Essential Helen Hayes: comedienne

This is the first part of a two-day viewpoint on the late Helen Hayes, “first lady of the American theater” and one of Nyack’s most famous residents. It is authored, with unique perspective, by an expert in the theater.

Elliott Sirkin

Originally published in The Rockland County Journal News, Oct 15-16 2003.

She once told me she wanted to live to be a hundred. In point of fact, Helen Hayes, whose 103rd birthday we celebrated last week, actually did live to be a very formidable 93. Her nine decade were as heavily freighted with triumph as they were with heartbreak. But as an actress, a citizen, and a family woman, she lived all nine of them with a rugged kindness and a hearty candor that were as typical of the Broadway of her era as they were of a great many American women in her time.

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1900, the daughter of a genial poultry salesman and his alcoholic, stage-struck wife, Helen Hayes started acting on Broadway when she was 6. Almost from the start, critics complained of the cute and saccharine strain in her performances, qualities that, in old age, would make her acutely depressing in terrible Disney movies and films like “Airport” But by the time she was 30, she was widely considered America’s foremost stage star and spent the next 55 years, until her retirement in 1985, with the label “first lady of the American theater” securely fixed to her name. The designation turned out to be controversial, but, finally, appropriate.

In her prime, the era of what was known as the day of the female matinee idol, almost all her peers were more seductive, polished, beautiful and accomplished that she. She herself once told me that she considered the glamorous comedienne Lynn Fontanne and the celebrated tragedienne Laurette Taylor, both charismatic and brilliant, better actresses than she ever was. But in the years from around 1930 to 1950, although she was just a dainty little sparrow of a woman, one who eschewed life in Manhattan for the comforts of her home in Nyack, she really did rule the Broadway stage.

When she tried Shakespeare (in “Twelfth Night” and “The Merchant of Venice”) she was considered mediocre, and a youthful stab at Shaw’s “Cleopatra” also tanked. But at her zenith, acting in the kind of literate, well-written, unpretentious biographical drama that has now effectively disappeared from the American theater, she played historical figures as different as Queen Victoria, Harriet Beecher Stowe and even Mary Stuart to the satisfaction of her era’s toughest critics.

Yet she was primarily, almost fundamentally, a comedienne, and if she had a signature role, it must have been her poignant interpretation of the classic, harried suburban all-American mother, Maggie Antrobus, in a 1955 all-star revival of Thornton Wilder’s “The Skin of Our Teeth.” Given in the fast company of Mary Martin and George Abbot, her funny, moving, sometimes almost operatically expansive performance survives today on the kinescope of an NBC broadcast. Anyone who really wishes to see what Helen Hayes was capable of as an actress can see it privately at the Museum of TV and Radio in New York, whenever they like.

Her husband, Charles MacArthur, perennially joked that hers was the first name “on every sucker list.” And, seldom queenly or remote in her offstage manner, from the time she first became a star, Helen Hayes was always giving a hefty slice of her life to some good cause or other, whether it was Indian rights in the 1930s or compassion for AIDS victims in the ’80s. Although paralyzed with her own grief when a beloved daughter died of polio in 1949, she became national chairman of volunteers for the March of Dimes, and was instrumental in convincing the nation’s parents, afraid of the then-controversial Salk vaccine, to have their children inoculated.

In religion, Helen Hayes was a devout Catholic, and in politics, an almost life-long Republican. Basically a political naif, in the era of Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare, her conservative leanings got her in trouble, and she gave one of her few truly ridiculous performances in the vulgar anti-Communist spy film “My Son John” (1952). Today, she would probably be classified as a religious conservative. But whatever her views, she always held herself to the highest standards of ethics, morality and truthfulness, and in the 1970s was genuinely outraged by her party’s Watergate disgrace.

TOMORROW: What makes an actress the theater’s “first lady?”

The writer, of North Cambridge, Mass. is a graduate of the Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University. He was acquainted with Helen Hayes for seven years.

What made the theater’s ‘first lady’

This is the second part of a two-day viewpoint on the late Helen Hayes, “first lady of the American theater” and one of Nyack’s most famous residents. It is authored, with unique perspective, by an expert in the theater.

Elliott Sirkin

In 1984, when I first met Helen Hayes, she told me she thought she finally had the good and the bad in her life “all balanced out in my heart and mind.” But I always sensed that when it came to what really had meant the most to her, her home life, Helen Hayes was haunted by terrible demons, not only of regret, but also of self-reproach, and considered herself something of a failure.

Her playwright husband Charles MacArthur died at 60, a broken man in almost every way. And, in her writings, as well as in conversation, she always seemed obliquely to blame her actress’ egotism—what she referred to me as her “damned self-importance”—at least partly for her husband’s slow decline into the alcoholism and depression that culminated in his death from liver failure in 1956.

Because our first interview came at the zenith of second-wave feminism, I remember naturally asking her about her thoughts on how a woman could combine a career and a family. Her reply was surprising: Basically she thought it was impossible. She had, she thought, shortchanged her family, especially the daughter who had died so young.

Fittingly enough, her favorite part, the one that, in revival, first made her a 1920s Broadway star, was as the heroine in “What Every Woman Knows,” James M. Barrie’s charming 1908 view of a shrewdly instinctual Victorian political wife. In the last of her many memoirs, she summarized why this one play would always have so much meaning for her. “Feminism has its virtues,” she wrote, “but J.M. Barrie glorified a quiet woman who knows what every woman knows: That she can be the power behind her man.”

Now, when the theater lacks the elephantine resources to create media stars on the same order as those in the movies and on TV, two media which Helen Hayes loved to refer to as “canned goods,” another stage first lady may never succeed her. If you take a look at the present dowagers of American acting, all of them significantly associated with films and filmmaking, it is extraordinary to realize that you would have to combine all four of them just to make one Helen Hayes.

Elizabeth Taylor has her strength of heart, and public-spiritedness, and Shirley MacLaine has similar gifts as a comedienne—just as Debbie Reynolds has some of the Hayes hardheaded charm and Joanne Woodward has something like her devotion to the values of family. But none of them has all the attributes that made Helen Hayes such an extraordinary figure in American life and culture, and it’s very unlikely that anyone else ever will.

Helen Hayes was as unique in the genuineness of her circumscribed talent as she was in the purity of her bottomless heart. In the end, if you knew her, you also knew how true the words of the playwright Marc Connelly about her really were. Goodness, he said, literally shone out of her.

The writer, of North Cambridge, Mass. is a graduate of the Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University. He was acquainted with Helen Hayes for seven years.