My Life in Three Acts – Helen Hayes (1991)

  • My Life in Three Acts
  • Helen Hayes
  • WITH KATHERINE HATCH
  • A TOUCHSTONE BOOK
  • Published by Simon & Schuster
  • First Touchstone Edition 1991

When Lillian Gish is visiting, she always comes to breakfast in a peignoir. She makes a very pretty picture with her hair flowing down her back. But deshabille doesn’t suit me; I can’t function that way. I have to be fully clothed, because once the day begins, it gets beyond me, out of control.

Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish attend at preview in New York Thursday of an exhibit entitled Anita Loos and Friends

Not long ago, my friend Lillian Gish and I discussed this problem. At the time we were both watching a TV miniseries about Peter the Great. We were excited, at first, because so many actors we knew and admired were in the cast. After the third installment I asked Lillian what she thought. “I’ve stopped watching,” she replied. “It was just a lot of actors dressed up for a costume party.” Exactly what I thought. Here were actors who had made Shakespeare’s words ring like golden bells mumbling their way through what was essentially no more than a series of tableaux vivants. It is hard to know where to place the blame: on actors who don’t consider their dialogue worth delivering well, or on writers who don’t bother writing literate dialogue when so few actors make an effort to speak well.

Helen Hayes and Ingrid Bergman – Anastasia

I had turned down the role of the Russian dowager empress in the film version of Anastasia. I didn’t think the part of a domineering Romanov suited me. But, then, I can’t remember ever playing a role that didn’t seem, at first, more suited to someone else. Even in the case of Victoria, despite my enthusiasm I thought an English actress would have been more appropriate. On stage the dowager empress had been played magnificently by Eugenie Leontovich and by my close friend Cathleen Nesbitt, and I didn’t think I’d be nearly as good as either of them. But friends kept urging me to get back to work. They all believed the wounded soldier had to return to action, never mind the bandages or the morphine. And the attitude in the theatre world has always been: “The show must go on,” whatever the personal cost to the actors. Josh Logan implored me to take the Anastasia role, saying it was my duty to use the talent God had given me. Anita Loos and Lillian Gish also encouraged me, Anita going so far as to say she would accompany me to London, where the film was to be shot. Eventually I gave in.

Yul Brynner, Ingrid Bergman, Helen Hayes – Anastasia

Lillian Gish is another old friend who has spent several Christmases with me in Cuernavaca. We first met in New York back in the early 1930s, after Lillian left Hollywood because she didn’t like the changes sound brought to moviemaking. She felt that the crude vocal reproduction of the early talkies distorted her voice, so she decided to give up filmmaking and return to the theatre, where she had worked before becoming D. W. Griffith’s leading lady in silent films. Around the time that Lillian came back to New York, Jed Harris was preparing a Broadway production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and he chose Lillian for one of the two female leads. Jed was romantically involved with Ruth Gordon at the time, and Ruth met Lillian through him. I got to know Lillian through Ruth. This was somewhat ironic, as Ruth and Jed and I later became estranged, but Lillian and I are still close friends after fifty years.

Helen Hayes and Lillian Gish – Promo for Arsenic and Old Lace

We had only one bad patch. It happened a few years ago, when we were rehearsing for a TV production o{ Arsenic and Old Lace. We broke for lunch one afternoon well after 2 p.m., and Lillian and I headed for Longchamps, one of a chain of restaurants that offered good food and soft, flattering lighting. The latter, needless to say, was very popular with ladies of a certain vintage. As we waited for lunch, Lillian started talking about her latest obsession: rejuvenating treatments offered by a Rumanian doctor she knew. His elixir of youth was administered in injections of certain animal substances—lamb embryos, or something like that. This Dr. Feelyoung’s cure-all had been rejected by the American Medical Association and the Food and Drug Administration on the grounds that it was pure quackery. Ignoring that verdict, Lillian had gone to Rumania every year for the doctor’s injections. Like too many stage and film people, she had fallen into a desperate struggle to retain her youth, and she believed the treatments worked. Why was the American medical establishment against the good doctor? It was just jealousy, she thought.

Lillian Gish and Anne Tennehill 1973 at Helen Hayes

I listened quietly for a while, but finally I got fed up. There was a lot wrong with our system of medicine, I said as calmly as possible, and I was well aware of its shortcomings. But at least we were way ahead of other countries in protecting the naïve against the flummery of mountebanks. So far our voices had been modulated to match the soft lighting around us. But now Lillian became shrill. “Let me tell you what I think of American medicine,” she burst out. “My banker, who is in charge of all my affairs, has a letter stating that if I get too sick to make my wishes known, I am to be taken to Europe immediately.”

“To what country?” I asked. “It doesn’t matter,” said Lillian. “Anywhere except America!”

That really irritated me. “Lillian,” I exclaimed, “you’re a bubblehead!” Suddenly we were shouting, two gray-haired ladies yelling at each other while a group of waiters stood around nervously, probably fearful that we would soon start slinging china. What a tidbit that would make for the gossip columnists—Longchamps Brawl: Hayes vs. Gish.

But it wasn’t only Lillian’s strange fixation and the harm it might do her that bothered me. Her attitude toward American medicine offended me for a personal reason: I was deeply involved in working on behalf of a Nyack hospital that had been named for me. This may sound self-serving, but the truth is that I was gratified that the use of my name could help win support for a hospital that provided good care and sponsored important research. I suppose Lillian’s condemnation of all U.S. medicine struck me as an affront to my hospital and its dedicated staff, though of course she hadn’t meant it that way. We soon came to our senses. That was the only argument Lillian and I have ever had, and since then we have tacitly understood that medicine is a subject we have to avoid.

lillian-gish-james-macarthur-new-york-usa-19 jun 1960 detail

Lillian is full of surprises. Once, when she was visiting in Nyack, we took a long walk along an Indian trail on the cliffs above the Hudson. My three dogs were scampering beside us. We came to a point where the trail unexpectedly narrowed, and the dogs suddenly cowered at my feet. There was a washout a few steps ahead. I stood there frightened, the dogs practically clinging to me, as Lillian grabbed a tree limb and swung across the washout to safe ground on the other side.

“What are you doing, Lillian?” I gasped. “You’ll kill yourself!”

“Nonsense!” she said airily. “In the old days we used to do things like this in the movies. There weren’t any stunt people then.” She swung back and forth like Tarzan.

In Way Down East, a D. W. Griffith masterpiece made in 1920, Lillian had had to float down a river on an ice floe. The scene was shot in Mamaroneck, New York, in the dead of winter, and Lillian spent so many hours filming the sequence—in which she is rescued by Richard Barthelmess, playing the hero—that she came down with a serious case of chilblains.

Way Down East was a great success, and Griffith wanted to give Lillian a special present out of gratitude for her unstinting loyalty and courage. Her birthstone is the opal, and in Australia Griffith found a gem known as “the Great Opal,” which he purchased and had mounted in a cross designed by Tiffany.

Maybe he would have scouted for another great opal if he could have seen her performing the same kind of feat more than fifty years later.

james macarthur, lillian gish, joyce bulifant, charlie macarthur, helen hayes

The heroines Lillian played for Griffith were invariably spiritual and slightly otherworldly, and there are times when Lillian herself seems a trifle vague, so closely in tune with her own drummer that she misses the beat of what is going on around her. This trait can be startling, as it was at one event we both attended a few years ago. I asked Lillian to join me at the cardinal’s annual Christmas party in New York, a tradition initiated by Terrence Cardinal Cook and carried on by John Cardinal O’Connor. I’d been invited for more than twenty years, and I’d taken Lillian along once before. This time I was asked to bring her again—Cardinal O’Connor was a great fan of hers.

Lillian arrived all dolled up. All her clothes date from forty years back, but the dresses are still elegant, and she’s proud that they still fit. The luncheon was held at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, and she sat beside His Eminence, who looked magnificent in his scarlet cape, biretta, sash, and gold cross. He was very courtly as they chatted, obviously so pleased to be next to Lillian that you could almost hear him saying to himself, “Imagine, here I am sitting beside Lillian Gish!”

Lillian Gish Helen Hayes and Bob Crane (Arsenic)

If this were a scene in a movie, it would be called “The Cardinal and the Star.” As the cardinal made a fuss over her, the star, too, was very animated. Then all at once she stared straight ahead, apparently puzzled. “Helen,” she asked me in a loud stage whisper, “what church is he from?”

As I grow older, I get forgetful too, but I haven’t reached that point yet. And neither had Lillian when it came to work. She’s sharp as a tack then, as I discovered when we appeared on TV together in Arsenic and Old Lace. It was a challenging production, shot live on a multilevel set that would have tested Edmund Hillary’s climbing ability.

Arsenic and Old Lace

Arsenic was one of several television and movie projects I took on in the mid-1970s. My role as Mrs. Quonsett in Airport launched a second career for me that got under way with three films for the Disney studios.

My life in three acts – Helen Hayes 1991

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