It’s fitting that Helen Hayes was born and raised in Washington, D.C. Not only did her talent and acclaim earn her the unofficial title of First Lady of the American Theatre, her name also graces the annual awards given to the best theatre in the city. Indeed, Hayes is loaded with major distinctions, including having a Broadway theatre named in her honor and being one of the few performers to earn Tony, Oscar, Emmy, and Grammy Awards. Apart from her obvious talent and acclaim, Hayes is also remembered as a philanthropist who applied herself to many causes despite facing numerous hardships throughout her own personal life. In fact, when the theatre community in Washington, D.C. was facing a major turning point, Hayes was there pushing for progress, even though it meant pushing against The National Theatre leadership.
Helen Hayes was born October 10th, 1900, to mother Essie and father Frank. Hayes was part of a family that loved to perform. Essie was an actress herself, and her great-aunt Catherine had been a famous singer in Ireland – a rival, in fact, to the great Jenny Lind. Essie enjoyed life on tour but struggled with her lack of success and boredom at home, sometimes turning to drink to ease her pain. Thankfully, she also found an outlet in nurturing Helen’s career. After shepherding her daughter through the early stages of her theatrical training, she sent Helen to New York to audition for Lew Fields, a successful comedian, who cast the then eight-year-old Helen in her first major part. Hayes was an instant hit and was soon touring the country as the lead in Pollyanna and winning acclaim on Broadway in Dear Brutus, which opened just a few months after her eighteenth birthday. This was the beginning of an enormously successful career that included numerous Broadway and touring engagements. Despite her success, Hayes sought greater control over her own affairs and eventually parted company with George C. Tyler, her producer, in order to join Actors’ Equity, the union for working actors, a risky and influential move at the time. With her theatre career buzzing, Hayes took her first trip out to Hollywood to star in the 1931 film The Sin of Madelon Claudet, for which she won the first of two Oscars. This made her the first major stage actress to win an Academy Award, and opened the door for her to work with some of Hollywood’s leading figures, including Clark Gable, John Barrymore, and Robert Montgomery.
Despite instant success in film, Hayes’s true love was the theatre. For a time, the First Lady of the American Theatre showed special aptitude for playing royals, including Mary Stuart in Mary of Scotland and Queen Victoria in Victoria Regina. The latter enjoyed a highly successful run at The National and earned enormous praise from critics – as well as the granddaughter of Queen Victoria herself, who found Hayes’s performance uncannily accurate. In addition to finding success on major stages throughout the country, Hayes also found her husband, a playwright named Charles MacArthur. The two met at a party and Hayes was instantly smitten with him. Sadly, MacArthur was drawn overseas during World War II and returned with a serious alcohol addiction. The couple had two children, a daughter Mary and adopted son James, but lost Mary to polio. This worsened Charles’s addiction and hastened his death in 1956. Having lost a husband and a child, Hayes poured herself into touring around the country while also making appearances in film and television, earning further awards and acclaim. Eventually, her own health became an issue and she was forced to retire from stage acting in 1971, the same year the film Airport, which earned her a second Oscar, was released. She continued to make appearances on screen well into her 80s.
In addition to enjoying a rich and varied career, Hayes also applied herself to a number of philanthropic causes. This included serving as a spokesperson for Meals on Wheels, helping to raise funds for the polio vaccine, and collaborating with Lady Bird Johnson, the former First Lady, on a center for the preservation of wildflowers. It was in 1947, however, that her drive to do good was put to the test by none other than The National Theatre itself. At the time, The National was one of many theatres in the city that openly discriminated against Black patrons and limited their access to productions. That year, Hayes joined other leading theatre makers in signing a pledge condemning these discriminatory practices. The pledge read:
“I condemn and decry the practice of discrimination in the theatre as an action completely in disagreement with all basic principles of the profession. As a first step to combat this evil, I will not knowingly contract to perform in any play in any theatre in the city of Washington which practices such discrimination toward either audience.“
Unfortunately, The National leadership refused to change their policies, supposedly until more widespread antidiscrimination measures were adopted by the city. This eventually lead to the theatre closing down and converting to a movie house. Thankfully, it later reopened as a fully integrated theatre, and Hayes made several auspicious returns, including as a special guest following the extensive remodeling completed in 1985. You can learn more about the fight for desegregation by visiting National Theatre, National Politics.
Helen Hayes died at the age of 92 having already overseen the establishment of the Helen Hayes Awards. It was a fitting tribute considering her career was laden with prizes, including a lifetime achievement Tony, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the National Medal of Arts. In addition to her obvious career success, Hayes leaves behind a legacy of dedication to her craft and to the betterment of others. Few performers graced The National as often and as effectively as her, and fewer still are as beloved even to this day.
From the Archives
Helen Hayes was a consummate actress who played a variety of rich, challenging roles throughout her long career. By the time The National began featuring leading performers on its programs in the late 1930s, Hayes was already one of the most celebrated actresses in the country, making her an obvious star to spotlight. In this section, you’ll see six programs featuring Hayes stretching across twenty years. From left to right, top to bottom: Hayes as Viola in Twelfth Night, which played at The National in March of 1941; as Madeline Guest in Candle in the Wind, October 1941; as author Harriet Beecher Stowe in Harriet, February 1943; as Mrs. Howard V. Larue III in Mrs. McThing, March 1953; as the Duchess of Pont-au-Bronc in Time Remembered, October 1957; and taking on multiple classic roles in The American Repertory Company tour, February-March 1961. This selection deftly illustrates Hayes’s range, which took in classics and contemporary works, comedies and dramas, real-life figures and fictional heroines. Fun fact: when doing shows “in repertory,” the actors are expected to know roles in several different plays at once and play them on alternating performances. Therefore, the American Repertory Company tour Hayes embarked on in 1961 would have had her stretching a different part of her range every night!
“About the Artist: Biography of Helen Hayes.” KennedyCenter.org. The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, accessed 11 February, 2021, http://www.kennedy-center.org/calendar/index.cfm?fuseaction=showIndividual&entitY_id=3739&source_type=A.
Allen, Norman. “Helen Hayes: A Remembrance.” TheatreWashington Blog. TheatreWashington, 1 April, 2014, http://theatrewashington.org/content/helen-hayes-remembrance.
Barrow, Kenneth. Helen Hayes: First Lady of the American Theatre. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985.
“Biography.” The Official Website of Helen Hayes. Helen Hayes Estate, accessed 11 February, 2021, http://www.helenhayes.com/about/bio.htm.
Lee, Douglas Bennett, Roger L. Meersman, and Donn B. Murphy. Stage for a Nation: The National Theatre, 150 Years. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985.
Pace, Eric. “Helen Hayes, Flower of the Stage, Dies at 92.” The New York Times Online. The New York Times, 18 March, 1993, https://www.nytimes.com/1993/03/18/obituaries/helen-hayes-flower-of-the-stage-dies-at-92.html.