We celebrate Helen Hayes in this space today for what is just a tiny sliver of her 80 year career. Those five years spent under contract to MGM between 1931-1935 which would net Miss Hayes’ the first of her Oscars, the Academy Award for Best Actress, at the 1932 Awards show for her first film under that contract, The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931).
It was a strong start for Helen Hayes in Hollywood with Madelon Claudet followed by a pair of loan outs with better literary pedigree and stronger legacies than even Hayes’ award winner: Sinclair Lewis’ Arrowsmith (1931) with Ronald Colman and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1932) with Gary Cooper. This trio of films made Helen Hayes a huge success in films out of the gates and there were thoughts that her film career might eventually eclipse her stage career.
But Hayes’ next round of movies weren’t quite up to par with the original grouping: The Son-Daughter (1932), in which she played Chinese; The White Sister (1933), previously played by Lillian Gish and pairing Hayes romantically with Clark Gable; Another Language (1933) with Robert Montgomery; as Gable’s wife in Night Flight (1933), a flawed all-star attempt at a Grand Hotel of the skies. Hayes would finish out her contract with What Every Woman Knows (1934) opposite Brian Aherne and Vanessa: Her Love Story (1935), once more with Montgomery.
In between that round of films, beginning in November 1933, Hayes had a successful run in Maxwell Anderson’s Mary of Scotland on Broadway. But her greatest professional success was soon ahead. After she left Hollywood behind for a more permanent return to the stage Hayes would soon establish herself as the First Lady of the American Theater.
Helen Hayes Brown was born October 10, 1900 in Washington, DC. Her father seems credited with a host of odd jobs while her mother, as author Sheridan Morley put it, “traveled as much as possible with rather strange stock companies in an attempt to bring some glamour into her life” (169). Helen Hayes attended Holy Cross Academy where she made her stage debut in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Her professional debut came at age five when she played Prince Charles in the Columbia Players’ production of The Royal Family.
According to Morley, Helen Hayes Brown typically appeared in two plays each summer and continued to attend Holy Cross when there was time. Her mother took Helen to New York to see Lew Fields, who had previously seen Helen perform, and by way of this connection Helen Hayes Brown made her Broadway debut in Old Dutch at the Herald Square Theater late in 1909. At age 9.
Helen remembered Fields in 1963 when she looked back to when the Helen Hayes Theater was named for her in 1955:
“It was a cold, dreary, rainy November night, the night they put my name up above that theater … I was standing across the street in the rain and the dark, watching every letter go up. I thought of Lew Fields, the first New York producer my mother and I ever talked to. I was about eight years old. My name as Helen Hayes Brown and Mr. Fields told me I’d have to drop one name. That night I thought, ‘Mr. Fields, you were right, the Helen Hayes Brown Theater would be much too long'" (McManus).
Nevertheless the very active young actress would continue her theater career under all three names for a few more years yet. She’s said to have made her film debut before she turned ten as well, for Vitagraph in something called Jean and the Calico Cat in 1910. Her presence cannot be confirmed in the lost film because it came at a time before actors were routinely given credit in the films they appeared in. At any rate, the Jean of the title was not Helen, it was a dog. Presumably Helen would have played the little girl described in reviews of the day as Jean’s playmate.
Morley reports that Hayes dropped off Broadway during her awkward early teen years, but returned to the Hudson Theater in September 1916 to play in Pollyanna, a success which toured through 1918. It was while on the road Helen Hayes came to realize that she required more training in acting: “I simply could not repeat a good performance at will” (Morley 169). And so she studied under Frances Robinson Duff and later Constance Collier, working all the while, and was eventually rewarded by having her name up in lights for the first time at the Park Theater where she played the title role in Bab beginning October 1920.
In 1922 she played in the George S. Kaufman and Marc Connelly hit To the Ladies, which kept her busy after its initial Broadway run with a two year road tour. Several additional Broadway shows came and went, including an attempt at playing something “heavier” in George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra in 1925. Later that year The Last of Mrs. Cheyney was a hit, lasting nearly a year and nearly 400 performances, but Hayes really made a splash in What Every Woman Knows, which opened in April 1926. It was recalled by Hayes as her best performance, despite the fact that her most defining role was yet to come, post-Hollywood.
In 1963 Hayes said that “All the reviews were raves,” when it came to What Every Woman Knows. She recalled a later revival that she did and thrilled at what New York Herald Tribune critic Walter Kerr had then written: “She must be better in it now than she was originally. Otherwise it would still be running.”
It was around this time that Helen Hayes would meet the love of her life, writer Charles MacArthur, whom she would remain happily married to until his death in 1956. When MacArthur’s The Front Page opened on Broadway August 14, 1928 it was an immediate hit. MacArthur’s response was to propose to Helen and they were married just three days after the big opening! Helen was soon starring in her own hit, Coquette, at Maxine Elliott’s Theater, where it ran for over a year. Controversy was around the corner.
Jed Harris’ Mr. Gilhooley opened at the Broadhurst Theatre in September 1930. But Helen Hayes was forced to quit the show under doctor’s orders: She was pregnant. Harris was said to be amiable about the situation, but the cast demanded pay for four unplayed weeks from him through Actors’ Equity. Harris claimed he didn’t have to pay because Helen’s baby was an “Act of God.” Harris lost his claim and had to pay up two weeks salary. Helen’s “Act of God” baby became theater legend recounted in nearly every profile of the actress through the years.
Once she was back on her feet Helen Hayes played a couple of additional Broadway shows before inking the deal with MGM that led to that initial run of films.
It was after she returned to Broadway that Helen Hayes would achieve her greatest success, portraying 80 years of Queen Victoria’s life in Victoria Regina. The show opened on Broadway in December 1935 and Hayes starred in it 517 times before taking it out on the road for an additional 400 performances ("Theater Legend"). It was during this run of Victoria Regina that I was able to locate first references to Helen Hayes as the First Lady of the American Theater, a title she sometimes shared with Katharine Cornell and seemingly inherited from Ethel Barrymore.
Helen Hayes continued to work regularly, through good times and bad, over the next forty years. Sometimes she used her work to make her way through personal tragedy. The first such low time came in 1949 after her daughter, Mary, previously referenced as the “Act of God” baby, contracted polio and died. Thirty years later Hayes reflected on the bright side when she said:
“I had the satisfaction of having Jonas Salk say to me that Mary’s death had been tremendously influential in helping him into … finishing off polio out of our lives, through his vaccine” (”Helen Hayes Concerned”).
She kept working after husband MacArthur died in 1956, not so long after the world had celebrated Helen’s fifty years in the business. At that time she gave a delightful interview to Olga Curtis with MacArthur wisecracking at her side. Helen remarked that one thing she had never done during her career was appear in a circus. After joking at the possibility of riding an elephant in a gold gown she told Curtis, “Put that in the story … and they might invite me to ride an elephant. I’d do it, too—for charity.”
MacArthur offered a unique description of his wife back in 1934, describing her as:
”… the most mid-Victorian modern I have ever known. She thinks and acts in the language of the women who lived between the late sixties and early 1900s. Not that she is prudish—she doesn’t in the least care what other people do—but there is a will-o-the-wispness about her, an elusive quality, which no one can hope to grasp or hold. She lives in a world of her own, apart and above the world of everyday which the rest of us feel beneath our feet” (”The Most Gifted”)
Hayes would not remarry.
She was a regular presence on the stage until she retired from the theater in 1971 because of allergies triggered by all of the dust. But she kept working. More movies and especially television followed, her final appearance coming in an episode of the television series Glitter late in 1985.
By the end of her career Helen Hayes had accumulated many of the entertainment industry’s most prized Awards: Her 1932 Oscar for Best Actress would be joined by an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress won 39 years later, for 1970’s Airport; She picked up an Emmy Award as Best Actress of 1953; Three Tony Awards, for Happy Birthday in 1947 and Time Remembered in 1958, plus a Lifetime Achievement Tony awarded in 1980.
In 1979 a reporter for United Press got Hayes to talk about life and living. The quotes are priceless:
“I don’t want to achieve anything more, I’ve had it all. I’d like to achieve a good rose garden out there,” she said, pointing to the gardens that adorn her stately white mansion in Nyack, “That’s important to me.”
But she added, “As long as there is a smidgen, a crumb of happiness to be grasped in life, I will grasp for it, and I’m greedy about it” (”Helen Hayes Concerned”).
Helen Hayes died of congestive heart failure March 17, 1993. At age 92. In Nyack, New York, where she and Charlie MacArthur had made their home, so many years previous.
Helen Hayes was survived by actor James MacArthur, the couples' adopted son who recently passed himself, in 2010.
Here's a recommendation I never thought I'd make. Growing up on Long Island nothing would take the joy out of a "sick day" from school like turning on the TV and being greeted by Midday Live with Bill Boggs on Channel 5. Back before we had cable it was often the only thing on--I suspect the other networks were running the news at that time. I thought it was the most boring thing I'd ever seen in my life.
Please, excuse me Mr. Boggs, as I just spent a good 25 minutes tonight with my eyes glued to an episode featuring Mary Martin, Lillian Gish and the actress we're focusing on today, Helen Hayes. I've embedded it below, but if you don't see that you can view it HERE.
The BillBoggsTV channel on YouTube is packed with 1970s and '80s era interviews including Yul Brynner, Jack Lemmon, Debbie Reynolds and more. It's not just film stars, but a huge range of people--from Frank Zappa to Fabio to Bobby Kennedy--bound to include something of interest for nearly everyone.
Makes me wonder who Boggs was talking to back when I was playing hookey!
- Curtis, Olga. “Helen Hayes’ ‘Romance’ Has lasted for 50 Years.” Waterloo Daily Courier 22 Nov 1955: 6. NewspaperArchive. Web. 10 Oct 2012.
- ”Helen Hayes Concerned About Plight of Senior Citizens.” Galveston Daily News 3 Jan 1979: 18. NewspaperArchive. Web. 10 Oct 2012.
- McManus, Margaret. “Helen Hayes Plans TV Show Tuesday.” Syracuse Post Standard 7 Jul 1963: 31. NewspaperArchive. Web. 10 Oct 2012.
- Morley, Sheridan. The Great Stage Stars: Distinguished Theatrical Careers of the Past and Present London: Angus & Robertson, 1986.
- ”The Most Gifted Actress in the Movies!” Oakland Tribune 18 Nov 1934: 73. NewspaperArchive. Web. 10 Oct 2012.
- “Theater Legend Helen Hayes Dies.” Cedar Rapids Gazette 18 Mar 1993: 6. NewspaperArchive. Web. 10 Oct 2012.