Helen Hayes: A Remembrance

I’ve been working in the Washington theatre community for two decades now, which means I’m just a few years shy of actually seeing Helen Hayes at the Helen Hayes Awards. I wish I’d been there back in 1992, when she made her last appearance, at the age of 91. More than that, I wished I’d seen her at work, creating a role, moving an audience as only she could.

It’s easy to forget, in 2015, who Helen Hayes was, what she stood for, and why her name brings such honor to the awards that bear it. A native of Washington, DC, she was born with the century, on October 10, 1900. She won her first Oscar 30 years later for The Sin of Madelon Claudet, and a second Oscar 40 years after that, when she stole the show in the disaster flick Airport. Along the way she snagged three Tony Awards, an Emmy, and a Grammy.

You can catch her on film, of course. Her work as the Dowager Empress in Anastasia (1956) is a good place to start. In A Farewell to Arms (1932) she brings a rare complexity to that unique acting style that came with the birth of the talkies. For a special treat, check out this clip from her 1969 TV appearance in Arsenic and Old Lace, opposite a giddy Lillian Gish: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=To2WjoF45u4

It’s the stage work that matters, though, and that we can only imagine. Without even visiting my shelves of theatre books, I can conjure images in my mind from her work in The Skin of Our Teeth, The Wisteria Trees (a Southern replanting of The Cherry Orchard), Happy Birthday, and Victoria Regina, in which she played Queen Victoria from her crowning as a teenager to her death at 81.

As a playwright I’m especially drawn to the work of James Barrie, best known for Peter Pan. So I especially wish that I could step back in time and see Helen Hayes in his heartbreaking Dear Brutus (at just 18), or in What Every Woman Knows, and Alice Sit By The Fire. But Barrie wasn’t Helen Hayes’s favorite playwright. That honor fell to husband Charles MacArthur.

The author of The Front Page first approached the young actress at a swanky theatre party, where her natural shyness kept her on the sidelines. He offered her a handful of peanuts, said, “I wish they were emeralds,” and hooked his leading lady. I took special pleasure in receiving my Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play (In the Garden, 2002), from a pair of presenters: local playwright John Strand and actor James MacArthur, son of Helen and Charles.

The middle decades of the last century saw a wealth of great leading ladies. There was the volatile Tallulah Bankhead, the queenly Katharine Cornell, the swank Lynne Fontanne. Helen Hayes, though, can’t be nailed down with a single adjective. There’s a natural sweetness to her demeanor, but it’s a sweetness that could encompass the wiles of Cleopatra, the passion of Mary Stuart, and the hesitance of Mary Tyrone.

Betti Brown, who knew Hayes well during her years as executive director of the Awards, told me, “People ask who she really was, but she was exactly what you thought and hoped she would be. She was smart. She was funny. She was savvy.” Brown keeps a box of cards and letters that Hayes sent her over the years. “I take them out every once in a while,” she says, “and I just cry.”

The Helen Hayes Awards has thrived for three decades, including the two since their champion’s passing. It seems appropriate to take a moment to express our deep gratitude to the actress who helped get it all started, and who gave this worthy endeavor her name. For many of us, it’s also a chance to look back with longing for an experience of skill and artistry that is now lost in the past.