagan’s early life as an actress and singer as well as her later political activism… Denton displays a solid grasp of the ignominious politics of McCarthy-era America. Eye-opening, entertaining portrait of a fascinating proto-feminist.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Embracing her subject with verve and imagination, Sally Denton gives us the preposterously colorful life and times of an American heroine. Helen Gahagan Douglas was, truly, a woman for all seasons. You can’t read about her without thinking: They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.”—Hampton Sides, author of Blood and Thunder and Ghost Soldiers
“Sally Denton has rendered great service to history by vividly describing the story of Helen Gahagan Douglas and her lifetime effort to expand the scope and meaning of American democracy. This Irish woman from Brooklyn not only had a love affair with the natural world, but she was a champion of liberal causes such as environmental protection, nuclear sanity, and the long list of humanitarian issues favored by Eleanor Roosevelt. In the process Douglas became a symbolic figure.”—Stewart Udall, former U.S. Representative and Secretary of the Interior, 1961-1969
I'm Nobody! Who are you? Are you-Nobody-Too? Then there's a pair of us! Don't tell! They'd advertise-you know!
How dreary-to be-Somebody! How public-like a Frog- To tell one's name-the livelong June- To an admiring Bog!
-Emily Dickinson (Favorite poem of Helen Gahagan Douglas)
Her life would begin and end in sun- filled rooms-the eighty years between her birth and death shaped by an appreciation of light, a shedding of light, a search for light. "In every house we ever occupied, she wanted the windows to be wider," her husband would write at the end of her life. "She thought no room could have too many windows."
She entered the world at the beginning of a new century, on the eve of what one historian called "the great moral upheaval" that three decades later solidified as the New Deal that would shape her career. Fortunately, in her final years, while battling terminal cancer, she began writing her autobiography. Friends and publishers had implored her to do so for some time, but it was not until after her seventieth birthday that she embarked on the project in earnest. For de cades she had refused todiscuss her nemesis, Richard Nixon. She worked on the manuscript until the day she died in 1980, her New York hospital room filled with files, clippings, photographs, and stories from her extraordinary life. The book was completed by her assistant and published posthumously by Doubleday. Without her memoir, the real mea sure of her existence would have been frustratingly elusive.
Born on November 25, 1900, and christened Helen Mary, she was the daughter of an ambitious and brilliant civil engineer and a petite and stylish schoolteacher. "We were raised in acute awareness of our family lines," Helen, as she was called, would write. Her fascination with bloodlines was neither an elite absorption nor boastful obsession with personal lineage. She was descended not from great wealth or American aristocracy, but from solid Midwestern pioneer stock. Prosperous, principled, and genteel, Helen's paternal ancestors served as models for a civic-minded life. The forebears on her mother's side were Wisconsin farmers known for their physical strength and, especially, for their exquisite singing voices.
Walter Hamer Gahagan II was a towering, well- built, handsome man with a fiery Irish temper. He was a native of Troy, Ohio; his great-grandfather had founded the town of Dayton. Raised in comfortable circumstances and instilled with Victorian paternalism, devout Protestantism, and a commitment to education and intellectual rigor, Gahagan was the firstborn son to William Henry Harrison Gahagan and Hannah M. Smith. His father died when Walter was six years old, leaving Hannah a young widow with three small children-Walter and two younger sisters. She quit teaching school in order to manage the large family farm, and when Walter decided to pursue engineering rather than farming, she mortgaged the property to send him to Ohio State Technical School. A man of quick mind and high character, he excelled academically, and by 1887 had graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and returned to Dayton, where he amassed a small fortune constructing railways across the West. He helped build the Eads Bridge in Saint Louis-the first span across the Mississippi River-and oversaw the construction of seven bridges over the Snake and Red Rivers.
The railroad business took him to Lodi, Wisconsin, where, in 1896, at the age of thirty, he met the beautiful Lillian Mussen. Known for her in de pen dent streak and string of suitors, Lillian was working for her hotelier father, James Mussen. Also thirty, Lillian was accustomed to a more liberated lifestyle than her female peers. Her mother had died of pneumonia when Lillian was seven, leaving James with nine children to raise. When he remarried, his new wife wanted little to do with Lillian, forcing the girl to become self- reliant at a young age. By the time Lillian met Walter she had already worked as a schoolteacher and owned a millinery shop, and she was a highly regarded singer in the church choir. Both her beauty and voice set her apart in the thriving community. Her lithe figure and arresting loveliness drew attention, but what most attracted Walter to her was her voice. "She was one of those rare individuals who fell out of bed and hit a high F," Helen would later say of her mother's innate talent. When Walter listened to Lillian sing at the local Methodist church, he fell in love then and there. Though Walter was immediately smitten with her, he would not consider marriage without first seeking his mother's approval of his choice. He courted her for four months while awaiting the arrival of Hannah, who, fortunately for the young couple, pronounced Lillian suitable.
"Unlike many of his generation, he had no contempt for women's intelligence," Helen would recall of her father. "His example was his unusual mother, the formidable Hannah Gahagan, who was sent to Antioch College by her father despite family outrage and intense opposition." Indeed, Hannah had been an indomitable force. After being widowed in the early 1870s, she had become a leading feminist: She had single- handedly integrated libraries in Ohio that had been closed to women under the prevailing belief that women needn't be educated, she had founded the activist Women's Christian Association in Troy, and had become the first female school board member in the state of Ohio.
"Everything his mother did Father found praiseworthy," Helen later recalled. "He picked my mother as his bride only after his mother checked her out. His plan was to raise sons to join him in his Gahagan Company."
If Walter was enthusiastic and fervent, Lillian was decidedly reticent. While she admired her future mother-in-law for her spunky independence, early indications suggested that her fiancé might not have been so progressive. First Walter insisted that she sell her bicycle-a demand that alarmed Lillian, who cherished the freedom it afforded her. Next he insisted that she abandon her dreams of an opera career in order to raise a family. An operatic coach once compared her to Nellie Melba, the legendary Australian bel canto soprano, and she passionately harbored a desire to sing professionally. Still, despite her misgivings, she was charmed by the handsome and dignified man and excited by the prospect of a life in New York, where he had decided to base his engineering firm. They were quickly married by an Episcopal priest.
The couple bought a small but fashionable home in Brooklyn's upper-class Park Slope neighborhood, and by 1898 Lillian had given birth to twin boys, William and Frederick. The following year Lillian was pregnant again, and Walter moved the family to temporary quarters in Boonton, New Jersey, where he was supervising the construction of a dam. It was there that Lillian gave birth to Helen. Two years later Helen would have a little sister, Lillian, and the Gahagans moved their lively brood into an imposing mansion at 231 Lincoln Place in Park Slope.
Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the founder of American landscape architecture, and his English colleague, Calvert Vaux, the 585-acre Prospect Park was the backdrop for the Park Slope neighborhood. The Gahagans selected the tranquil locale because of its proximity to the Berkeley Institute, an elite private academy for girls; it was also near an equally highbrow school for boys. The streets were lit by gas lanterns, and horse-drawn carriages conveyed the residents on their daily outings. The area was regularly patrolled by one familiar policeman, providing security to the Gahagan clan in its upper- crust world. Helen later drew a comparison of her Park Slope upbringing to the set of the 1939 Broadway play Life with Father, about an upscale nineteenth-century New York suburban couple and their rambunctious red-headed children.
The high-ceilinged, wood-paneled, and book-lined rooms were large and airy. Enormous windows opened onto lush gardens, marble fireplaces warmed nearly every room, and the banister of a massive center hallway staircase provided enjoyment to the children-who numbered five with the birth of Walter Jr. in 1910. Walter kept adding windows, as if there could never be enough. "Noisy, gregarious, affectionate," is how Helen described her family-Walter the stern and pragmatic patriarch, Lillian his fun-loving and creative counterpart.
"Lillian, do you see what the children are doing?" Walter once shouted at his wife. "They're sliding down the banisters."
"Yes, I know. I taught them how," Lillian answered.
"Do you want them to fall and break their necks?" he bellowed.
"No, that's why I showed them how. I've been sliding down myself to set an example."
Helen was a feisty and curious child, strong-willed and theatrical. Irreverent and mischievous, she naturally became the center of attention among the five siblings. A voracious reader, precocious entertainer, and talented singer, she charmed them all-brothers, sisters, parents, relatives, and friends were drawn to her. Her physical attributes-her mane of thick golden hair, sharp blue eyes, alarming height, and robust athleticism-demanded attention as well. She grew so quickly that her mother compared her to a "white potato sprout," and yet, in an era when diminutive features defined feminine beauty, she embraced her unique stature without a hint of self-consciousness. A tomboy determined to keep up with her three brothers, she swam, skied, played golf, rode horses, and took up boxing when President Teddy Roosevelt popularized the sport. When she sneaked away in the family car trying to teach herself how to drive, she slammed it into a tree. Still, she was proud of her accomplishment.
The supporting structure of the woman she would become lay in the character and discipline of the man and woman who raised her. Each parent brought a straightforward approach to life's complexities and the individual's responsibility to society. Behind each parent lay several generations of hardworking, honest, middle- and upper-class American virtues.
Lillian Gahagan imparted to her daughter a devotion to the Episcopal church, a commitment to the value of education, an appreciation of art, music, and culture, and the notion that women, whether single or married, should pursue a career. Despite or perhaps because of the demand that her husband had made that she stop singing, Lillian actively, if covertly, encouraged Helen's obsession with acting and singing. Stifling her dream of joining the Metropolitan Opera had been the heartbreak of Lillian's life. When an opera coach begged her to sign a contract, Walter had given her an ultimatum. "You must give up this notion of having a singing career or I'll take you back to Wisconsin and leave you there. I love your voice but I didn't marry you to have you become a professional singer. I want you to be my wife and the mother of my children. If you want to live with me, you can't sing opera." Lillian cried all night-racked with a disappointment that she would carry until her death. But she stoically turned her attention to child rearing and never spoke of it again.
Helen watched her easygoing mother manage a house hold full of energetic children, never losing her temper or imposing her will. It would not be until years later, as she faced her own career decisions, that Helen grasped the full impact of her father's squelching of her mother's artistic talents. For now she marveled at the energy her mother focused upon her family, as if she were running a small country. Lillian trained and supervised a succession of Swedish and German maids and accommodated the erratic schedule of her husband and the comings and goings of her offspring. "At the Gahagans' no two of us ate breakfast or lunch at the same time," Helen recalled. "We usually snatched something from the table and ate on the run, late to school."
An eternal optimist, Lillian created a surprisingly serene environment for her noisy family, and though she seemed unobtrusive, no detail of their childhood escaped her meticulous attention. Helen adopted her mother's laissez-faire attitude toward life, a belief that what is meant to be will be. But despite her mother's calm example, Helen embodied the volatility that her father modeled. "It's good to have a temper, Helen," her mother once told her. "But you'd better get it under control or you'll go through life apologizing."
As gentle and understated as Lillian was, Walter was outsized and boisterous, and perhaps because Helen resembled him in personality and disposition they were often at loggerheads. "He was an impressive man who seemed to use up all the breathable space in a room ... he was physically big, full of impatient energy, and possessed of a flaming Irish temper," Helen wrote of her father. She adored him and ardently sought his approval, and though she never openly defied him they argued incessantly. He loved the outdoors and would never allow the curtains to be drawn in a room-behavior that Helen would emulate all of her life.
He was alarmed by her consistent and growing love of the theater, and was determined that she would never become an actress. "In his mind, actress and whore were interchangeable," Helen wrote. His views reflected a common perception of the era that "theatrical folk" possessed notoriously loose morals, combined with his knowledge that some of his friends had mistresses who were stage actresses. He harangued her about the importance of education and demanded that her future include graduation from college. "When I began to read avidly, as he did, he cautioned me to be skeptical. Printing something did not make it true. The written page should be tested." She must learn how to think, he insisted. "Did I want to be just a breeding machine?" she remembered him thundering at her one afternoon. He thought uneducated women were broodmares, and he had no patience for useless women in the world-an irony considering the ultimatum he had given his wife. Thinking was Walter's theme in his many instructions to the Gahagan children. "To think was to be in control of oneself, to be less likely to be manipulated, to avoid being a slave to emotion," Helen extrapolated from his lectures. "Thinking, he told us, doesn't come naturally. It requires training. One must gather facts with which to ponder a subject."
Walter took seriously his role as head of the family and demanded that all of his children adhere to a set of unwavering principles rooted in honesty. He taught them never to lie and to make one's word one's bond. He was a dominant force at the dinner table and encouraged each child to explore his or her mind and to converse with confidence.
In spite of their many differences, Walter and Lillian were exceedingly compatible and were united in placing family above all else. Walter wanted nothing to do with domestic logistics, making clear that his life was in the world and Lillian's was in the home. On Sundays the family dined at the nearby Montauk Club-a posh private men's club that allowed women to attend only one day a week. Lillian had season tickets to the Metropolitan Opera and took Helen to every performance from an early age. They routinely visited the Brooklyn Museum and went on cultural outings in Manhattan. All five children were expected to regularly attend the Episcopal church with their mother. Walter eschewed organized religion, claiming he had had enough in Ohio to last a lifetime.
In the summer of 1912, the entire family went abroad. During an extended stay at the spa at Baden-Baden, Helen studied German and attended concerts. Two years later, Walter announced that he did not think it healthy for his children to spend their summers in resort hotels and instructed his wife to find a vacation home in the country. Lillian settled on the Upper Connecticut Valley of Vermont, in a village called Fairlee, near Lake Morey. The family rented a cottage until a Victorian mansion called Cliff Mull finally came on the market. Lillian had desired the property from a distance, enchanted by its setting and expansive veranda. Cliff Mull was a family paradise that offered hiking through dense forests, a private tennis court, lake swimming, canoeing, and camping under the stars, and for the next sixty-five years it would be Helen's favorite place in the world. In her tumultuous future, marked by periods of unrelenting challenges and searing attacks, memories of Cliff Mull centered her. No matter how stressful or precarious life could become, she was always able to close her eyes and transport herself to the quietude of the woods. As a grown woman she would seek solace and renewal there. "It brings me peace. I expand and feel the sweetness and the sadness of this transitory life." Every time she packed her suitcases to leave Vermont and return to her preternaturally busy world, she thought of a line in a play about the tragic Irish heroine Deirdre. "It's a heartbreak to the wise that we have the same things for a short space only."
Excerpted from THE PINK LADY by SALLY DENTON Copyright © 2009 by Sally Denton. Excerpted by permission.
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1 Diva 1900-1930 5
2 Activist 1931-1944 30
3 Congresswoman 1944-1950 65
4 Pink Lady 1950 139
5 Humanitarian 1951-1980 175