The Pink Lady Revisited


The Beauty in the Beast: The Daily Beast‘s choice of illustrations hints at the hatchet job that follows in the excerpt from Sally Denton’s new book about the 1950 California Senate Race between Richard Nixon and Helen Gahagan Douglas.

The Daily Beast is offering an exclusive excerpt from The Pink Lady: The Many Lives of Helen Gahagan Douglas — a new book by Sally Denton about the 1950 California Senate race.

Richard Nixon —the just-post-Hiss-case young 12th District congressman— ran against Helen Gahagan Douglas — the Broadway-and-movie-star-turned 14th District congresswoman.   The result was a shellacking —59.23% to 40.76%— that has ever since been the source of many misunderstandings —  many of them fueled by still-lingering animosities.

And, at least on the basis of this Beastly excerpt, few of these misunderstandings will be illuminated, much less put to rest, by this new book.

That said, excerpts are purposely chosen to pique interest and create controversy, so I will withhold judgment until I’m able to check out  the book itself.  But, because many readers won’t get beyond the excerpts,  at least a few words may be in order at this early point.

Ms. Denton’s tone is tendentious and perfervid — perhaps reflecting her time as an investigative reporter for Jack Anderson.  She writes that “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.”  Douglas, on the other hand, 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.”

I can’t help thinking that 256 pages of this is going to be very hard going.  It appears to be history of the Brodie-Morris-Perlstein school — over written and under researched.   And, indeed, it turns out that Roger Morris was Ms. Denton’s collaborator on her  earlier history of Las Vegas.

The Beast excerpt condemns the Nixon campaign’s “Pink Sheet” (“implying that she was a communist, ‘hinting darkly at secret ties,’ as one historian put it”) without noting that it had been taken verbatim from an ad run by one of Douglas’ Democratic opponents in the primary campaign.  No doubt the book will deal with this inconvenient truth at some length.

In the mid-1970s, while researching President Nixon’s memoirs, I had the opportunity to interview Paul Ziffren, the legendary Los Angeles lawyer and power broker who had managed the 1950 Douglas campaign.  He told me that, while there had been rough moments, they occurred on both sides. Her dismissal of Nixon as a “pipsqueak,” and her talk about “the backwash of Republican young men in dark shirts” were no less provocative than some flyers printed on pink paper stock — only less credible and, therefore, less effective.   And even Fawn Brodie admitted that Douglas got caught misrepresenting Nixon’s record.

In 1977 Jimmy Roosevelt —FDR’s eldest son, who stood in for Douglas when she decided to stay in Washington rather than face Nixon in the first of their three scheduled public debates— told me that her crushing defeat was the result of her high handed manner and badly run campaign.


7 November 1950: Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas emerges from the voting booth after casting her ballot in the California Senate race.

Ms. Denton charges that during the campaign Nixon called Mrs. Douglas —who was married to movie star Melvyn Douglas, whose given name was Melvyn Hesselberg— “Mrs Hesselberg.”

This ugly charge has become uncritically accepted as part of the ’50 campaign lore.  But the first time it appeared was forty-two years after the event, in a singly-sourced statement attributed to a Douglas supporter in Greg Mitchell’s 1992 book Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady. On page 139 he wrote:

Occasionally, in public appearances, Nixon himself would “slip” and refer to his opponent as Helen Hesselberg, before correcting himself.

Mr. Mitchell provides four footnotes for page 139 — but none of them pins down this serious new claim.   He revisits the story on page 239 and this time the footnote attributes it to an individual identified in the text as “Douglas backer Jean Sieroty.”

No contemporary press accounts or analyses mention any such a statement(s).  Nor did Mrs. Douglas include it in her discussion of campaign excesses in her memoirs. Neither Professor Brodie nor Mr. Morris, whose books preceded Mr. Mitchell’s, claim that Nixon ever said those words; and Mr. Morris writes at length about some of the ugly ambient anti-semitism that unquestionably surrounded the campaign.  Presumably Mr. Ziffren and Mr. Roosevelt would have remembered any Nixon references to “Mrs. Hesselberg.”   It will be interesting to see Ms. Denton’s sourcing for this story.

I suspect that this “Mrs. Hesselberg” charge is in the same category as the even more widely accepted claim that Nixon said that his opponent was “pink right down to her underwear.”

Although many accounts make it sound as if this was a recurring punchline of Nixon’s campaign rhetoric, there is no record of his ever having made what would have been a highly salacious (and therefore highly notable) remark at that time.  The actual claim was that he had used it at a closed-door meeting with fat cats.  But that was only based on a single second hand report only quoted several years later in an article in The New Republic.  (That was the source Mrs. Douglas cited for the claim in her memoirs.)

The considerably post-facto and uncorroborated second-hand reports of a “Douglas backer” and a New Republic reporter are mighty thin reeds on which to hang such serious charges in any work of history that wants to be taken seriously.

Mrs. Douglas was an attractive candidate but a difficult colleague and a bad campaigner.  To put it mildly, her own party was less than enthusiastically behind her.  The incumbent Democratic Senator (against whom she had run in the primary before his health required him to vacate the seat) made radio ads endorsing Nixon.   Congressman John F. Kennedy famously personally delivered  a $1000 check from his father for the Nixon campaign.  (In her book, Ms. Denton apparently inflates the amount to $150,000 — which is either an example of gross negligence or a really embarrassing typo.)  And President Truman, whose cordial dislike for Douglas was ill-concealed, refused to campaign for her; his lukewarm endorsement, only issued on the eve of the election, was far too little far too late.

Last year —on the occasion of the opening in Los Angeles of a new play called Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Helen Gahagan Douglas— I wrote here at some length about some of these and other Nixon-Douglas disputes.

The 1950 California Senate race needs and deserves a serious, well-researched, and objective study.  Alas, it appears that Ms. Denton’s book isn’t going to change that situation.  In the meantime, anyone who wants to understand what really happened should consult the relevant chapters in Irwin F. Gellman’s rigorously researched and scrupulously reported 1999 book The Contender: Richard Nixon: The Congress Years, 1946-1952.spacer

7 November 1950: Richard and Pat Nixon are joined by two-year-old daughter Julie at the polling place in Los Angeles.

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