There is a lot of charm in this autobiography of the late actress-singer-congresswoman. Whether or not you admired her performances and shared her politics, you have to admire her energy and spunk. Admire? Maybe that's not the word. Admiration implies approval and respect; those were not entirely my sentiments on closing this book. ''Marvel'' with its neutrality of wonder comes closer to the truth. I marvel at Helen Gahagan Douglas.
Born in 1900, Helen Gahagan was the eldest daughter of a wealthy Irish-American civil engineer. She grew up in the fashionable Park Slope section of Brooklyn. Like her mother, she possessed a crystalline soprano and a feminist sensibility; like her father, a stubborn willfulness, energy, and an unshakable faith in herself. At a time when a career on the stage was still considered racy , she overcame her father's opposition and opened on Broadway in 1922. Her performance received rave notices if one can judge from the laudatory reviews quoted liberally throughout the book. Her father was reconciled. By then, however, Gahagan's head was turning in another direction. The opera beckoned, and at age 26 she began studying voice with a legendary Russian teacher, Sophia Cehanovska. She sang in concert halls in Germany and Austria before returning to more acting and more concerts in the United States. Gahagan had her heart set on a starring role at the Met, an event which for a number of reasons never came to pass.
In 1930 Gahagan costarred with a relative unknown, Melvyn Douglas. They were married the following year and shortly after moved to Hollywood. In the course of the next decade, Gahagan Douglas's political consciousness was raised. She was troubled by the spread of anti-Semitism and by the toll the depression was taking on farmers, migrant workers, and minorities. She rebelled against her family's bedrock Republicanism and began to work on Democratic and independent political causes in California. In 1944 she ran for Congress as a Democrat and was elected.
In all she served three terms, acquiring a reputation as a hard-working, left-leaning liberal, but her elected life came to a close with her 1950 campaign for the Senate. Two-term Representative Richard Nixon was her Republican opponent. He won in a campaign that is studied today for its vicious use of the smear and its manipulation of the ''red scare.'' The rest is history. Gahagan Douglas returned to acting, served as a presidential appointee to various task forces and committees, and lectured widely; she gave more time to her private life, including the raising of her son and daughter. In 1980 she died after an undeniably full life; this book was her last project.
Gahagan Douglas could not number prose writing among her varied accomplishments. Consequently, this text has an ingenious quality, both in its presentation and its revelations, that is alternately charming and showoffy. The best autobiographies are documents of witness. They say, ''This is what I saw and heard; these are the people I met and the ways they impressed me.'' Gahagan Douglas found it hard to share the spotlight with others, and that shows here. The best things about the book are her evocative descriptions of her family and of bygone times. Read it for those.