December 30th, 2002
Helen Hayes
About Helen Hayes

Long regarded as “the First Lady of American Theater,” Helen Hayes earned international esteem and affection during a career that spanned more than eighty years on stage and in films, radio, and television. As a screen actor she won two Oscars, as a stage actor she won a prestigious Drama League of New York award, and in 1988 President Ronald Reagan presented her with the National Medal of Arts. Deeply in love with her profession, Hayes enjoyed playing a variety of roles, from Amanda Wingfield in Tennesse Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie” (1948) to a little old lady stowaway in AIRPORT (1970). Both the charm of her comic roles and the depth of her tragic ones made Hayes one of the most respected and beloved American actors.

Born in 1900 in Washington, D.C., Helen Hayes Brown spent her childhood working in the theater at her mother’s urging. She made her Broadway debut at nine in “Old Dutch”, inspiring one critic to call her “the greatest leading lady of her size we have ever seen.” Her roles grew as she did, culminating with leading parts in “Dear Brutus” (1918) and “Bab” (1920). “I was the youngest star the New York stage ever had,” said Hayes, reflecting on the triumphs and pressures, “and it darn near wrecked me.” Eager for a change from these “flapper” roles, Hayes starred in a 1928 production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Ceasar” and “Cleopatra”. Her reviews were mixed, but for one theatergoer, the playwright Charles MacArthur, Hayes was an unqualified success. They married later that year while Hayes triumphed in “Coquett “and MacArthur reigned with his play “The Front Page”. Their first child, Mary, was born a year and a half later and the couple subsequently adopted a son, James (who would follow in his mother’s footsteps, becoming a well-known actor as Danny “Danno” Williams on the television show HAWAII FIVE-O).

Hayes accompanied her husband to Hollywood in 1930 when he became a screenwriter for MGM. There she launched her film career with THE SIN OF MADELON CLAUDET (1931), for which she won an Oscar for best actress. Hayes went on to star in such major pictures as A FAREWELL TO ARMS (1932), ARROWSMITH (1931), and ANASTASIA (1956), and play opposite such screen greats as Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, James Stewert, and Fred Astaire. She felt, however, that the stage was really her home, explaining, “There is no adventure in the screen performance. It’s not yours. The director is going to take it in hand. The cutter is going to cut it.” Dividing her time between Hollywood and Broadway in the 1930s, Hayes scored theatrical triumphs in “Mary of Scotland” and “Victoria Regina”. “Victoria Regina”, probably her most famous role, ran for 969 performances. It required Hayes to play the role of Queen Victoria, effecting a remarkable sixty-year transition from hesitant young bride to wheelchair-bound empress — displaying both her skill and commitment to craft.

Throughout the 1940s, Hayes continued to tour the United States with a number of different shows, but in 1949 tragedy struck. Her young daughter, a nineteen-year-old aspiring actress, was struck with polio and died. Overwhelmed with grief, Hayes’s husband began drinking heavily and died soon after, in 1956. During the late 1950s and 1960s Hayes turned to acting for solace, and began to perform in both feature and cameo roles on television. In 1965 she published her autobiography, A GIFT OF JOY, and in 1971 won her second Oscar for her supporting comic role in AIRPORT (1970). Only a year later, Hayes returned to the stage for the final time as Mary Tyrone in Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”. For the next twenty years, Hayes continued to make infrequent appearances on television and film.

In 1993, at the age of ninety-two, Helen Hayes died in her Nyack, New York home. Her career had brought her around the world and into the hearts of generations of Americans. She received the highest accolade of the theatrical community when Broadway’s Fulton Theatre was renamed the Helen Hayes Theater in her honor. By the time of her death, she was one of only a handful of actors who had achieved such a high level of public renown and respect from her peers. Downplaying decades of achievement and praise, Hayes offered a modest summation of her career, saying, “I just always wanted to do the very best I could.”

  • Reader

    Nobody left a comment about a program featuring the first lady of the American theatre??? I saw Helen Hayes in person. I was going to see a Broadway play called “The Nerd “(this was the 1980’s; Helen Hayes was not in the play), and it just so happened that it was the day they were re-dedicating that theatre that had been named in her honor. She had put her footprints in cement (I didn’t see that part) but then she came outside and in front of the theatre threw each shoe into the crowd. I read HH’s “My Life in Three Acts,” her memoir, twice. She lived in such interesting times and interacted with so many interesting people. But the thing I best remember her for was her role in the movie “Airport” — she was so funny!

  • Mario

    Allow me a little vignette that I believe shows the kind of woman Helen Hayes was.
    On the occasion of her 90th birthday, I was sent to her home in Nyack to do a photographic portrait of her for the Associated Press.
    I had no idea what to do for something that would do justice to this beautiful and gracious woman.
    She and I strolled around the estate looking for a suitable backdrop. It was getting late, the shadows were beginning to cast and there was a decided chill coming up off the Hudson River in her backyard.
    I spied her rose garden and recalled the famous thornless rose named in her honor, the Helen Hayes. Here was a garden full of them!
    Problem solved. Put her in the midst of them, one in hand and admiring it. As we proceeded with the shoot, she began to sneeze. My first thought was, “My God, I’ve got her out here, she’s catching a chill and I’ll go down in history as the man who gave her pneumonia!” I whipped off my jacket to put it about her shoulders and she smiled and said, “Oh, no. That’s not necessary. I’m not cold. I’m allergic to roses!”
    If that doesn’t define the time honored definition of a trooper in the theatre, I don’t know what does.

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