Hayes, Helen (1900–1993)

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Hayes, Helen (1900–1993)

American actress known as the first lady of the American stage. Born Helen Hayes Brown on October 10, 1900, in Washington, D.C.; died on March 17, 1993, in Nyack, New York; daughter of Catherine (Hayes) Brown and Francis Van Arnum Brown; received a Catholic school education, graduating from Washington's Sacred Heart Academy, 1917; married Charles MacArthur (a playwright), in 1928 (died 1956); children: Mary MacArthur (1930–1949); (adopted) James MacArthur (an actor).

Made her Broadway debut at age nine (1909); was recognized as one of America's finest actresses with her performance in Dear Brutus (1918); began working in Hollywood films (1930s), winning an Oscar for her first film before returning triumphantly to Broadway for what is considered her finest role in Victoria Regina (1935); maintained an active and much-honored career in legitimate theater, films and, later, television until her retirement from the stage (1971) with two Tony Awards to her credit; continued to work sporadically in films and television for the next 20 years, winning a second Oscar and being awarded the National Medal of the Arts by President Ronald Reagan (1988), as well as publishing six volumes of memoirs and co-writing a novel.


Jean and the Calico Doll (1910); The Weavers of Life (1917); Babs (1920); The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931); Arrowsmith (1931); A Farewell to Arms (1932); The Son-Daughter (1932); The White Sister (1933); Another Language (1933); Night Flight (1933); (unbilled cameo) Crime Without Passion (1934); What Every Woman Knows (1934); Vanessa: Her Love Story (1935); (cameo) Stage Door Canteen (1943); My Son John (1952); (cameo) Main Street to Broadway (1953); Anastasia (1956); (unbilled cameo) Third Man on the Mountain (1959); Airport (1970); Herbie Rides Again (1974); One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing (1975); Candleshoe (1978).

One afternoon in 1968, in a dingy rehearsal hall in New York's Greenwich Village, the assembled cast of the struggling Phoenix Repertory Company waited nervously for the final member of their group to appear. They were about to begin rehearsals for a revival of You Can't Take It With You. Assistant director Jack O'Brien thought it improper to begin the day's work before the tardy cast member arrived, even though her role—as the Grand Duchess Olga Katrina—was a small one, and she would only be on stage for a few minutes in the last act. Finally, recalled O'Brien 25 years later, Helen Hayes, who had adopted the Phoenix Theater and supported it financially and by appearing in its productions, arrived "stuttering, fumbling, all insecurity and apology." She delivered a nearly flawless, word-perfect run-through of her scene, then turned to O'Brien and relieved the tension by inquiring earnestly, "Will that do, do you think?" It was entirely in keeping with the reputation of the five-foot, blue-eyed, gray-haired woman who had been dubbed the "first lady of the American theater" when she was only in her 30s and whose career at her death had spanned the most vigorous period of creativity and innovation in American dramatic art. "She looked like someone's misplaced aunt," recalled one U.S. Army official who saw her on a State Department tour of South Korea in the mid-1960s, and Hayes was well aware how important the image was to her. "I always thought the secret of my success," she once observed, "is that I'm like somebody down the street who lives in the neighborhood."

Her childhood in Washington, D.C., could hardly have resulted in any other life but the theater. Although her father Francis Brown, a traveling dealer for a meat-packing plant, extolled the pleasures of a quiet home life and liked nothing better than to take his daughter to see the old Washington Senators play a game of baseball on his days off, Helen's mother was of a different persuasion. Catherine Hayes Brown , whom everyone called "Brownie," was a vivacious, extroverted woman of Irish descent with pretensions to a theatrical career—perhaps inherited from her father, who had been known for his stirring recitations of Shakespeare induced after sufficient refreshment in local watering holes; or perhaps from one of her father's cousins known as "the swan of Erin," who after emigrating from Ireland during the Great Famine had gained some notoriety entertaining goldrushers in 1849 California with her impassioned warbling. Undaunted by the birth of her daughter Helen on October 10, 1900, Brownie took to the road with touring companies nearly as often as her husband did for his meat-packing bosses. It was Brownie's mother Ann—Helen's beloved "Graddy Hayes"—who entertained her granddaughter with stories and, when money was to be had, plays and silent films. "Graddy would act out a film we'd just seen," Hayes once remembered, "regaling the family with her mimicry—a talent she passed on to my mother and probably to me." But it was Brownie who first suspected that the Hayes theatrical blood coursed in her daughter's veins, when four-year-old Helen refused to leave the old National Theater after mother and daughter had seen a performance of Franz Lehar's operetta, The Merry Widow. Helen, who insisted that the actors come back on stage and start from the beginning, had to be bodily carried out of the place. "I didn't want to leave the theater," Hayes told an audience at the very same theater 80 years later, "and I guess I never really have."

Helen's first known public performance came just a year later, at age five, when she appeared as Peaseblossom in a production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at Washington's Holy Cross Academy, where Brownie, a devout Catholic, had placed her in an effort to shield Helen from a smallpox epidemic then ravaging Washington. Anticipating the care and attention she would give to Helen's career in years to come, Brownie detected a certain lack of poise in the girl's stage manner and packed her off to Miss Minnie Hawke's dance academy, in whose 1907 "May Ball" recital Hayes was expected to perform an Irish jig but ran sobbing from the stage instead. The next year's recital, however, found a more confident Helen singing the lament of a Dutch girl stranded at the Zuyder Zee by her fickle lover; and in the 1909 show, given at the Belasco Theater, across Lafayette Square from the White House, she brought down the house with her imitation of a famous music-hall performer of the day. To Brownie's satisfaction, no less than three Washington newspapers devoted space to Hayes' appearance, describing her as "most clever" and "perfectly delightful." In the audience at one afternoon's performance was actor and theatrical manager Lew Fields, who told Brownie to bring Helen to him in New York when she felt the child was ready. Fields' specialty was musical comedy, not suited to Brownie's higher-brow tastes, but she took Fields' interest as a sign that her instincts about Helen had been right.

Brownie next found Helen work with the Columbia Players, the repertory company of Washington's Columbia Theater. On May 24, 1909, serious theater audiences got their first look at Helen Hayes Brown in her professional debut as a young Prince Charles in the costume drama A Royal Family, in which she was acclaimed as "another star, and already a warm favorite" by the press. Hayes would appear in nearly a dozen productions with the Columbia Players over the next several years, being tutored by mail by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Washington (from which she would graduate in 1917) when she was on the road. While Helen was still with the Columbia Players, Brownie tried to arrange an audition for her with Charles Frohman, then the most respected producer of quality drama on Broadway, but Frohman had no interest in child actors and declined to see the girl.

Although she considered it second-best, Brownie took Lew Fields up on his offer. Fields was so impressed with Hayes' talent that he had a number written especially for her and inserted in his upcoming production of Victor Herbert's musical, Old Dutch, in which Hayes made her Broadway debut on November 22, 1909, as "The Little Mime." It was also her first appearance as Helen Hayes, since Fields discovered that "Helen Hayes Brown" was too long to fit on his marquee. Hayes was paid $50 a week, nearly as much as her father's weekly earnings, and fell in love once and for all with the theater. "The actors and crew were my playmates," she once remembered, "and the backstage area was my special, magical playground." She appeared in several more Fields productions between 1909 and 1912, in addition to her work with the Columbia Players back in Washington between New York bookings. In later life, Hayes traced her ability to learn a part quickly from her days in repertory, which often required her to learn a new role every week. But it was to her mother that Hayes always gave credit for the working habits that would bring her such success.

Although Brownie took care never to interfere openly with the guidance and direction Hayes received during rehearsals, she spent hours coaching her daughter privately—reading Helen's parts aloud to help her memorize them, indicating line readings and appropriate gestures, and teaching Hayes the rudiments of character development. Brownie laid the groundwork for Hayes' later method of sketching out a role in broad strokes and then paring it down to the essentials. "Always leave them wanting more," was her advice, warning Hayes against the overacting and mannered gestures then so common on the stage and encouraging her daughter to take her inspiration from the movements and speech of ordinary people. Helen also learned from her mother what she later proclaimed as the first rule for any stage actor—never to let the audience know if anything goes wrong. The unruffled calm for which she would

later become famous among her peers was evident early on, during a performance of Little Lord Fauntleroy for the Columbia Players in 1911. Hayes, in the title role, was required in an early scene to remove from a breast pocket a red bandanna—a crucial prop which appears to great effect later in the play—and hand it to the actor playing her grandfather. Discovering at the critical moment that the bandanna was missing, Hayes merely adlibbed, "Well, I must have left it in my room!," then left her fellow actor to fend for himself alone on stage while she ran into the wings and retrieved the bandanna from a waiting prop man.

While working in New York for Fields, Hayes began joining the stream of legitimate stage actors who publicly disdained the new, plebeian form of entertainment provided by silent films, but quietly slipped across the Hudson River to New Jersey's Vitagraph Studios to act anonymously for extra money in hastily produced shorts. Helen and Brownie were horrified when her first film, 1910's Jean and the Calico Doll, opened at a theater across the street from one in which Hayes was then appearing in a Fields musical. Even worse, the movie house's marquee mentioned her by name—a tribute to her drawing power as a child star but viewed as an insult by Brownie, who forced the movie house to remove the offending words. Hayes' relations with the film industry would hardly improve during her lengthy career.

In 1917, Hayes appeared in her first drama, The Prodigal Husband, staged by Charles Frohman, in which she played opposite John Drew. The show toured the country after its Broadway run, Hayes' first whistlestop tour of the nation that would take her to heart as its favorite actress. Her fame was further assured by her tour with George Tyler's production of Pollyanna, during which, Hayes later claimed, she brought an audience of hardened Montana cowhands to tears with her second act speech as the play's relentlessly optimistic "glad girl." Tyler, who rivaled Frohman as the show world's most prolific impresario and who had guided the American careers of Eleonora Duse and Sarah Bernhardt , was Hayes' most important mentor after Brownie. He took care to choose her clothes, her friends, her roles, even her reading material, ruling her life and her career (which were by now the same thing) with an iron hand. It was Tyler who encouraged her to study the techniques of the greatest actors of the day, so that Hayes came to view the theater not only as a livelihood but as a classroom. She remembered watching Laurette Taylor 's performance for five consecutive nights when Taylor was appearing in another of Tyler's Broadway dramas; going backstage to meet Ethel Barrymore for advice and suggestions, which was the start of a lifelong friendship with that remarkable woman; and watching 20 consecutive performances by a popular comedienne of the day to learn that successful comedy is never spontaneously produced but is born of painstaking attention to detail.

In 1918, George Tyler gave Hayes the two roles that brought her professional respect and critical acceptance. The first was as Margaret Schofield in his production of Penrod, which Booth Tarkington had adapted for the stage from his popular novel of adolescent romance. It was the first of several Tarkington works in which Hayes would appear in the next ten years. "She is endowed with dainty, girlish exuberance," burbled one critic, "and is vivacious and altogether winsome." Next, Tyler cast her in his 1918 production of Dear Brutus, J.M. Barrie's inventive and poignant reworking of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Although her character appeared only in the second act and she played opposite the formidable talents of William Gillette, Hayes' work as the wistful, fantasy-inspired daughter of Gillette's bohemian artist captured the hearts of audiences and reviewers alike. Even the usually acerbic Dorothy Parker wasn't immune, telling her Vanity Fair readers that "Hers is one of those roles that could be overdone without a struggle, yet she never once skips over into the kittenish, never once grows too exuberantly sweet—and when you think how easily she could have ruined the whole thing, her work seems little short of marvelous." Hayes had obviously taken Brownie's advice to heart.

Now Broadway's favorite ingenue, Helen Hayes sailed into the "roaring '20s" with all flags flying and became the toast of the town for several "flapper girl" roles, portraying that peculiar form of womanhood marked by sequined skirts and tasseled blouses, the Charleston and a teasing, coy sexuality. She was as quick a study with this new genre as she had been playing young boys and quivering, adolescent girls, and had soon mastered the gestures, facial expressions, and programmed responses the form demanded. She toured with just such a character in a Tyler play called On the Hiring Line, playing opposite Alfred Lunt; in an Atlantic City showcase called The Golden Age; and on Broadway in Tyler's Clarence—all during 1919 and 1920. Late in 1920, Tyler cast her in Babs, based on a collection of short stories by popular author Mary Roberts Rinehart . Trying to design his marquee, Tyler first attempted:


Discovering this lengthy statement would never fit, Tyler finally settled on:


Brownie, who had rarely interfered directly in the management of her daughter's career, pleaded with Tyler to come up with something else and relieve Hayes from the pressure of top billing, knowing better than anyone that her daughter wasn't ready for such scrutiny. But Tyler insisted, putting up the marquee outside the old Park Theater on Columbus Circle as planned. As Brownie had predicted, Hayes was stung by the first negative reviews of her 11 years on the stage. Critics who had earlier praised Hayes' spontaneity and naturalism now complained that her work was strained, stiff, too mannered; and even Hayes realized that her performances were growing even more so each time the curtain went up.

Desperate to salvage her work, Hayes threw herself into a round of voice and technique classes (even resorting to a chart which specified which facial expression accompanied which emotion), along with boxing, fencing, and interpretive dance. The strain to replace the instinctive acting of her youth with a more mature style based on solid technical training was considerable, with Hayes still working on developing her character long after the other actors in the cast had "set" their performances—a habit she maintained for the rest of her life. When the actor playing Hayes' father died of a heart attack, Tyler decided not to recast the part and closed Babs early. Realizing that Hayes needed a break from the stage, Tyler withdrew her from the cast of his next production, Eugene O'Neill's The Straw, and accompanied Hayes and Brownie on a long, leisurely tour of Europe at his own expense during the summer of 1921.

Adding to Hayes' turmoil during Babs' run was the actors' strike which had gripped Broadway in 1919 and showed no sign of weakening. Prompted by the virtually complete control exercised over them by producers like Frohman, Abe Erlanger, and Tyler himself, actors were calling for unionization and basic rights—demands which would eventually lead to the formation of Actors' Equity. The producers' response was to close any show which contained actors known to sympathize with such demands and blacklist them from further work. Tyler warned Hayes that any agitation on her part would end their relationship, and Hayes dutifully remained a member of The Fidelity League of actors, loyal to their producers, throughout the run of Babs and during her work in The Wren, in which she appeared opposite Leslie Howard on her return from Europe. But in 1924, Hayes informed Tyler she was joining Actors' Equity. True to his word, Tyler severed their relationship.

Years later, Hayes marked this event as the beginning of her life as a serious actress, and the first time she felt responsible for her own career. Now freed from the ingenue roles imposed on her by Tyler, Hayes appeared to good reviews in a production of Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer staged by that venerable actors' club, The Players (to which she was admitted as the first female member nearly 45 years later). There followed roles in summer stock and repertory, and a return to a post-strike, newly invigorated Broadway in a J.M. Barrie premiere, What Every Woman Knows, in 1926. The following year, she opened in the romantic drama, Coquette, produced by Jed Harris, known as much for his mercurial temperament as for his creative genius. Coquette ran for more than a year, during which Hayes met the man who would become the great romance of her life.

Harris took her to a party one night in Greenwich Village, that headquarters of 1920's bohemianism and intellectual acrobatics. The rebellious, free-wheeling atmosphere was a completely new experience for a young girl with a Catholic school education still living with her mother. At a loss in the sea of witty conversation and clever comment, Hayes retired to the sidelines to wait it out until a handsome young man strolled to her side, held out his hand, and inquired if she would care for some peanuts. As he poured them into her waiting palm, Charles MacArthur gazed into Hayes' eyes and murmured, "I wish they were emeralds."

"He was the most beautiful, the most amusing, most amazing and dazzling man I had ever met," Hayes said many years later. "He brought me out of the shadows and helped me grow both as an actress and as a woman." MacArthur, a journalist and bon vivant who would soon make his mark as a playwright, had recently separated from his first wife and was a member in good standing of the Algonquin Round Table, along with the likes of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and Alexander Woollcott. The unlikely romance between the conservative Irish Catholic girl and the urbane, wisecracking journalist began slowly and took its time maturing. Brownie declared MacArthur would only bring Hayes heartbreak, and MacArthur's fellow Round Tablers complained that Hayes was much too polite and proper for MacArthur. But MacArthur admitted to being as smitten with Hayes as she was with him, although he told Hayes he felt dishonorable marrying her as long as she made more money than he did. The answer to MacArthur's dilemma was his sparkling satirical comedy The Front Page, written with partner Ben Hecht and produced by none other than Jed Harris, who thoughtfully closed Coquette on The Front Page's opening night, allowing Hayes to attend. Too nervous to stay in the theater during the performance, MacArthur and Hecht paced outside on a fire escape while Hayes ran out to them after each act to report on the audience's reaction, obvious to anyone within earshot of the theater. The laughter was raucous and enthusiastic, making Helen's breathless report of "It's a hit!" after the second act superfluous. MacArthur proposed to Hayes there and then. After a brief ceremony in a civil court on 42nd Street on August 17, 1928, MacArthur promised her, "You may never be rich, but you'll never be bored."

Very few ladies are perhaps as foolhardy as I am. I'm the girl who can't say no.

—Helen Hayes, at age 87

The first year of their marriage had to be conducted long-distance, for Jed Harris had decided to send Coquette out on tour. MacArthur was forced to catch up with Hayes for weekend visits until July of 1929, when the tour reached Los Angeles and Hayes announced she was pregnant. Harris closed the show and refused to pay severance to his actors on the grounds that Hayes' pregnancy was an "act of God," leading to much pointed witticism in the show-business press. The daughter born to Hayes and Charlie on February 15, 1930, was dubbed "the act of God baby," although the proud parents preferred to call her Mary. The couple set up house in a two-story apartment in midtown Manhattan, allowing a nanny to tend to Mary upstairs free from the disturbances of Helen and Charlie's late-night, show-business schedule. Hayes was now appearing in Mr. Gilhooley, one of her few Broadway roles as a thoroughly bad character. Brownie predicted that audiences wouldn't accept her in such a role and, as usual, was proved right when the show closed to poor reviews.

Meanwhile, Charlie and Ben Hecht had been receiving increasingly lucrative offers from Hollywood, which had been much impressed by the success of The Front Page and which was eager to produce a film version. Hayes reluctantly left her beloved theater behind, moving with MacArthur to California and signing a contract with MGM. Hayes was the first to admit that she wasn't cut out to be a glamorous screen star. When Louis Mayer suggested she appear at a studio publicity function in a slinky, white silk gown, telling her, "It will be very revealing," Hayes retorted by pointing out that that was precisely the problem. "I just wasn't combustible," she wrote years later. "I didn't have Crawford's bone structure or Garbo's mystery. I wasn't sexy like Harlow or naughty like [Marion] Davies. There were so many things I didn't have, or wasn't, that it seemed best for me to quit there and then."

Mayer was eventually forced to adopt her point of view, deciding that if he couldn't promote Hayes as a sex symbol, he'd emphasize her prestige value as The Great Actress and use her for dramatic roles drawn from novels and the stage. In 1931, the same year that United Artists released MacArthur and Hecht's film version of The Front Page to great acclaim, Hayes appeared in her first film for a major studio. In MGM's The Sin of Madelon Claudet, based on a weepy, melodramatic play by Edward Knoblock, Hayes played a mother who sacrifices her virtue to save her daughter. It very nearly wasn't released at all after preview audiences responded negatively and Louis B. Mayer pulled the film from its release schedule. The film was salvaged by Mayer's head of production at the time, Irving Thalberg, who turned to MacArthur and Hecht to write a new ending and additional scenes. The new version was released to great acclaim and won Hayes the Oscar for Best Actress in 1932—the first time the award was offered for a specific performance rather than cumulative work. It may have been another sign of Hayes' disaffection with Hollywood that she immediately misplaced the revered golden statue, discovering it two days later in the trunk of her car. Over the next three years, Hayes played opposite some of Hollywood's most desirable leading men in a number of MGM's "serious" films—Gary Cooper in A Farewell to Arms, Clark Gable and John Barrymore in The White Sister, and Robert Montgomery in Another Language.

In between their acting and writing assignments, Hayes and MacArthur fled back to their beloved New York and used their Hollywood earnings to buy a 19-room Victorian house overlooking the Hudson River in Nyack, some miles north of the city. MacArthur admitted that they'd probably paid too much for it and named it "Pretty Penny." Over the years, it became a magnet for show-business luminaries and would remain Hayes' home for the rest of her long life. Its attractions became more and more alluring the longer Hayes worked in California, for while her subsequent films were respectfully received, she chafed under the rigid rules of filmmaking. "It was hard to adjust to those endless takes followed by endless waits," she once said. "Only a short part of each day was spent acting; the rest was a game of patience." MacArthur, too, became increasingly cynical about his studio bosses and their demand for commercial success at the expense of creative freedom. Although he would continue to write for the screen intermittently and Hayes would return to films from time to time, the couple decided in 1933 that they had had enough of Hollywood and moved back to New York. It was a fortuitous decision for Hayes, for her two greatest stage roles were waiting.

Hayes came into her own as a tragic actress and made a triumphant return to the Broadway stage in the role of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots , in Maxwell Anderson's Mary, Queen of Scotland, which opened in 1933. There was some surprise at the casting of a five-foot tall woman to play one of the tallest queens in English history, especially since the actress playing Elizabeth I stood at five-foot-six. Four-inch lifts inserted in Hayes' shoes helped; her technique took care of the rest. "I think myself tall," she told an inquiring admirer. Two years later, on December 26, 1935, Hayes created what is widely considered to be her masterpiece—her performance as Queen Victoria in Laurence Housman's Victoria Regina, in which she aged each night during the play's two-year run from the prim 20-year-old royal princess to the dour octogenarian of the English throne. Audiences were fascinated with the challenges presented by the aging process, especially the convincing puffiness of the old queen's face. Hayes revealed that she at first tried a suggestion from Charles Laughton and stuffed half of an apple in each cheek which, although flavorful, slowly dissolved over the course of the play's final act. She finally settled on thick cotton pads soaked in antiseptic. Hayes later said that she based her Victoria on Graddy Hayes, who had seen the real Victoria pass by in her wedding procession with Albert through London in 1840, and who had imitated many of Victoria's gestures and mannerisms for her granddaughter. Her performance won Hayes the Drama League's Medal of Honor and the first of many invitations to the White House. "She transmuted a rather dull, prosy woman into an overpowering presence," remembered theater critic Brooks Atkinson 40 years after Hayes' Victoria. "She made a living person out of a myth. She made the theater larger than life." Hayes would play Victoria more than a thousand times between 1935 and 1939, taking the show on tour after its Broadway run to 43 cities and an estimated total audience of some two million. During this regal tour, Hayes and MacArthur adopted a second child, James. Their two children often appeared in small roles in plays starring their mother, with

Mary being marked early on as a talented actress and James MacArthur becoming known to millions 40 years later as Danno on the TV series "Hawaii Five-O."

It was during her reign as Victoria that Hayes—now and forevermore respectfully referred to as "Miss Hayes"—came to realize how much she had missed a live audience during her discouraging days in Hollywood. "I need that contact with the audience to guide me and tell me where I'm going off track and how to get back on it," she once wrote. "They talk to me, in absolute silence or in their laughter or restless movements. I am not mistaken in my impression of how I read them." She gauged the success of any performance by such audience dynamics, and always said that her finest appearance as Victoria came, not on Broadway, but on a rainy night in Columbus, Ohio, when the mutual feedback between audience and actor reached a peak of intimacy.

Further triumphs lay ahead: 1943's Harriet, based on an incident in the life of Harriet Beecher Stowe ; 1947's Happy Birthday, which won Hayes her first Tony Award (it was, in fact, the first year the Tonys were offered); and 1950's The Wisteria Trees, which was her difficult return to the stage after the death of her daughter Mary from polio in 1949. "The very worst thing that can happen is to bury your young," she said. Further tragedies awaited. Brownie passed away in 1953, at age 72, to Hayes' great sorrow; and in 1956, MacArthur died of kidney disease at age 60. He had never recovered from Mary's death and had sought comfort for his despondency in alcohol, although Hayes would always deny he had been an alcoholic. "He was the perfect husband in every way," Hayes said, recalling that, true to his word, life with him had never been boring. She especially remembered the handful of emeralds Charlie had sent her from Burma, where he had been stationed during World War II. "I wish they were peanuts," he had written.

Hayes refused all offers of work for some time after MacArthur's death, spending her days tending her roses at Pretty Penny and giving no interviews. Her return to public life came, not on the stage, but on screen, as the imperious Grand Duchess in Anatole Litvak's 1956 Anastasia, opposite Ingrid Bergman . She was never idle from then on, winning her second Tony for 1958's Time Remembered, playing opposite Richard Burton, whom she pointedly warned about building a career on what she called "shenanigans." Also that year, the old Fulton Theater on 45th Street was renamed the Helen Hayes Theater in her honor. She became active in social causes, especially adopting the desegregation of the National Theater in Washington, in which she had appeared as a young girl, and speaking out for programs designed to help the elderly. Now in her 60s, Hayes also traveled abroad on cultural tours for the State Department (which brought her to South Korea), formed the Helen Hayes Repertory Company in New York, toured with a one-woman show in which she played several wives of American presidents, and bought a second home in Cuernevaca, Mexico, where she spent several weeks during the winters. She ventured into television, appearing with her son James on an episode of "Hawaii Five-O" and with Mildred Natwick in a mystery series, "The Snoop Sisters." In 1971, Hayes won her second Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for her work as the wily Ada Quonset in Airport. Outside of a minor problem with low blood pressure and increasingly troublesome allergies, Hayes continued to enjoy the remarkable good health and vitality that had supported her since her touring days as a child. "If you rest, you rust," she said. Nonetheless, she announced her formal retirement from the stage in 1971, citing bronchial asthma brought on by "theater dust" as the reason. Her last stage performance was in O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night, given in her hometown of Washington. Six years later, what would be her last film, 1977's Candleshoe, was released.

In 1982, New York's theater world was outraged at the razing of the Helen Hayes Theater to make way for a sprawling hotel complex in Times Square, although Hayes chose not to join the protests against its demolition. "Look at it this way," she told an interviewer. "It's gratifying that I outlived all that stone and mortar." She managed to rescue a chandelier and a few of the old theater's red plush seats before the building came crashing down. Not long after, the Little Theater, which Hayes remembered opening in 1912 when she was appearing as a girl in Lew Fields' productions, became the "new" Helen Hayes Theater. Perhaps as further compensation, the U.S. Mint issued a commemorative gold coin in 1984 bearing her likeness. In 1987, Hayes collaborated on a murder mystery with writer Thomas Chastain, Where the Truth Lies, in which the evil deed takes place during the Academy Awards. She admitted gleefully that the book provided a way for her to vent some of her long-held distrust of Hollywood, announcing during a press tour for the novel that she had declined to attend that year's Academy Awards banquet. "I don't know whether I'd dare," she said. Hayes added to her collection of awards and honors in 1988 by traveling to the White House to receive the National Medal of the Arts from Ronald Reagan. Always a staunch Republican, she delivered the seconding speech for George Bush at that year's GOP convention.

In 1990, she published the last and most frank of her six memoirs. While the previous five had been essentially collections of anecdotes and memories of theater life, My Life in Three Acts took much of the modern stage to task for abandoning what Hayes saw as its traditional role of elevation and education. She criticized contemporary playwrights for emphasizing the world's evils rather than the power of human dignity, and advocated a return to works which celebrate lives "lived quietly and gracefully and decently." She warned actors not to confuse the stature that comes from quality work with the more shortlived stardom born of controversy. "Celebrity," she wrote, "has always struck me as a dubious and transitory claim to achievement in our society." And she emphasized her commitment to helping change attitudes toward the elderly. "People ought to be told well in advance what may happen to them as they age," she pointed out. "If they don't like what they hear, then they should agitate for improved conditions." She confessed that, at 90, she had only recently given up swimming five laps a day in the pool at Pretty Penny and had substituted a long walk each day—especially enjoyable to her, she said, in the rain. By now, she lived mostly on the ground floor of the old "gothic steamboat," having closed off the rest of the place to most visitors.

On St. Patrick's Day, 1993, the last of the great ladies of the 20th-century American stage died quietly in her sleep. Helen Hayes had given 80 years of dedicated service to the stage, her gifts being some of the legitimate theater's most memorable performances, all the while maintaining a reputation for self-deprecating modesty. "I don't seem to have learned anything through my whole life but my own life," Hayes once wrote. "A lot of people don't even get to learn that, do they?"


Atkinson, Brooks. Broadway. NY: Macmillan, 1970.

Hayes, Helen, with Katherine Hatch. My Life in Three Acts. NY: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1990.

Johnson, Jill. "Transformation: A Memory of Helen Hayes," in American Heritage. Vol. 44, no. 6. October 1993.

Murphy, Don, and Stephen Moore. Helen Hayes: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993.

O'Brien, Jack. "Helen Hayes: 1900–1993" (obituary), in American Theater. Vol. 10, no. 5–6. May–June 1993.

Shapiro, Harriet. "Where the Truth Lies" (book review), in People Weekly. Vol. 29, no. 11. March 21, 1988.

Norman Powers , writer-director, Chelsea Lane Productions, New York

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