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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,160


This is the grave of Helen Hayes.

Born in 1900 in Washington, D.C., Hayes grew up in an acting environment, as her mother was a minor player in the theater. Her father was a journeyman who picked up whatever work he could get. She started acting when she was a child and became a key player in the DC theater scene as a child. She even acted in some early silents. She also grew up in a devout Irish Catholic family and went to fancy Catholic schools in New York. She made her Broadway debut at the ripe old age of 9 and toured constantly through her teen years in major plays. By 1920, it was her name on the lights in front of Broadway theaters, a huge star in that world already.

Hayes married the playwright Charles MacArthur in 1928 after a brief marriage to another man that I assume she got annulled since she was nothing if not a good Catholic girl. He got a deal to work in Hollywood and she followed him. But this was no supporting career. Hayes very quickly caught the eyes of leading Hollywood directors. Her first sound film, written by MacArthur and his partner Ben Hecht, was 1931’s The Sin of Madelon Claudet. Directed by Edgar Selwyn, Hayes was cast in the lead and won Best Actress. She was immediately Hollywood’s hottest new star and had great role after great role, most notably, at least in my opinion, in A Farewell to Arms working with Gary Cooper on the Hemingway adaptation. She also starred in Arrowsmith, the John Ford film.

Hayes could have been a huge actress in Hollywood, like a Katharine Hepburn. But after Vanessa, a Love Story, in 1935, she returned to the stage, only acting in films occasionally after that. In fact, she would not return to the screen until 1943, and that only for the World War II superstar-laden soldier film Stage Door Canteen, directed by Frank Borzage. After that, it wouldn’t be until 1952 in My Son John. Simply put, she vastly preferred the theater. In 1935, she got the lead role in the Broadway play Victoria Regina, working with Vincent Price, and that’s where she decided she belonged. She played in that role for the next three years. Among her major Broadway roles over the years included Happy Birthday, for which she won her first Tony in 1946.

Hayes became known as “the first lady of American theater” for a good reason. She was a popular, well-known actress who gave the theater world a name that more Americans knew that probably anyone else working in that genre. Moreover, she won award after award for her work. In 1955, the Fulton Theater on Broadway was named for her and became the Helen Hayes Theater in her honor. Hard to get a bigger honor than that. Eventually, that building was torn down, outraging many, but they used part of it in building the Shakespeare Center in Manhattan.

In the mid-50s, Hayes briefly retired. MacArthur’s health was not good. Even worse, their daughter had died of polio in 1949, at the age of 19. She was an aspiring actress herself and it just devastated her parents, as one can imagine. It was unclear whether she would return to acting, but in 1956, she took a role in the film Anastasia and that was her big comeback. Later in life, Hayes returned to the movies. She also did a ton of one-off theatrical performances for early television shows, which was common at the time. She stayed plenty busy with these mostly minor roles and then won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in Airport (of all things) from 1970. Then she became a stock player in Disney films as an older woman doing whatever hijinks with younger kids. That included in Herbie Rides Again, which I am sure I saw a bunch as a kid.

Hayes also just loved New York. In the late 60s, she and her friend Anita Roos decided on a project. Let’s go explore the city. Like really explore it. Go everywhere (presumably even to the more dangerous neighborhoods which at that time were a lot), and not just in Manhattan either. So they decided to go visit different groups around the city and write a book about it. That included everything from garbage collectors to people in ethnic markets. This led to their 1972 book Twice Over Lightly. She also worked with Lady Bird Johnson to found the National Wildflower Center in Austin. She was a big charity person generally and started a hospital for physical rehabilitation of disabled people.

Hayes may have been in Hollywood and New York, but she was no liberal. She was a staunch Republican and friend of Ronald Reagan. In fact, Grandpa Caligula gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1986. She was a rich woman who liked rich people. She believed that what was good for GM was good for the country. She never had patience for the leftism of the theater or of Hollywood. She was not however a robust redbaiter like Adolph Menjou or John Wayne. So at least she had a veneer of class around her conservatism.

By this time, she had to retire from the theater due to severe asthma, probably exacerbated by the amount of dust stirred up on stage. Her last play was in 1970, when she co-starred with Jimmy Stewart in Harvey. So she went to her books, writing one about her daughter’s death and another about how she returned to Catholicism after many years of being denied communism because MacArthur was both divorced and a Protestant. I struggle to see why one would return to a religion that had rejected you because of your incredibly reasonable life choices, but then I will never understand Catholicism, and that’s after being married into a Catholic family for the last 11 years. The next time she appeared on stage was in 1985 for a one-off reading of A Christmas Carol.

Hayes died in 1993, at the age of 92.

Helen Hayes is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery, Nyack, New York.

Here’s a few available YouTube clips of Hayes’ work.

If you would like this series to visit other nominees for the 1971 Best Supporting Actress Oscar, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Karen Black is in Glendale, California and Maureen Stapleton is in Troy, New York. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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