(b. 10 October 1900 in Washington, D.C.; d. 17 March 1993 in Nyack, New York),
actress who was widely regarded as the “First Lady of the Stage” in tribute to her long and successful career and the dignity and generosity with which she conducted her offstage life.
Hayes was the only child born to a traveling salesman, Francis Van Arnum Brown, and his wife, Catherine Estelle (“Essie”) Hayes, a homemaker and sometime actress. While Essie pursued her stage aspirations in repertory touring shows, Hayes was brought up largely by her beloved grandmother “Graddy” Hayes, who had considerable influence on the child. She was entranced by her Irish grandmother’s animated storytelling and mimicry and by the stage plays and silent films to which she was taken. She was enrolled at the age of five at the Sacred Heart Academy and in Miss Minnie Hawks’s dancing classes and studied subsequently at the Cook School, the John Eaton School, and in New York City at the Dominican Academy. Later in her career, the Sacred Heart nuns tutored her when she returned to Washington between New York theatrical engagements. It was in Hawks’s recitals, in the Belasco Theatre near the White House, that “Helen Brown,” and then “Helen Hayes Brown,” first appeared in public—a newspaper rating her turn as among the “biggest hits of the afternoon.”
After an apprenticeship with Washington’s Columbia Theatre stock company, Helen Hayes Brown debuted on Broadway with the actor-producer Lew Fields in the musical Dutch one month after her ninth birthday. She was an immediate sensation and continued with the show on tour. For Vitagraph Studios in New Jersey, she appeared in short silent films, which at the time were generally disdained by other Broadway performers. More roles at home with the Columbia Players and the Poli Theatre Players followed, with Helen, now appearing as “Helen Hayes,” playing children and adolescents, sometimes in a new show each week. In 1917 she graduated from Sacred Heart Academy, made another film, appeared on Broadway in The Prodigal Husband, toured with that show, and opened in Rochester, New York, in the title role oí Poly anna, which she then toured with across the country. Newspaper reviews of her performances at this time were almost all ecstatically positive. More New York appearances followed, as well as a season with a new repertory company at the “Theater of Presidents” (the National Theater), three blocks from the White House. It was there that Hayes had seen her first
play. Like many child actors of her time, she played male as well as female roles.
Hayes moved easily from youth roles to ingenue performances and became popular as a sweet, coquettish maiden. Estelle Hayes Brown became her daughter’s fulltime chaperone, coach, companion, and career guide, as Helen began formal acting lessons with several distinguished New York mentors, including Frances Duff Robinson and Constance Collier. She studied interpretive dance with Florence Fleming Noyes and—perhaps in part for its press value—took boxing lessons. As her acting developed, Hayes combined a certain studied grace with her winsome personality, her exceptional powers of observation, and her ability to bring honest emotion to the stage. An actors’ strike in 1919, in which Hayes did not participate, closed most New York theaters. It was not until 1924 that an enlightened Hayes rebelled against her producers and joined the new Actor’s Equity union. Over the ensuing years she became increasingly active in support of a host of humanitarian projects, patriotic endeavors, and charities.
At the age of twenty Hayes received her first star billing in Bab. She then began to appear on Broadway or on tour almost every year for decades. She sparkled as the sweet yet impish darling in light romantic comedies, many tailored to her talents. Among her successes were To the Ladies (1922), We Moderns (1924), Dancing Mothers (1924), and Young Blood (1925). She next moved into classic theater, effectively in the eighteenth-century Irish-born playwright Oliver Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer (1924) and less successfully in the nineteenth-century Irish dramatist George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. Critics found her Cleopatra to be too much of a contemporary flapper. The following year, however, Hayes appeared as Maggie Wylie in the turn-of-the-century Scottish playwright and novelist James M. Barrie’s What Every Woman Knows, creating a role to which she returned frequently over the years, always with success. In 1927 she portrayed the doomed heroine of Coquette in a spectacular three-year run on Broadway and on tour. By that time she was widely acclaimed as one of America’s leading young players in both comedy and serious drama.
From the late 1920s onward, while constantly appearing in live theater, Hayes also pursued a rigorous schedule in radio as the star and eventually the producer of several series of performances. She reprised her great stage successes on the air and essayed new scripts and classical roles as well. It was for a radio show that she was dubbed the “First Lady of the American Theater,” a title she bore with dignity for the next sixty years.
On 17 August 1928 Hayes married the playwright Charles MacArthur, author with Ben Hecht of The Front Page, which opened to acclaim on Broadway that same year. MacArthur already was established as a well-known journalist, screenwriter, and bon vivant in Manhattan literary and artistic circles—a surprising match for the still young and somewhat naive Hayes. MacArthur was as iconoclastic and erratic as Hayes was idealistic and disciplined. Alcohol and depression later haunted him, yet he proved to be the one great love of Hayes’s life. Their daughter, Mary MacArthur, appeared with Hayes in Alice Sit by the Fire (1946) at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania. She appeared again with her mother in a summer-stock tryout of Good Housekeeping in 1949, and during this run Mary fell ill and died suddenly of polio. Hayes’s grief led her into the crusade against the disease as patron of the Mary MacArthur Fund, which worked in synergy with the March of Dimes.
In 1931 Hayes made her screen debut in an adaptation of the melodramatic play The Lullaby, a performance which earned her the Academy Award in 1932 for best actress. At this time the MacArthurs acquired a handsome showboat gothic house on Broadway Street in suburban Nyack, which became Hayes’s residence for the rest of her life. The house was a mecca for celebrities, and Hayes often drove her own automobile to near by New York City for her performances. In 1932 she had another film success with A Farewell to Arms, in which she played opposite Gary Cooper. The following year she made four more films, starring opposite Ramon Navarro, Robert Montgomery, John Bar-rymore, and Clark Gable. She was not, however, particularly comfortable either in Hollywood or in front of the cameras, and she returned eagerly to Broadway to score a triumph in the title role in the American dramatist Maxwell Anderson’s Mary of Scotland in 1934. The following year she created perhaps her greatest stage success as another queen in Victoria Regina. Numerous awards and an invitation to the White House ensued in the wake of her astounding portrait, which moved from maiden princess to elderly monarch. She reputedly played the final scenes with apple slices in her cheeks to complete the appearance of advanced age. Although Hayes’s command of her technique and her audiences was unfailing, she claimed to have suffered from stage fright all her life. She apparently was able not only to disguise her anxiety but also to convert her nervous energy into dramatic power.
Hayes and Charles MacArthur adopted James Gordon MacArthur soon after his birth in December 1937. After several childhood theatrical appearances, he studied at Harvard and then pursued a successful career in film and notably in television. In 1939 Hayes appeared in Ladies and Gentlemen, a play written by her husband with Ben Hecht. As a patriotic gesture during World War II, she played Harriet Beecher Stowe in Harriet on Broadway and on tour, from 1943 to 1945. In 1947 the Antoinette Perry (“Tony”) Awards were established in New York and Hayes won the first award ever given for best actress for her performance in Happy Birthday.
Other comedies and serious plays followed, along with prestigious awards and humanitarian efforts, which included frequent public appearances at charity events and public ceremonies at which she received countless trophies, statuettes, plaques, inscribed paperweights, “keys,” and other awards from associations, clubs, and cities. The United States Mint issued a Gold Medallion bearing her portrait and the words “First Lady of the Stage.” Her company was solicited by various U.S. presidents and royal figureheads, including Queen Elizabeth II, who received her on the royal yacht Britannia. She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, and in 1951 she authored, with Lewis Funke, A Gift of Joy, the first of several inspirational works.
On 21 April 1956 Hayes’s beloved husband died, having battled alcoholism and depression in the wake of his daughter’s death seven years earlier. Helen buried her grief in her work, fulfilling an obligation to appear opposite Ingrid Bergman in the film Anastasia (1956). She continued to appear on the stage occasionally until 1971, when she made her final live theatrical appearance at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., in the American playwright Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night.
She made appearances in television and films, winning an Academy Award as best supporting actress in 1971 for Airport. A Broadway theater was named for her and, when it was razed, another theater was named in her honor. Her likeness, painted by Furman Finck, was received by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The former Rockland County Hospital, established in 1900 in West Haverstraw, New York, was renamed the Helen Hayes Hospital in 1974 in recognition of her nearly fifty years of “voluntary support and leadership of its mission.” She did more than 600 broadcasts of a radio show for senior citizens, received some thirty honorary degrees, and made countless public appearances. Despite short hospital stays, Hayes was indefatigable into her nineties. She finally succumbed to congestive heart failure on 17 March 1993 in Nyack, and is buried there in Oak Hill Cemetery. She lived and died a devout and practicing Roman Catholic.
During her long and remarkable career, Hayes met the demands of the melodramatic style of the early twentieth century and pleased Broadway audiences for more than fifty years. She had noteworthy award-winning successes in radio, television, and film. She maintained a public persona of impeccable repute, gave of herself unsparingly to myriad public causes, and was an inspiration through her life, her acting appearances, and her books. Singularly energetic and able to rebound from setbacks with the grace of bearing and iron will that enabled the diminutive and sylphlike woman to achieve her greatest success impersonating commanding and formidable monarchs, her motto was “You rest, you rust.”
While Hayes’s performances were her signal artistic creation, she also wrote or coauthored a number of books, including Star on Her Forehead with Mary Kennedy (1949), A Gift of Joy with Lewis Funke (1965), Twice over Nightly with Anita Loos (1972), A Gathering of Hope (1983), Our Best Years with Marion Glasserow Gladney (1984), Where the Truth Lies with Thomas Chastain (1988), and My Life in Three Acts with Katherine Hatch (1990). Books about Hayes include Kenneth Barrow, Helen Hayes, First Lady of the American Theater (1985), and Donn B. Murphy and Stephen Moore, Helen Hayes: A Bio-bibliography. The latter lists more than 1,300 articles, published photos, and other bibliographic references to Hayes.
Donn B. Murphy
Helen Hayes (1900-1993) was an American actress whose long career made a lasting impression in the American theater world.
Helen Hayes was born on October 10, 1900, in Washington, D.C., daughter of Francis Brown Hayes and Catharine Estelle Hayes. The young Helen appeared on stage even before she went to school: at five years old she played the part of Prince Charles in The Royal Family. Other roles quickly followed this one, and she made her first appearance on Broadway as Psyche Finnegan in The Summer Widowers when she was ten years old. Much later, in 1958, Hayes wrote of this period: "when I was five, everything was certain and known, and I was positive that life was long and art short … even in 1905, Broadway was merely 230 miles away."
Though she appeared on the New York stage numerous times before she was even of age, the young Helen was educated at the Academy of the Sacred Heart Convent in her native Washington. She graduated in 1917, having already spent three years with the Columbia Players in Washington. Upon graduation she moved to New York City, where she was to spend a large portion of her life. Acting came naturally to her, and it was not until her role as Cora Wheeler in Clarence (Booth Tarkington's 1919 play) that she ever felt that acting was a challenging profession. This was the first part where she felt her natural talents insufficient. After this performance, she began to take lessons in dance, mime, and even fencing—all as means through which to learn how to control even the most minute muscle of her body, which she thought of as her "actor's instrument."
In 1921 Booth Tarkington wrote a play especially for Hayes entitled The Wren. She had starred in Penrodas well as Clarence, and they had struck up a friendship that inspired Tarkington to make his next protagonist, Seeby Olds, perfect for Hayes. He did not realize, however, something that she had not told anyone: Helen Hayes always reached outward for inspiration for her parts and did not know how to play a part so close to herself. In 1958 she commented, "the twenty-fourth performance brought down the final, merciful curtain."
Hayes had many other successes, however, not the least of which was her marriage to Charles MacArthur, a playwright, in 1928. She had a daughter, Mary, and a son, James. Though they got along very well, the couple seldom worked together. The most notable exception was a highly successful one, however: in 1931 Hayes won an Academy Award for her film debut in The Sin of Madelon Claudet, which her husband had written for her. In it Hayes portrayed an old woman; in her autobiography, she explained that it was the memory of Mme. Curie, whom she had seen once on a boat crossing the Atlantic, that enabled her to play the part.
One of her most celebrated performances in the theater came four years later, when she played the part of Queen Victoria in Victoria Regina. Immediately previous to this performance she had played the role of Mary Stuart in Mary of Scotland, thus starting what she dubbed her "queen kick" that was to last over four years. Victoria Regina itself ran for four years, including a coast-to-coast tour. Hayes received the Drama League of New York medal of 1936 for "the most distinguished performance of the year" for her portrayal of Victoria. She later said that this performance had been inspired by the memory of her grandmother, who had been in London during Queen Victoria's wedding procession and who subsequently at least physically imitated the queen.
Helen Hayes continued to tour the United States with various successful plays both before and after World War II. She appeared in London for the first time in 1948 at the Haymarket. There she played the role of Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, a role that she was to play in several different locations quite a few more times in her career. The Sarah Bernhardt Theater in Paris saw the debut in 1955 of another role that she would play often—that of Mrs. Antrobus in The Skin of Our Teeth. Hayes toured Europe and Israel for the U.S. State Department playing both of these roles in 1961, following that tour with one of South America.
She made her first appearance at the Helen Hayes Theater in New York in October 1958 as Nora Melody in A Touch of the Poet. This role became special to her in many ways—not the least of which was that the play was Eugene O'Neill's last. Although Nora was not the protagonist of the play, Hayes felt that it was around her spirit that the entire play revolved, and this spirit reminded her very much of her husband's, who had died in 1956.
In the summer of 1962 Hayes appeared with Maurice Evans at the recital entitled "Shakespeare Revisited: A Program for Two Players" in Stratford, Connecticut. This recital inspired her to form the Helen Hayes Repertory Company in 1964, which sponsored tours of Shakespeare readings in universities around the country.
Hayes published her autobiography, A Gift of Joy, in 1965. Rather than a chronological account of her life, the book is a delightful collection of impressions and anecdotes about her career, her family, and herself, interspersed with passages from her favorite poems and plays. She also coauthored Twice Over Lightly with Anita Loos in 1972.
Hayes received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from Princeton University in 1956. She received many other honorary degrees—from Columbia, Brown, New York University, and others. She was awarded the Medal of the City of New York as well as the Finnish Medal of the Arts. The United Service Organization nominated her Woman of the Year in 1974, and she was president of the American National Theater Academy from 1951 to 1953. She received a Tony Award in 1947 for her performance as Addie in Happy Birthday and a second Oscar (as supporting actress) for her performance in Airport in 1970.
The First Lady of the American Theater retired from live performance in 1970, following her appearance in a revival of Harvey. She was honored with a professorship at the University of Illinois and taught speech and drama for several semesters.
She returned to acting before the camera in a television series The Snoop Sisters (1973-1974) with Mildred Natwick. She also made many cameo appearances in feature and television films, from the delightful characterization of a professional stowaway little old lady in Airport (1970) to her portrayal of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple in A Caribbean Mystery (1983), directed by Robert Lewis.
Although she appeared in several short silent films and won an Oscar for The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), Helen Hayes's film career was somewhat abortive. She followed her early success with a series of failures, from Arrowsmith (1931) by John Ford, to Vanessa, Her Love Story (1935) by William K. Howard and her public lost interest in her as film star material. She often referred to her career as "the triumph of plain Jane."
Helen Hayes lived in her home in Nyack, New York, until her death from congestive heart failure, March 17, 1993. As a tribute to her position as of America's greatest actresses, the lights of Broadway went dim for one minute at 8:00 P.M. the day she died.
Articles on Helen Hayes can be found in Who's Who in American Theater (1977) and the Oxford Companion to the Theatre (1966). Her autobiography, A Gift of Joy, was published in 1965. She also wrote an article for the New York Times in 1958 entitled "Helen Hayes Relives Her Roles."
Helen Hayes published her memoir On Reflection (1968) and her biography My Life in Three Acts (1990), written with Katherine Hatch.
Variety Magazine Obituaries, New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc., (1993-94) paid tribute to Helen Hayes, March 22, 1993, with a lengthy and detailed account of her achievements on stage and in films. She also appears in Notable Women in the American Theater: A Biographical Dictionary and in A Biographical Dictionary of Film, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, (1995). □