“Ah, that’s our mockingbird,” Helen Hayes says. She is sitting on the porch of the white Victorian house she and Charles MacArthur bought nearly 60 years ago. There is indeed a lovely liquid trilling to be heard in the trees. “He likes to join the conversation,” she says.
It is a warm spring morning but the sun has not yet burned the haze off the Hudson below, giving the river a soft and timeless look that you can imagine Ichabod Crane and boatloads of patroons gazed upon in their time.
In the ‘60s, having lost both her husband and her daughter Mary and with her actor son James MacArthur newly married and living elsewhere, Hayes put the house, with its 18 rooms and its tall and spacious windows providing stunning views of the river, up for sale.
Local rowdies were sneaking into the swimming pool on the slope below the house at midnight and having raucous beer and sex parties. But her neighbors were so appalled at the idea of her leaving that they picketed the house. The developers who had planned to buy and convert it were scared off; the town got its rowdies under control and Helen Hayes continues to have the joy of her memento-filled home.
“My paintings are the Hudson River School,” she says. “I sold all my snob paintings years ago--long before their prices went crazy, as is my wont.”
Helen Hayes is one of the glories of American acting, a link in her lifetime and theirs between the theater of Lew Fields and Victor Herbert and of Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams (the two greatest, she believes). In a country and a profession that loves superlatives, she was being called “the first lady of the American theater” in the mid-'30s, after her triumph as Queen Victoria in “Victoria Regina.” It made her uncomfortable, she says, because there were a few other first ladies around, among them Laurette Taylor, Katherine Cornell and Ina Claire.
Hayes will be 90 in October and she says with considerable firmness that she is retired. Late-blooming asthma cut short her stage career. “I’ve been deprived of that,” she says sadly. And while there are still polite inquiries from films and television, she says, “I wouldn’t take a part. I’ve never been happy with anything I’ve ever done that I could see later. Acting for that little red light-- oooooh! I watch things on the little screen and I say, ‘Oh, why didn’t they let me do that again?’ ”
Early in her career she was under contract to MGM but she never really felt at home in Hollywood. When the contract was up, she left with relief. “I don’t think I’m much good in pictures,” she said at the time, “and I have this beautiful dream that I’m elegant on stage.” Yet she won an Academy Award as best actress for her first screen role in “The Sin of Madelon Claudet” in 1931 and another as best supporting actress for her role as the stowaway in “Airport” in 1970--a span which is at least one measure of one of the longest and most honored careers in American acting.
Hayes has just now published an autobiography--"Helen Hayes: My Life in Three Acts” (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $19.95)--written in collaboration with Katherine Hatch, a friend who lives in Cuernavaca, where Hayes also has a house and spends part of the year.
She had written earlier memoirs, including “A Gift of Joy” and “On Reflection” in the ‘60s, and the new one was intended to be “Helen Hayes’ Mexico,” or some such, stories and impressions of a country she loves. She didn’t think it came off but sent it to Anita Loos’ agent, a mutual friend, as a courtesy to her co-author. The agent found the publisher, but the changes that were requested amounted to a new book.
“I talked it,” she says, and sent the tapes to Hatch, who polished the words into shape, carefully preserving Hayes’ own tone, which is energetic and cheerful but remarkably candid about herself and her associates.
The blessings of seniority are not without number, but one of them is a refreshing freedom to let candor reign. She speaks of Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio, “which I blame for many of the things wrong with the American theater then and now.” There is a devastating portrait of Joan Crawford, reaffirming many of the things Christina wrote in “Mommy Dearest.” (Hayes tried to send a gift to Christina, who had been forced to spend the summer at her boarding school, the only child in residence. Crawford’s secretary said the mother did not want her daughter to have any gifts. Hayes sent one anyway, but doesn’t know if Christina ever got it.)
There is an acid-etched portrait of Richard Burton, with whom she worked on Broadway in “Time Remembered.” Hayes became what she calls an “unwilling auditeur " to Burton’s noisy lovemaking with Susan Strasberg in the next dressing room. (Strasberg has written about the destructive relationship in her own memoir, “Bittersweet.”)
“How would you feel if you had a pockmarked face like mine?” Hayes says Burton asked her as they walked around Boston during the pre-Broadway run. “Conquering every woman who came within reach seemed to be his way of compensating for that liability,” she writes in the book. “But all those conquests cost him what had been easily within his grasp--unstinting recognition as a great actor.”
Hayes had entertained Burton and his wife, Sybil, for a weekend in Nyack years earlier, when Burton was on Broadway with John Gielgud, playing in “The Lady’s Not for Burning.” MacArthur was already deep in the depression that darkened his last years and Hayes thought that Burton, his fame as a raconteur already established, would be bright company. “And he was,” she says, “with his stories of his mining village and that hard-drinking family of his.”
By contrast to the portrait of the later Burton, there is a favoring glimpse of John Barrymore, with whom Hayes played in a 1933 film called “Night Flight” by the French author-pilot Antoine de St. Exupery. Barrymore was already known for undermining his own talent and having to read his lines from cue cards. But he was letter-perfect and totally professional. Hayes says that Barrymore told the director, Clarence Brown, “I was working with a real actress; I didn’t want to make a goddamn fool of myself.”
Marian Davies was one of Hayes’ close friends and at one point the subject of gossip as having had a child by the love of her life, William Randolph Hearst. Once she was escorted to a party by Truman Capote. As they swept in, she said in her characteristic stammer, “I want you to m-m-meet my illegitimate son by C-C-Calvin C-C-Coolidge.”
On the recent spring morning in Nyack, the news was of the Hubble space telescope being unlimbered in deep space. It reminded Helen Hayes of an expedition she and husband Charles MacArthur, Aldous Huxley and Anita Loos made to spend a day with Prof. Edwin Hubble, for whom the space telescope is named. Hubble was at Mt. Wilson, where he was awaiting delivery of that observatory’s vast lens, then being ground in Upstate New York.
“When it was done, he’d be able to reach through the Milky Way and pick out an individual star. And Aldous said, ‘Yes, and when it’s all done and you’ve adjusted it perfectly, what you’ll see is your own backside.’ And Charlie, my Charlie, who was always supposed to be the flippant one, said, ‘No, he won’t. What he’ll see when it’s all adjusted is God . . . waggling his finger and saying, “Not a step further.” ’ “
The most affecting portraits in the book are of Hayes’ actress daughter, Mary MacArthur, who died of polio in the epidemic of 1949, and of her husband, Charlie. Theirs had been one of the great romances, and although his last years were marked by illness and heavy drinking, the memories of the good times prevail.
They had met at a party at the artist Neysa McMein’s studio, when he famously poured some peanuts into her hand and said, “I wish they were diamonds.” His charm was understandably irresistible, and there was an endearing prankiness to match.
She recalls an early escapade, when MacArthur arranged a telephone conversation between a Metropolitan Opera star, Lucrezia Bori, and Al Capone. Bori was crazy to meet Capone and while MacArthur couldn’t manage that, he got a dubious Capone to take a phone call. Capone was an opera lover. “Have her sing ‘Sempre libera’ from ‘La Traviata,’ ” Capone said. “If I’m convinced it’s her, I’ll talk to her.” She did and he was and they talked.
Hayes quotes his partner Ben Hecht’s line about MacArthur: “He walked backward through life looking at the day he was 21.” Together he and Hecht had written “The Front Page,” “Twentieth Century” and many another play and film together. “Ben was right,” Hayes says. “It was part of Charlie’s charm. But after Mary’s death, the youthfulness faded.” He died in 1956 at 61.
Unlike many actors, who confess that the urge to impersonate caught them at a very early age--the first time they toddled on stage as kindergartners, say, or the moment they put on angel wings in the Christmas pageant--Helen Hayes, characteristically candid, says, “I never chose to be an actress.” In the new book, she explains that the choice was made for her by her actress mother, Catherine Hayes Brown, whom everyone called Brownie. (Helen dropped the Brown for marquee purposes.) At her mother’s prompting, she appeared in an amateur production at age 5. She worked alongside her mother in a Washington repertory company at 8 and made her Broadway debut in “Old Dutch " a Victor Herbert operetta, in 1909, when she was 9.
Brownie, steering Helen through the career she had sought for herself but been unable to achieve, was a chaperon who became increasingly dependent on both her daughter and alcohol. Hayes, who is as candid about herself as about anyone in the book, quotes a doctor-cousin who said that the children of alcoholics carry feelings of inferiority with them into adulthood. “Not that they’re ashamed,” she says, “but they feel they are put on this Earth to serve, not to take. Maybe that explains my attitude.”
She felt very keenly the tug of war between career and parenthood. “Sometimes,” she writes, “I became so melancholic that I felt all actresses should be spayed so they couldn’t have children. . . . At times I thought of giving up work to concentrate on raising my children, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”
Son James MacArthur, now 51 and still hailed as the longtime co-star of “Hawaii Five-0,” has remarried and divides his time between Hawaii and a lodge in Colorado. Like many a series star, he finds the strong identification a mixed blessing, making it hard to be considered for other roles. His mother, who admires his talent, finds it unfair and distressing. Neither she nor MacArthur urged acting careers on the children but were supportive when they made their own choices.
These days Hayes, who makes a number of public appearances, likes to quote her favorite dictum, which is, “If you rest, you rust.” She rests very little. She presently is doing signings of her book--300 copies on a recent afternoon at the Doubleday shop in Manhattan. “The good news of this morning,” she says, “is that they’re printing another 5,000 copies. That’ll be 35,000.”
She is involved in charitable work, appearing at the “Night of 100 Stars,” which benefits the Actors Fund, of which she is an officer. She is also a principal supporter of an orphanage in Mexico and of Mother Teresa.
She lives in a house full of memories, and leads her morning’s guests down a circular stone staircase to a ground-level playroom and office crammed with the mementos of her life with Charlie--posters, paintings, signed photographs of dozens of the famous, like the young Maurice Evans, desperately handsome, and a warmly inscribed portrait of her friend and idol, Laurette Taylor.
But the mementos, it seemed clear, are not much visited. She elects to live in the present. With all else, she travels a good deal: to Ireland not long ago. She entertains old friends from the theater. Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy were up for a visit a few days after Tandy’s triumph in the Academy Awards. The couple strolled down to the village, blissful at going unrecognized by passers-by.
Not least and not surprisingly, Helen Hayes is a constant theatergoer. She and her old pal Mildred Natwick were off to see Maggie Smith and Margaret Tyzack in “Lettice and Lovage” the following week. And not long before, she had been to see Glynis Johns, Rex Harrison and Stewart Granger in Somerset Maugham’s “The Circle.”
“I toured in that years ago,” Hayes said, “doing the part that Glynis Johns does. And I saw her and I said, “Oh, of course; THAT’s the way it should be played.”