Best known for her Academy Award winning roles in The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931) and Airport (1970).
The Weavers of Life
The Dancing Town
The White Sister
Crime Without Passion
This Side of Heaven
What Every Woman Knows
Vanessa: Her Love Story
Hollywood Goes to Town
Stage Door Canteen
My Son John
Main Street to Broadway
Third Man on the Mountain
The Challenge of Ideas
Herbie Rides Again
One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing
From your parents you learn love and laughter and how to put one foot in front of the other. But when books are opened, you discover you have wings. ~Helen Hayes
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.
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 the age of ten, she had made a short film called Jean and the Calico Doll, but moved to Hollywood many years later when her husband, playwright Charles MacArthur, signed a Hollywood deal. Helen attended Dominican Academy’s prestigious primary school, located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, from 1910 to 1912 during which she appeared in The Old Dutch, Little Lord Fauntleroy, as well as 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 actor Gary Cooper, whom Hayes admitted to finding extremely attractive), The White Sister (opposite Clark Gable), What Every Woman Knows (a reprise from her Broadway hit), and Vanessa: Her Love Story. However, Hayes did not prefer that medium to the stage.
Hayes eventually returned to Broadway in 1935, where for three years she played the title role in the Gilbert Miller 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 with 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. 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 the death of her daughter Mary, and her husband’s failing health.
Hayes, who spoke with her good friend Anita Loos almost daily on the phone, remarked to her friend “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.” With that, she convinced her friend to embark on an exploration of all five boroughs of New York. They visited and explored the off-the-beaten track of the city; Bellevue Hospital at night, riding a tug boat hauling garbage out to sea, they went to 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.
Hayes wrote three memoirs: A Gift of Joy, On Reflection, and My Life in Three Acts. Some of the themes in these books include her return to Roman Catholicism (she had been denied communion from the Church for the length of her marriage to Charles MacArthur, who was a divorced Protestant); and the death of her only daughter, Mary (1930–1949), who was an aspiring actress, from polio at the age of 19. Hayes’s adopted son, James MacArthur (1937–2010), went on to a career in acting, starring in Hawaii Five-O on television.
Hayes was hospitalized a number of times for her asthma condition, which was aggravated by stage dust, forcing her to retire from legitimate theater in 1971, at age 71.
Her last Broadway show was a 1970 revival of Harvey, in which she co-starred with James Stewart. Clive Barnes wrote, “She epitomizes flustered charm almost as if it were a style of acting … She is one of those actors … where to watch how she is doing something is almost as pleasurable as what she is doing.” She spent most of her last years writing and raising money for organizations that fight asthma.
Hayes died on St. Patrick’s Day, 1993, from congestive heart failure in Nyack, New York. Hayes was interred in the Oak Hill Cemetery, Nyack, New York.
Diminutive and homespun, Helen Hayes was distinctly less glamorous than the other Great Ladies, but the qualities of modesty and practicality that she projected helped create her lasting appeal. Hayes was a stage star for five decades before retiring, when she continued to act occasionally on film, television, and radio.