From the Archives: Helen Hayes, Legend of U.S. Theater, Dies
Helen Hayes, the diminutive and demure grande dame of the American theater, whose 87 years of stage, film and television performances—as tots, ingenues, queens, nuns and matriarchs—earned her the enduring affection of four generations, died Wednesday. She was 92.
She had been brought to Nyack Hospital in that New York City suburb and admitted March 8 for treatment of congestive heart failure.
Her family was with her when she died, a hospital spokeswoman said.
Miss Hayes’ twin careers entranced her public. Her acting brought her two Academy Awards and Broadway’s highest acclaim—a theater named for her. And then there was her exemplary personal life, as wife, mother, Catholic and a dedicated volunteer for medical research and the elderly, a civic campaign she embarked on after her only daughter, Mary, died of polio at age 19.
Perhaps the last of America’s great ladies of the stage, the Washington-born actress, who stood 5-feet-nothing and once described herself to a magazine as “a little Irish biddy,” also managed, without tiger skins or tantrums, to outlast and usually out-act Hollywood’s ferociously slinky glamour queens on their own film turf.
Offstage, Miss Hayes’ life was every bit as ladylike—although not always such smooth sailing—as her conduct in front of audiences. It was an appeal she was at a loss to explain, except, she wrote once, “I sometimes think that I am the triumph of the familiar over the exotic.”
And it may have been that familiarity that enabled her to become one of the very few actors or actresses to cross comfortably between film and stage, although she always preferred the latter.
With her disciplined stage technique and personal uprightness (she once lost an alphabet game among New York’s 1920s literati because she did not know swear words), she was never entirely at ease in Hollywood, whose star system and “arrogance” she came to loathe, especially after the less-than-kind treatment accorded her husband, writer and playwright Charles MacArthur.
She nonetheless made more than a score of movies and beat Hollywood at its own game, winning Oscars almost 40 years apart: as best actress in her first major film role, “The Sin of Madelon Claudet,” in 1932, and as best supporting actress in “Airport” in 1970.
(Her first film was “Jean and the Calico Doll,” a hectic, two-reel Vitagraph production in 1910, back when “it was considered undignified . . . to work in this medium unless (one) was starving.” But she had “much more fun in those tuppenny thrillers than I ever did at MGM 25 years later,” she wrote in one of her three books of memoirs.)
In between the films was the stage work that really mattered to her. From her professional debut at age 5 in “The Prince Chap” (well attended by her father’s Elks club and her mother’s bridge group) to a Broadway career that began four years later with “Old Dutch,” Miss Hayes snagged some of the best roles the theater could offer.
They ranged from Margaret in “Dear Brutus” by Sir James M. Barrie and Amanda in Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” to playing Harriet Beecher Stowe, Cleopatra in George Bernard Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra,” Volumnia in Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” and Mrs. Antrobus in “The Skin of Our Teeth.” With her daughter, Mary, she performed in “Alice-Sit-by-the-Fire” and “Good Housekeeping"—during which Mary caught the cold that turned out to be polio.
One of her most memorable stage roles was “Victoria Regina” (a part she acted 969 times, and of which, years later, seeing tapes of her national tour, she remarked scornfully, “Phony, totally overdone . . . all those Shrine auditoriums where you worked so hard to reach the balcony”).
The other was as another queen, the doomed “Mary of Scotland,” a role Miss Hayes believed tested her true talent—whether a sprightly 5-foot Irishwoman could convincingly portray the tall, romantic, tragic Scots queen. “I became” she said, “the tallest 5-foot woman in the world.”
Her stage reputation even kept matinee idol John Barrymore on the straight and narrow. By 1933, he was drinking hard and reading his lines from cue cards. But starring with Miss Hayes in “Night Flight,” he was flawlessly professional. “I was working with a real actress,” he told the director. “I didn’t want to make a goddamn fool of myself.”
Her long affair with the theater was forced to an end in 1971, after a revival of “Harvey” with James Stewart and during “A Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” She was allergic, doctors learned, to the dust that clings so densely to theater seats and scenery.
It was a reluctant parting. “For 60 years,” she wrote, “I’ve heard, ‘Two minutes, Miss Hayes,’ and I’ve sprinted onto the stage. It’s become a reflex. Pavlov’s actress, that’s me.”
She turned zealously to movies and television, bringing to them all (a “Love Boat” episode with her son, actor James MacArthur, a documentary on aging, “The Snoop Sisters” with Mildred Natwick, even a Walt Disney trifle like “Herbie Rides Again”) the stage dignity even those minor roles could not impede.
Miss Hayes also never stopped learning her craft or being critical of herself.
She studied voice and took acting classes of varying value (in one, students imitated seals sunning on the ice, and a fat woman rolled over on her). Even her aging, fat French poodle taught Miss Hayes something. As she watched him loll on the floor and lap up his owners’ kind words, Miss Hayes decided that was exactly how her Queen Victoria should respond to Prime Minister Disraeli’s high-flown flattery.
Her radio performances, which began in 1930, included the two-year run of “Helen Hayes Theatre,” a nursing recruiting show during World War II and other dramatic programs. In 1982, she took over a series of two-minute spots called “The Best Years” after host Lowell Thomas died.
With little of the prima donna in her, the self-effacing Miss Hayes—whom one studio mogul found “sexless"—still held serenely fast to the public’s heart for years, through the flashy spats and scandals of such glamour queens as Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford. “I had learned to be an actress,” Miss Hayes wrote. “I never learned to be a star.”
She did give it a half-hearted try. Her friend, actress Lynne Fontanne, scolded her for not being glamorous and doggedly dyed Miss Hayes’ hair blond. “My indifference to style has driven friends crazy,” she confessed in one of her autobiographies. “It earned me the reputation at 24 of being dowdy.”
When two women on the street saw her but decided that it couldn’t really be Helen Hayes because of her ratty coat, she marched into a New York furrier and demanded a sable coat fit for a star. It was an order she promptly canceled that afternoon when, in a gallery window, she saw a Renoir painting that looked exactly like her daughter and cost exactly as much as the sable coat.
Although she wrote wistfully that she would have preferred more daring roles, she added that “those in power always saw me as a noble innocent” in parts that “doomed me forever to public purity. I was to go from gingham virgin to the Statue of Liberty in a Mother Hubbard.”
So her image stayed pristine, from the virtuous Victoria to the spit-curled grandmothers of the later Disney films.
Modern love scenes are “a big bore,” she pronounced in 1987. “I yearn for mystery . . . in today’s scenes you can just do nothing but gulp.”
The adorable child star, the young woman whose ingenue role as “Bab” drew smitten stage-door Harvard undergraduates to see her, her portrayal of Pollyanna, the nun’s role in “The White Sister” (during the filming of which she shyly turned down the advances of co-star Clark Gable) and even in “A Farewell to Arms,” which left her with a crush on co-star Gary Cooper. In them all, she was the good girl.
And she became the great and good lady, as the imperious Russian dowager empress, Ingrid Bergman’s aunt in “Anastasia,” a role she took as therapy within months of her husband’s death in 1956. She added bits of mischief in the comic fantasy “Mrs. McThing,” and years later polished her conniving, fuddled old-lady act as a stowaway in “Airport,” a role that earned her the second Oscar.
In 1928, Hayes and her husband bought their 21-room, white Victorian house in Nyack overlooking the Hudson River.
Successive birthdays brought old friends and new honors to the house, where she lived for more than 60 years—honors like the “Helen Hayes Rose,” a yellow blossom with a touch of pink, now planted in the garden at the Actors’ Fund Home in Englewood, N.J., another of her charities.
The first Helen Hayes Theater was razed, but another was named for her. Theater, she admitted in 1987, is “a little sickly in New York.”
Even reminders of age delighted her. When grandson Charles saw her 1933 film “The White Sister,” he told classmate John Gable, “I saw your father kissing my grandma the other night.”
The theater brought her into the orbit of the extraordinary and the merely famous, and the stories she told best were the ones she told on herself.
George Gershwin once brushed smeared chocolates off her rump after she sat on some at a chic party. Violinist Jascha Heifetz played Brahms to her in her hotel room after she fibbed to him about attending his recital. She stood next to Aldous Huxley and Anita Loos one memorable night, peering through Los Angeles’ Mt. Wilson telescope. At one play opening, she recalled, she received congratulatory roses from actress Katharine Cornell--who had already gotten the flowers from someone else, and forgot to remove the card from the original giver before sending them to Helen.
As a young girl visiting Europe, she blithely missed the repeated calls of Shaw and Barrie. And in her ringside seat at the world’s most coveted salon, Gertrude Stein’s in Paris in the 1920s, her attention was riveted mostly by the distinctive mustache on the face of Miss Alice B. Toklas.
It was all very heady for the little girl from Washington. Educated in Catholic schools partly because her mother was terrified of the vaccinations required by public schools, Miss Hayes shared her mother’s religion and her devouring interest in theater—her mother’s means of escaping a humdrum life.
Miss Hayes’ “only rebellion and a most unlikely change of script” was her marriage to the wayward, hard-drinking, quicksilver, witty, divorced journalist-playwright MacArthur, who with Ben Hecht co-authored “The Front Page.”
It was a marriage of opposites that the acidulous critic Alexander Woollcott likened to “hang(ing) some chintz curtains on the lip of Vesuvius and call(ing) it home.”
The 28-year-marriage that ended with MacArthur’s death was a warp and woof of contradictions that made the fabric of their lives together so strong. “He saw the woman lurking in the girl,” she wrote. “It was Charlie who gave my life reality, who handed me my sovereignty, the identity that completed my education as an actress and began it as a woman.” It was a marriage “crammed with abysmal moments and glorious hours.”
On MacArthur’s arm, she entered the glittering orbit of his friends, the wits of New York, among whom even asking for the correct time demanded a cutting bon mot in reply.
After howls of protests that good-time Charlie was being stolen away by a shy little actress, they came to like her—if only because they needed someone who listened.
The story of their first meeting has become a poignant piece of Americana.
It was at a party and Irving Berlin was playing the piano with one finger. “The most beautiful young man” Miss Hayes said she had ever seen, walked up and asked, “Do you want a peanut?” As MacArthur poured them into her trembling hands, he added, “I wish they were emeralds.”
(Over the years that line dogged them everywhere—including a 10th-anniversary dinner where a bowl of green-tinted peanuts was set at their table. It all so depressed MacArthur that, returning from World War II, he dumped a bag of emeralds in her lap and announced: “I wish they were peanuts.”)
At another party, determined to impress her husband’s clever friends, she took a deep breath and declared, “Anyone who wants my piano is willing to it,” and after a profound pause, playwright George S. Kaufman, who had co-authored “To the Ladies” for Miss Hayes, said, “That’s very seldom of you, Helen.”
She could not even be indignant very effectively. On the set of “Arrowsmith,” director John Ford yelled, “Get on that set and stick to your acting—such as it is!” Her rage was huge, and she drew herself up haughtily and said, “I am not accustomed to being speaken to in that manner"—to the guffaws of everyone.
Only once did she get in a last dig--but later apologized for it. When MacArthur came home one night in Hollywood, bragging about punching actor Victor Mature, her one acid comment was: “The main event: Mature vs. Immature.”
At her daughter’s first birthday, she and MacArthur, realizing their chic friends would not come on the lure of ice cream and cake, sent out party invitations “To Meet Scarface Al Capone.” Only opera star Lucrezia Bori took the gag seriously, and yammered at the pair until MacArthur telephoned Capone, who made Bori prove her identity by singing the drinking song from “La Traviata.”
Sensitive to her husband’s mercurial nature, and his up-and-down successes, she downplayed her own ventures, once quitting the stage for 18 months in the early 1940s to concentrate on family. “My success made me guilty,” she wrote. Curiously, it was his unshakable support of her that made Miss Hayes feel as sure of herself offstage as she was in front of the footlights.
After Mary’s death in 1949 and MacArthur’s in 1956, Miss Hayes ended her “painful exile” and returned happily to the Catholic fold she had left just as happily to marry MacArthur, a divorced man. It seemed, she wrote, “that it was going to have to take the whole Roman Catholic Church to replace him.”
As her zest for acting leveled off, she was awarded the oldest Roman Catholic honor in America, the Laetare (Rejoice) Medal at the University of Notre Dame, presented to her in 1979.
The woman who called herself a fighter and a survivor chaired groups combatting polio. “Jonas Salk told me I was one of the biggest assets he had in getting his vaccine to the world,” she told a magazine interviewer.
A hospital in West Haverstraw, N.Y., was named after her for her work for medical research. She was honored by Brandeis, Princeton, Smith, Columbia and Hamilton, and with the 1979 Catholic Hoey Award for combatting racism in theaters.
She took part in a White House commission on aging, narrated a public television documentary on the subject and testified in 1981 before a Senate hearing on home health care for the aged. That same year, Miss Hayes, a longtime and loyal Republican, was named a recipient of the Kennedy Center honors for performing arts and got a congratulatory kiss from President Ronald Reagan.
In 1984 she and Jimmy Stewart were honored at a so-called Presidential Nomination Breakfast Ball at the GOP national convention in Dallas. But her efforts extended across the political aisle. Also in 1984, Miss Hayes helped the late Lyndon B. Johnson’s family raise $125,000 at a wildflower fund-raiser held at the Johnson Ranch in Texas.
In total she received three Tonys, two Oscars and an Emmy, and in 1980 she was selected one of 10 American artists to be commemorated on a gold medallion issued by the Treasury Department.
Miss Hayes served on so many benefits, drives and charities that she showed one newspaper reporter a gold lapel button her friends had given to her. It said “no,” because Miss Hayes, apparently, could not.
But the cheerful, optimistic, energetic outlook she maintained did not come easily in the wake of the deaths of her daughter and husband. “I am very morbid at times,” she wrote in a 1980 magazine article. “I have to fight to be optimistic.”
In 1987 she told an audience of health care workers that she had come in at the turn of one century, and had no plans to leave until the turn of another. And she was finding in old age its own rewards.
“Strangers on the street say I’m an inspiration to them. . . . Youth and middle age are much harder.”
Her funeral will be private, but a memorial service will be held later, said John Springer, the actress’ spokesman.
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