HAYES, HELEN (Helen Hayes Brown) (1900–1993) Actress
Hailed as the “First Lady of the American Theater,” Helen Hayes’s distinguished acting career stretched over an amazing 84 years. Born Helen Hayes Brown in Washington, D.C., on October 10, 1900, her early interest in playacting and theatergoing delighted her mother, Essie. Herself a minor stage comedian, Essie soon placed her own theatrical ambitions on her daughter, who first appeared onstage at age five. At nine, Helen made her professional debut playing a prince in The Royal Family (1909). The part brought her to the attention of producer Lew Fields, who cast her in several New York shows. Although film was then viewed with scorn by theater people, Helen also appeared in a few movie shorts, including Jean and the Calico Dog (1910). Essie and Helen returned to Washington in 1911, but Helen continued to perform in plays both there and in New York City. Now billed as Helen Hayes, she always earned enthusiastic praise from reviewers. She later claimed her reputation as an excellent child actress was due to her being a quick study. But in fact she worked hard to develop her own acting technique by studying her adult costars and receiving her mother’s relentless coaching.
After graduating from high school, Hayes had her first major success with the touring production of Pollyanna (1918). The saccharine melodrama featured her as the ever cheery, ever optimistic title character. Standing only five feet tall and weighing only 100 pounds, Hayes was soon known for playing young, innocent waifs. In addition to helping to typecast her in these limited roles, Pollyanna also marked the beginning of her association with producer George C. Tyler. Under contract to Tyler, Hayes appeared in one or two Broadway shows a year, usually light fare such as Booth Tarkington’s Penrod (1918) and James Barrie’s Dear Brutus (1918). Hayes was given her first star billing with Bab (1920). Otherwise, the show was a withering disappointment for the young actress. Critics found her performance mannered and began to speculate that Hayes had little real acting talent. Shaken by the reviews, Hayes began to study acting and voice, as well as taking lessons in dance, fencing, and boxing. She hoped to learn to free her voice and movements so she would seem more natural on stage.
In 1924 she also took the risky step of severing ties with Tyler by defying his demands that she not join the Actors’ Equity union. Liberated from Tyler’s tight control over her professional and personal life, Hayes was able to pursue more substantial roles. She found parts in productions of She Stoops to Conquer (1924) and Caesar and Cleopatra (1925) before scoring hits with What Every Woman Knows (1926) and Coquette (1927). Playing a fiapper in Coquette, Hayes emerged from its three-year run as one of America’s leading young actresses. While reprising some of her best-known roles on radio, a sponsor even touted her as the “First Lady of the American Theater.” The tag stuck, even though Hayes at the time felt it was mischaracterization that ignored the excellent work done by other star Broadway actresses. In 1928, while performing in Coquette, Hayes married playwright Charles MacArthur, best known for cowriting the play The Front Page (1928). To their friends, the match appeared an odd one with little chance for lasting success. MacArthur was a witty, urbane womanizer, while Hayes was far less worldly and far more disciplined. Although MacArthur’s excessive drinking would cause problems in their marriage, they both found in each other the support they needed to do their best creative work. They and their two children, Mary and James, eventually settled in a large Victorian house in Nyack, New York, where they entertained Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontanne, Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, and other great wits and theatrical luminaries.
After their marriage, MacArthur and Hayes were courted by Hollywood. As he became one of the movie industry’s highest-paid screenwriters, she began to star in feature films. In 1931, she won an Academy Award for best actress for her performance in The Sin of Madelon Claudet, the script of which was heavily doctored by her husband. She also received acclaim in Arrowsmith (1931) and A Farewell to Arms (1932). Still, the down-to-earth Hayes never quite fit the mold of the glamorous star. MacArthur, too, grew disillusioned with Hollywood, and the couple agreed to move back to New York and focus on stage work. In 1933, Hayes made a splash in Mary of Scotland. Playing another British monarch, this time Queen Victoria, she reached the pinnacle of her career in Victoria Regina (1935). The demanding play required her to portray the queen from her teens to her old age. Owing largely to Hayes’s spectacular performance, the drama ran onBroadway for two years and toured for still another two. All told, she played Victoria about 1,000 times before a total audience of approxi- mately 2 million.
In the 1940s, Hayes appeared in a variety of serious dramas such as Harriet (1943), a biographical play about Harriet Beecher Stowe, and The Glass Menagerie (1948), Tennessee Williams’s classic work about a matriarch desperately clinging to her illusions. In 1947, however, she won the first Tony Award for best actress for Happy Birthday, a light comedy written by her friend Anita Loos.By this time, Hayes’s teenage daughter, Mary, was a beautiful aspiring actress, who frequently appeared in her mother’s plays. While preparing for a new part in 1949, Mary contracted polio and died. The loss devastated Hayes andMacArthur. Urged on by her husband, Hayes tried to conquer her sorrow by doing charity work for polio research and returning to the stage, most notably in The Wisteria Trees (1950), a version of Anton Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard set in the American South. MacArthur had more difficulty recovering after Mary’s death. Always prone to depression, he was unable to work, and his drinking problem grew worse. In 1956, MacArthur died of alcohol-related illnesses. Although Hayes lived for almost 40 more years, she was never romantically linked with another man after MacArthur’s death. Though she acted occasionally on television and radio, Hayes continued to concentrate on theater work. In 1955, she appeared in A Touch of the Poet in a New York house renamed the Helen Hayes Theater in her honor, and in 1958, she earned her second Tony Award for Time Remembered. With the support of the State Department, in the early 1960s she went on a world tour, performing in The Glass Menagerie and By the Skin of Our Teeth, among other American classics. To the surprise of many, Hayes gave up highprofile productions to join the APA-Phoenix Repertory Company in 1966. Playing both small roles and large, she performed with the troupe until financial difficulties forced it to disband two years later.
Approaching her 70s, Hayes announced in 1969 that she was leaving the theater. Yet, she was quickly lured back by revivals of The Front Page (1969) and Harvey (1970). By 1971, however, she had developed an allergic reaction to theater dust that made stage work impossible. She made her last stage appearance that year in Long Day’s Journey Into Night in her hometown of Washington. Hayes refocused on work in film and television. In 1970, she won a second Oscar for best supporting actress for playing a feisty stowaway in the disaster movie Airport. On television, she made numerous guest appearances, most notably a spot on Hawaii 5-0, a crime drama costarring her son, James MacArthur. She also starred briefiy with Mildred Natwick in her own series, The Snoop Sisters (1973–74). In 1985 Hayes retired from show business. She often traveled to receive awards and attend functions in her honor, but otherwise spent her last days at her Nyack estate. On May 17, 1993, she died there of a heart attack at the age of 92. Ever modest, Helen Hayes once ascribed her success to “the quality of being average,” a self-deprecat-ing way of describing her gift for bonding with audiences. Whether portraying sweet ingenues, imperious queens, or impish little old ladies, she played her characters with a dignity and warmth that endeared her to the public over nine decades.
Barrow, Kenneth. Helen Hayes: First Lady of the American Theater. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985.
Hayes, Helen, with Katherine Hatch. My Life in Three Acts. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1990.
Murphy, Donn B., and Stephen Moore. Helen Hayes: A BioBibliography.Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Arrowsmith (1931). MGM/UA, VHS, 2000.
A Farewell to Arms (1957). Image Entertainment, DVD, 1999.
The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931). MGM/UA, VHS, 1991.