“The First Lady of The American Theatre”

Helen Hayes …

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Photo: Lillian Gish and Helen Hayes, New York, November 29, 1975

Helen Hayes – Helen Hayes MacArthur (née Brown; October 10, 1900 – March 17, 1993) was an American actress whose career spanned 80 years. She eventually garnered the nickname “First Lady of American Theatre” and was one of 12 people who have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony Award (an EGOT). Hayes also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, from President Ronald Reagan in 1986. In 1988, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts. The annual Helen Hayes Awards, which have recognized excellence in professional theatre in greater Washington, DC, since 1984, are her namesake.

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Photo: Helen Hayes, Anita Loos. Lillian Gish and Lionel Barrymore – 1945

In 1955, the former Fulton Theatre on 46th Street in New York City’s Broadway Theater District was renamed the Helen Hayes Theatre. When that venue was torn down in 1982, the nearby Little Theatre was renamed in her honor. Helen Hayes is regarded as one of the Greatest Leading Ladies of the 20th-century theatre. Helen Hayes Brown was born in Washington, D.C., on October 10, 1900. Her mother, Catherine Estelle (née Hayes), or Essie, was an aspiring actress who worked in touring companies. Her father, Francis van Arnum Brown, worked at a number of jobs, including as a clerk at the Washington Patent Office and as a manager and salesman for a wholesale butcher. Hayes’s Catholic maternal grandparents emigrated from Ireland during the Irish Potato Famine. Hayes began a stage career at an early age. She said her stage debut was as a five-year-old singer at Washington’s Belasco Theatre, on Lafayette Square, across from the White House. By age ten, she had made a short film, Jean and the Calico Doll (1910), but moved to Hollywood only when her husband, playwright Charles MacArthur, signed a Hollywood deal.

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Photo: James MacArthur New-york-USA 19 jun 1960 (Lillian Gish second and Helen Hayes fourth from left)

Hayes attended Dominican Academy’s prestigious primary school, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, from 1910 to 1912, appearing there in The Old Dutch, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and other performances. She attended the Academy of the Sacred Heart Convent in Washington and graduated in 1917. Her sound film debut was The Sin of Madelon Claudet, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. She followed that with starring roles in Arrowsmith (with Ronald Colman), A Farewell to Arms (with Gary Cooper), The White Sister (opposite Clark Gable), What Every Woman Knows (a reprise of her Broadway hit), and Vanessa: Her Love Story. But Hayes did not prefer film to the stage. Hayes eventually returned to Broadway in 1935, where for three years she played the title role in Gilbert Miller’s production of Victoria Regina, with Vincent Price as Prince Albert, first at the Broadhurst Theatre and later at the Martin Beck Theatre. In 1951, she was involved in the Broadway revival of J.M. Barrie’s play Mary Rose at the ANTA Playhouse. In 1953, she was the first-ever recipient of the Sarah Siddons Award for her work in Chicago theatre, repeating as the winner in 1969.

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Photo: Lillian Gish and Helen Hayes – New York City in 1963

She returned to Hollywood in the 1950s, and her film star began to rise. She starred in My Son John (1952) and Anastasia (1956), and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as an elderly stowaway in the disaster film Airport (1970). She followed that up with several roles in Disney films such as Herbie Rides Again, One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing and Candleshoe. Her performance in Anastasia was considered a comeback—she had suspended her career for several years due to her daughter Mary’s death and her husband’s failing health. In 1955, the Fulton Theatre was renamed for her. In the 1980s, business interests wished to raze that theatre and four others to construct a large hotel that included the Marquis Theatre. Hayes’s consent to raze the theatre named for her was sought and given, though she had no ownership interest in the building. Parts of the original Helen Hayes Theatre on Broadway were used to construct the Shakespeare Center on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which Hayes dedicated with Joseph Papp in 1982. In 1983 the Little Theater on West 45th Street was renamed the Helen Hayes Theatre in her honor, as was a theatre in Nyack, which has since been renamed the Riverspace-Arts Center. In early 2014, the site was refurbished and styled by interior designer Dawn Hershko and reopened as the Playhouse Market, a quaint restaurant and gourmet deli. Book written by Helen Hayes in 1971-72 with friend Anita Loos. Hayes, who spoke with her good friend Anita Loos almost daily on the phone, told her, “I used to think New York was the most enthralling place in the world. I’ll bet it still is and if I were free next summer, I would prove it.”

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Photo: Lillian Gish and Helen Hayes – Memorial for Alfred Lunt (NY Post)

With that, she convinced Loos to embark on an exploration of all five boroughs of New York. They visited and explored the city; Bellevue Hospital at night, a tugboat hauling garbage out to sea, parties, libraries, and Puerto Rican markets. They spoke to everyday people to see how they lived their lives and what made the city tick. The result of this collaborative effort was the book “Twice Over Lightly”, published in 1972. It is unclear when or by whom Hayes was called the “First Lady of the Theatre”. Her friend, actress Katharine Cornell, also held that title, and each thought the other deserved it.

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Photo: 11.29.75 New York. St. James Theatre, following a matinee performance (Lillian Gish and Helen Hayes).

One critic said Cornell played every queen as though she were a woman, whereas Hayes played every woman as though she were a queen. In 1982, with friend Lady Bird Johnson, she founded the National Wildflower Research Center, now the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas. The center protects and preserves North America’s native plants and natural landscapes. The Helen Hayes Award for theater in the Washington, DC, area is named in her honor. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6220 Hollywood Blvd. Hayes is also in the American Theatre Hall of Fame. Hayes died on March 17, 1993, of congestive heart failure in Nyack, New York. Lillian Gish, the “First Lady of American Cinema”, made Hayes the designated beneficiary of her estate, but Hayes survived her by less than a month. Hayes was interred in Oak Hill Cemetery in Nyack. In 2011, she was honored with a US postage stamp.

  • Photo Gallery: Miss Lillian Gish and Helen Hayes

 

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