Helen Hayes, The First Lady of American Theatre

“The theatre became my school, my university, the key to my life. It still is. It keeps me in constant communication with the world. It fortifies me.”
Helen Hayes

Born October 10, 1900, Helen Hayes first stepped onto the professional stage in her native Washington, DC with the Columbia Players in 1909. Later that same year, she made her Broadway debut in the play Old Dutch.

Her name first went up in lights at the Park Theater in 1920, where she appeared in Bab, which had been written especially for her. Numerous other plays followed, including Happy Birthday (for which she received the inaugural Tony Award in 1947 for Best Actress), To the Ladies, Mary of Scotland, Harriet, Coquette, Time Remembered (Tony Award, 1958), Caesar and Cleopatra, Twelfth Night, What Every Woman Knows, A Touch of the Poet, Harvey (Tony nomination, 1970), and, of course, Victoria Regina (Drama League of New York Medal, 1936). 

During her remarkable career, Miss Hayes twice undertook extensive overseas tours on behalf of the United States Department of State (with The Glass Menagerie and The Skin of Our Teeth), receiving decorations from many of the 28 countries she visited. She also appeared at the American Shakespeare Festival Theater in Stratford and toured American colleges and universities. 

In 1966, Miss Hayes joined the APA Phoenix Repertory Company and remained with it for three seasons. Back on Broadway she appeared in The School for Scandal and Right You Are If You Think You Are, and was unanimously acclaimed for her portrayal of Mrs. Fisher in a revival of George Kelly’s The Show-Off. In 1971, she toured nationally for fourteen weeks, breaking theatre attendance records. Her last stage appearance occurred later that year in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, back home in Washington, DC, where she began her career. 

Helen Hayes’ film career began in 1931 with The Sin of Madelon Claudet, written by her husband Charles MacArthur, for which she won an Oscar. She was, in fact, the first actress to gain both the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Awards, receiving the latter for her performance in Airport in 1970. Among her many other films are Arrowsmith, A Farewell to Arms, Anastasia, and Victory at Entebbe. 

Her work on television includes the narration of the documentary based on Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Edge of the Sea. She also played in Arsenic and Old Lace with Lillian Gish and in A Family Upside Down with Fred Astaire. In 1973, she made her first series, The Snoop Sisters, co-starring with Mildred Natwick. In 1980, her documentary, Miles To Go Before We Sleep, won a Peabody Medal. Her most recent television appearances were as Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s famous detective in A Caribbean Mystery (1984) and Murder With Mirrors (1985). 

Throughout her career, Helen Hayes was involved with radio. In 1937 she was named Radio’s Favorite Actress. Her shows included The New Penny, Bambi, The Helen Hayes Theater of the Air, The General Electric Theater, and Weekday. She narrated a daily commentary, “Mutual of Omaha’s Our Best Years,” from 1981 until 1986, recording over 1,500 commentaries.

Helen Hayes’ talent with words extended far beyond her role as a performer. She published the best-selling books: A Gift of Joy, On Reflection, Twice Over Lightly, A Gathering of Hope, and the recent My Life in Three Acts. Our Best Years, based on her daily radio commentaries, was published in 1984. She also published a murder mystery, Where The Truth Lies, whose heroine just happens to be a great lady of the stage.

The awards and honors she received during her lifetime fill an entire room in her Hudson Valley home. In 1955, the 50th anniversary of her professional stage debut, a Broadway theatre was named for her. On opening night she received the Gold Medal of the City of New York from Mayor Robert Wagner. In 1968, the Medal of the Arts of New York City was presented to her by Mayor John V. Lindsay. A second theatre took her name in 1983, following the demolition of the first. 

The First Lady of the American Theatre received over fifty honorary degrees, including Doctors of Fine Arts from Princeton University, Hamilton College, Smith College, Columbia University, and Brown University. In 1981, her achievements were celebrated at The Kennedy Center Honors. She also received the Jefferson Award, presented for her work as a humanitarian and in recognition of her radio series, The Best Years (1984). 

In 1988, she was honored with the prestigious American Express Tribute for a life of contribution to the American theatre. Always deeply respected by her peers, she had the well-deserved distinction of being the second person and the first woman to ever receive the Tony, the Oscar, the Emmy, and the Grammy.

Family was always one of Helen Hayes’ passionate concerns. She was married to the playwright-screenwriter-director Charles MacArthur in 1928, and their daughter Mary was born in 1930. In 1937, the MacArthurs adopted their son, actor James MacArthur (the father of Miss Hayes’ three grandchildren, Charles, Mary, and Jamie). In 1949, Mary joined her mother on stage in Good Housekeeping at the Falmouth Playhouse in Westport, Connecticut. During tryouts, Mary was stricken with polio and died. This tragedy might have forced Miss Hayes into early retirement; however she made a glorious comeback in Joshua Logan’s The Wisteria Trees, and continued her theatre, film, and television career for more than four decades. 

In 1983, the Helen Hayes Awards were established in her name to honor achievement and promote excellence in professional theatre in the city of her birth. Since the 1984 season, hundreds of Helen Hayes Awards have been presented, resulting in heightened national identity and increased theatre audiences in the nation’s capital. Helen Hayes’ namesake awards stand as a living legacy to the First Lady of the American Theatre, rewarding excellence, encouraging new talent, and stimulating a vibrant theatre community.