Helen Hayes (1900-1993) was an American actress whose long career made a lasting impression in the American theater world.
Helen Hayes was born on October 10, 1900, in Washington, D.C., daughter of Francis Brown Hayes and Catharine Estelle Hayes. The young Helen appeared on stage even before she went to school: at five years old she played the part of Prince Charles in The Royal Family. Other roles quickly followed this one, and she made her first appearance on Broadway as Psyche Finnegan in The Summer Widowers when she was ten years old. Much later, in 1958, Hayes wrote of this period: "when I was five, everything was certain and known, and I was positive that life was long and art short … even in 1905, Broadway was merely 230 miles away."
Though she appeared on the New York stage numerous times before she was even of age, the young Helen was educated at the Academy of the Sacred Heart Convent in her native Washington. She graduated in 1917, having already spent three years with the Columbia Players in Washington. Upon graduation she moved to New York City, where she was to spend a large portion of her life. Acting came naturally to her, and it was not until her role as Cora Wheeler in Clarence (Booth Tarkington's 1919 play) that she ever felt that acting was a challenging profession. This was the first part where she felt her natural talents insufficient. After this performance, she began to take lessons in dance, mime, and even fencing—all as means through which to learn how to control even the most minute muscle of her body, which she thought of as her "actor's instrument."
In 1921 Booth Tarkington wrote a play especially for Hayes entitled The Wren. She had starred in Penrodas well as Clarence, and they had struck up a friendship that inspired Tarkington to make his next protagonist, Seeby Olds, perfect for Hayes. He did not realize, however, something that she had not told anyone: Helen Hayes always reached outward for inspiration for her parts and did not know how to play a part so close to herself. In 1958 she commented, "the twenty-fourth performance brought down the final, merciful curtain."
Hayes had many other successes, however, not the least of which was her marriage to Charles MacArthur, a playwright, in 1928. She had a daughter, Mary, and a son, James. Though they got along very well, the couple seldom worked together. The most notable exception was a highly successful one, however: in 1931 Hayes won an Academy Award for her film debut in The Sin of Madelon Claudet, which her husband had written for her. In it Hayes portrayed an old woman; in her autobiography, she explained that it was the memory of Mme. Curie, whom she had seen once on a boat crossing the Atlantic, that enabled her to play the part.
One of her most celebrated performances in the theater came four years later, when she played the part of Queen Victoria in Victoria Regina. Immediately previous to this performance she had played the role of Mary Stuart in Mary of Scotland, thus starting what she dubbed her "queen kick" that was to last over four years. Victoria Regina itself ran for four years, including a coast-to-coast tour. Hayes received the Drama League of New York medal of 1936 for "the most distinguished performance of the year" for her portrayal of Victoria. She later said that this performance had been inspired by the memory of her grandmother, who had been in London during Queen Victoria's wedding procession and who subsequently at least physically imitated the queen.
Helen Hayes continued to tour the United States with various successful plays both before and after World War II. She appeared in London for the first time in 1948 at the Haymarket. There she played the role of Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, a role that she was to play in several different locations quite a few more times in her career. The Sarah Bernhardt Theater in Paris saw the debut in 1955 of another role that she would play often—that of Mrs. Antrobus in The Skin of Our Teeth. Hayes toured Europe and Israel for the U.S. State Department playing both of these roles in 1961, following that tour with one of South America.
She made her first appearance at the Helen Hayes Theater in New York in October 1958 as Nora Melody in A Touch of the Poet. This role became special to her in many ways—not the least of which was that the play was Eugene O'Neill's last. Although Nora was not the protagonist of the play, Hayes felt that it was around her spirit that the entire play revolved, and this spirit reminded her very much of her husband's, who had died in 1956.
In the summer of 1962 Hayes appeared with Maurice Evans at the recital entitled "Shakespeare Revisited: A Program for Two Players" in Stratford, Connecticut. This recital inspired her to form the Helen Hayes Repertory Company in 1964, which sponsored tours of Shakespeare readings in universities around the country.
Hayes published her autobiography, A Gift of Joy, in 1965. Rather than a chronological account of her life, the book is a delightful collection of impressions and anecdotes about her career, her family, and herself, interspersed with passages from her favorite poems and plays. She also coauthored Twice Over Lightly with Anita Loos in 1972.
Hayes received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from Princeton University in 1956. She received many other honorary degrees—from Columbia, Brown, New York University, and others. She was awarded the Medal of the City of New York as well as the Finnish Medal of the Arts. The United Service Organization nominated her Woman of the Year in 1974, and she was president of the American National Theater Academy from 1951 to 1953. She received a Tony Award in 1947 for her performance as Addie in Happy Birthday and a second Oscar (as supporting actress) for her performance in Airport in 1970.
The First Lady of the American Theater retired from live performance in 1970, following her appearance in a revival of Harvey. She was honored with a professorship at the University of Illinois and taught speech and drama for several semesters.
She returned to acting before the camera in a television series The Snoop Sisters (1973-1974) with Mildred Natwick. She also made many cameo appearances in feature and television films, from the delightful characterization of a professional stowaway little old lady in Airport (1970) to her portrayal of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple in A Caribbean Mystery (1983), directed by Robert Lewis.
Although she appeared in several short silent films and won an Oscar for The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931), Helen Hayes's film career was somewhat abortive. She followed her early success with a series of failures, from Arrowsmith (1931) by John Ford, to Vanessa, Her Love Story (1935) by William K. Howard and her public lost interest in her as film star material. She often referred to her career as "the triumph of plain Jane."
Helen Hayes lived in her home in Nyack, New York, until her death from congestive heart failure, March 17, 1993. As a tribute to her position as of America's greatest actresses, the lights of Broadway went dim for one minute at 8:00 P.M. the day she died.
Articles on Helen Hayes can be found in Who's Who in American Theater (1977) and the Oxford Companion to the Theatre (1966). Her autobiography, A Gift of Joy, was published in 1965. She also wrote an article for the New York Times in 1958 entitled "Helen Hayes Relives Her Roles."
Helen Hayes published her memoir On Reflection (1968) and her biography My Life in Three Acts (1990), written with Katherine Hatch.
Variety Magazine Obituaries, New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc., (1993-94) paid tribute to Helen Hayes, March 22, 1993, with a lengthy and detailed account of her achievements on stage and in films. She also appears in Notable Women in the American Theater: A Biographical Dictionary and in A Biographical Dictionary of Film, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, (1995). □