Center Stage

Center Stage : Helen Gahagan Douglas, a Life

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Best remembered today as the victim of Richard Nixon's smear campaign in their 1950 senatorial race in California, Helen Gahagan Douglas had a truly remarkable double career, in entertainment and in politics. A tall, stunning woman, dignified and fashionable, Douglas dropped out of Barnard College in her sophomore year to star in Dreams for Sale, a Broadway play written by Owen Davis, who would win a Pulitzer Prize that year. With nothing more than sheer talent and little training, she was soon the peer of Helen Hayes and Katherine Cornell--Heywood Broun called her "ten of the twelve most beautiful women in the world"--and she played the lead in a string of hits. Then she changed course, and after two years of intensive training in a tiny Manhattan apartment, she debuted in Europe as an opera singer, and sang there for several seasons. And in the late '30s and early '40s, as she and her husband (actor Melvyn Douglas) became deeply involved in FDR's Democratic Party, she once again rose rapidly to the top, serving as a Democratic National Committeewoman after only five months in politics, and winning a seat in Congress in 1944, 1946, and 1948. In Center Stage, Ingrid Winther Scobie presents a sweeping biography of an unusual and talented woman, set against the background of the Great White Way in the 1920s, Hollywood in the 1930s, and California and national politics in the 1940s. We see young Helen Gahagan growing up in posh, turn-of-the-century Park Slope ("really the Park Avenue area of Brooklyn," as she described it), developing an intense passion for acting. We witness her first meeting with Melvyn Douglas, in famed producer David Belasco's office (Belasco asked Helen for her opinion of Melvyn as a possible leading man and she answered simply, "he will do"). And we follow their life together, moving from coast to coast, trying to raise a family and maintain two careers, and gradually becoming more involved in politics--Helen especially with the plight of California's migrant workers. Scobie describes Douglas's long, close friendship with Eleanor Roosevelt, traces her political rise as one of the most outspoken liberals in Washington, examines in detail her three terms in Congress, and sheds considerable light on the most notorious event in Douglas's political career: her defeat in the 1950 senatorial race at the hands of Richard Nixon, long considered the quintessential red-smear campaign. Indeed, this is the first book to examine the 1950 campaign from Douglas's side, and its conclusions are revelatory. Based on extensive archival research, on exclusive access to Douglas's private papers including letters to and from Melvyn spanning fifty years, and on interviews with Douglas's colleagues, friends, and family, this absorbing biography skillfully interweaves the private and public life of a woman who was both a glamorous celebrity and a charismatic political figure.
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Product details

  • Hardback | 389 pages
  • 157.48 x 241.3 x 38.1mm | 816.46g
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • frontispiece, 16 pp halftones
  • 0195068963
  • 9780195068962

Review quote

"For young women of today who may not know of Douglas, this book is an inspiration in terms of the struggle for equality."--Jean Bissonnette, Texas State Networks newsanchor"Center Stage is more than a careful biography of a fascinating personality: it is a sensitive and thoughtful exploration of the dilemmas of a woman in public life."--Arthur Schlesinger, Jr."The script of Helen Gahagan Douglas's extraordinary life included Broadway stardom and political stardom; but Douglas' real drama is one lived today by countless ordinary women. It is the story of a strong, intelligent and ambitious woman coping with the choices, pressures, and conflicts she encounters in her attempt to shape a meaningfully balanced private and public life. "--Ruth B. Mandel, Director, Center for the American Woman and Politics, Rutger's University"Professor Scobie's book, Center Stage, is well researched and brings to life a colorful era in American politics. I am pleased to recommend it."--Liz Carpenter"With this book, Helen Gahagan Douglas becomes more than a well-known victim of Richard Nixon. Scobie's study is at once an intimate, absorbing biography of a multi-facted individual and one of the finest accounts ever of the emergence of women on the American political scene."--Richard Fenno, Jr., University of Rochester"Helen Gahagan Douglas helped to shape the agenda of postwar liberalism, and represented the contributions that women made to politics in the postsuffrage era. She also embodied the modern woman's struggle to balance marriage and career. In Ingrid Winther Scobie's skilled hands, the life of Helen Gahagan Douglas comes together as an integrated whole."--Susan Ware, New York University"Profiling Douglas with sweep and richness....Scobie...successfully evokes more than one emblematic era in American history."--Los Angeles Times
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About Ingrid Winther Scobie

About the Author: Ingrid Winther Scobie is Associate Professor of History at Texas Woman's University.
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