Helen Hayes' career in entertainment surpasses most others in years as well as in achievements. She began acting at the age of five and didn't stop until she was 85. Helen is one of only two women to receive all four prestigious entertainment awards: a Tony, Oscar, Emmy and Grammy. In 1983, the Helen Hayes Awards were established, encouraging other aspiring actors and actresses to reach for their goals as she had done.
Helen's childhood was a whirlwind of emotion. Her mother, Essie, was an aspiring actress who was happiest when she was in the midst of theater excitement. She would go on tour for weeks and come home with lively stories, but days later she turned to drinking to suppress her boredom with life at home. In her autobiography, "On Reflection," Helen tells of her mother's hilarious stories about her life on the road. "She found humor everywhere - except in the tiny world where her drab marriage and dreary motherhood had trapped her."
Essie found her daughter to be an outlet for her lack of success on stage, busily pushing Helen toward a career that would make her famous. Helen's father, Frank Brown, was Essie's opposite. He was laid-back and easily satisfied, happy with a family and a home. He could be the reason for Helen's unconventional attitude. Most women who starred alongside her were pretentious and grandiose, while Helen was more natural and sincere. In "On Reflection," Helen wrote about her father, "In harmony with the world, he was in perpetual discord with his restless wife. He was dear and I adored him, but I can quite understand how enraging his passivity must have been to the seething woman who was my mother."
Essie decided that her daughter would go to Holy Cross Academy, not because she was devout, but because they did not require her daughter to have the smallpox vaccination that would "mutilate" her. Luckily for Helen, the nuns at school greatly appreciated theater. Helen's first role was Peaseblossom in the school's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
Helen's professional career began when Lew Fields, of the comedy team Weber and Fields, saw her impersonation of the Gibson Girl from "Ziegfeld Follies." He told the theater manager that if she would like a career when she was older, he wanted to be the first in line. After a few years and some extra French lessons (to reassure Essie that Helen would become a lady), mother and daughter headed to Lew Fields' office in New York City. After being shown a photograph of Helen in her Gibson Girl getup, Fields remembered Helen and signed her to be in "Old Dutch" at the age of eight. Helen became the favorite little star of Broadway actors and producers like Fields, John Drew and George Tyler, learning more from their example and advice than she felt she ever would have in acting school.
The first play for which Helen received media attention was "Pollyanna." Though she was still playing a young girl while she was actually 17, Helen was the leading lady and got respect for her work. She even made an audience of rough-and-tumble ranchers in Montana break out in tears. This was the point at which she became an "adult" actress. A year later, she brought Broadway audiences to their feet in the fantasy play "Dear Brutus." A review in The New York Times called Helen's performance "a wonderful blending of dream beauty and girlish actuality." From that moment on, she would be referred to, at the very least, as the "great Miss Hayes."
A budding romance
Until her mid-twenties, Helen's life was dictated by George Tyler, who had become her producer. She was not allowed to socialize and attend parties with the other actors and actresses, which severely hampered her ability to meet new friends and date men. But in 1924, Helen was forced to choose between Tyler's self-centered demands and her own values. He had pushed her to join the Fidelity League, a union that existed mainly to proclaim loyalty to producers. However, Helen chose the Actors' Equity union, a rival union that that had been formed to try and raise the meager salaries of stage actors. This broke the ultimatum that Tyler had given her, and freed Helen from his tight hold on her life.
This led to the introduction of her to Charlie MacArthur, a Chicago journalist and playwright. Helen was invited by an actor friend to a high-society gathering where her demure disposition did not fit in well with the boisterous crowd. While she sat in the corner thinking of a good excuse for leaving, a handsome, green-eyed gentleman came over and offered her some peanuts. As he put them in her hand, he said, "I wish they were emeralds." Helen was in love. Many people told her their relationship wouldn't work, saying he was too much of a prankster and cynic for her innocent personality. But they both possessed a childlike charm, and were happily married until Charlie's death in 1956. The book "Front Page Marriage" discusses their lives together in detail.
Helen's first child was born amidst a somewhat humorous controversy. While she was pregnant, Helen was the main character in the play "Coquette." She became very sick and was forced to quit the production, leaving the director to close the play altogether. The other actors were owed severance pay, but producer Jed Harris attempted to get out of it by saying Helen's reason for leaving was an "Act of God" that he couldn't control. Eventually he had to pay the actors, but Mary MacArthur would always be remembered as the "Act of God Baby." Helen and Charlie adopted a son, James, in 1939. Jamie, as Helen sometimes called him, went on to star in the long-running television series "Hawaii Five-O."
Hollywood was expanding in 1931, and movie execs were out to recruit stage actors and actresses. Helen gave in and signed a deal with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Her first movie was "The Sin of Madelon Claudet," the story of a poor woman forced to commit crimes to support her son. The writing was not good and audiences at the first preview hated the movie. Charlie took a stab at rewriting, which helped, but it wasn't until scenes were added and re-shot that "Madelon" became a classic. Helen picked up an Academy Award for Best Actress, making her the first stage actress to win an Oscar. She had established a successful career in Hollywood, and was cast opposite many of the most desirable leading men in film. Helen worked with Clark Gable and John Barrymore in "The White Sister," Ramon Novarro in "The Son-Daughter" and Robert Montgomery in "Another Language."
The regal Broadway roles that made Helen famous started in late 1933 when she portrayed Mary Stuart in Maxwell Anderson's "Mary of Scotland." That led to her role in "Victoria Regina," in which she played Queen Victoria from youth to old age. This was a pinnacle of her career, for which she earned many honors and awards. She was almost unrecognizable as the old Victoria, fooling even the audience until she spoke. The reason she was so convincing was not only good makeup and props (she wore cotton pads in her cheeks to puff them out), but also because she drew inspiration from her grandmother for the queen's mannerisms. Graddy Hayes, as she was called, was an avid Victoria devotee, even dressing like her later in life.
Helen got quite a compliment once after a show. Queen Victoria of Spain, the original Victoria's granddaughter, saw Helen's performance and set up a tea time for them to meet the next day. According to Helen, Victoria said in astonishment, "How did you ever learn so many things about my grandmother? Why, you laugh like her and talk like her, and who told you of that impatient little shrug she made if anyone tried to sympathize with her or help her when she was old?" Helen replied, "I guess all old people do the same things, or, at least, Your Majesty's grandmother and my grandmother had a great deal in common."
Helen did her part in World War II, appearing in an anti-Nazi play called "Candle in the Wind." She also made as many appearances as she could to boost the morale of the troops. Unfortunately, Charlie was sent overseas, where he worked at a desk and became increasingly addicted to alcohol.
When Mary was 16, she appeared with her mother in "Alice Sit-by-the-Fire." Although Helen had been wary of her children's involvement in acting, it seemed Mary had inherited her mother's talent. But tragedy struck the MacArthur's in 1949 when Mary became ill and died of polio. Helen said, "The very worst thing that can happen is to bury your young." Charlie took it even harder, and he became steadily more depressed. Helen eventually found comfort in helping fight the disease. She founded the Mary MacArthur Fund to raise awareness, and Jonas Salk credited her with helping him establish funding for a vaccine. But Charlie gave in to his depression and alcoholism in 1956, when he died of nephritis (kidney disease) and severe anemia.
Helen continued acting, knowing that work could help her get past her sadness. She starred with Ingrid Bergman in the film "Anastasia" shortly after Charlie's death. Later, she went on long tours with repertory companies. Helen had always had respiratory problems, but she was now having recurring bronchial infections. She claimed several times that her latest performance would be the last, but Helen couldn't resist good offers. She finally retired from the stage in 1971, after her doctor told her she was allergic to "backstage dust."
After her retirement from theater, Helen continued her acting career in film and television. She won her second Academy Award for the 1971 movie "Airport." She was the first Oscar nominee to win in categories for both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. Helen also starred in several TV movies and a crime series called "The Snoop Sisters." In 1982, Helen and former First Lady of the United States Lady Bird Johnson founded the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, which helps to preserve North America's natural landscape and resources. She continued writing books as well, finishing her most acclaimed autobiography, "My Life in Three Acts," at the age of 90. After a long, eventful life, Helen died of congestive heart failure on March 17, 1993.
Helen Hayes' success is the direct result of her incredible work ethic and discipline. She had the kind of talent that put critics and audiences in awe, and a warm heart and humble charity that kept her in tune with the masses. For that she will always be remembered with affection and love.