Irish-American stage and film actress Helen Hayes (1900-1993), On Reflection: An Autobiography (1968)
Helen Hayes—born 120 years ago today in Washington, DC—was trying in the above quote to convey her unique burden as “The First Lady of American Theater.” But she may as well have been talking about the psychic (and often physical) demands of any star carrying a play.
Many stars stagger under this yoke. But Hayes was made of tougher stuff. She got her instinct for acting from her mother, Essie, an actress with a third-rate troupe (“the Liberty Belles”) who hoped her daughter could have the stage career she couldn’t, and her unpretentious manner from her father, a salesman for a wholesale meat company.
Until her mid-20s, Helen was under the control of producer George Tyler, who did not allow her to socialize with other actors. Her decision to join Actors Equity, rather than the producer-friendly union that Tyler favored, the Fidelity League, marked the moment of her real independence.
Not long after this, the sheltered actress met, at one of the parties she began to attend, Charles MacArthur, the playwright-screenwriter who co-wrote The Front Page and Twentieth Century. He presented her with a bag of peanuts, telling her, “I wish they were emeralds.”
It was the least likely of matches—the son of a Protestant minister, he had grown up to be a prankster, a tall, charming womanizer, and friend of the Algonquin Round Table wits (including Dorothy Parker, with whom he had an affair leading to an abortion); she, a devout Catholic, convent-educated, awkward when not on stage, and descended from a Famine emigrant. Despite all of their differences, they were devoted to each other, marrying in 1928.
They represented theatrical royalty, an image reinforced in her maturity, with her roles in Victoria Regina, playing the British monarch from teen to ailing old woman, and The White House, appearing as several First Ladies.
Still, she was frank in later life about the difficulties in her marriage, including the loss of their 17-year-old daughter, Mary, to polio and Charlie’s alcoholic spiral after that. (The couple adopted their other child: James MacArthur, “Dano” of TV’s original Hawaii Five-O.)
Helen and Charlie maintained a New York City apartment and the more palatial “Pretty Penny” (nicknamed, the most common story goes, because of its hefty price tag), in Nyack, in Rockland County. (Rosie O’Donnell briefly owned the Italianate-style estate after Hayes’ death.)
Hayes began her 70-year theater career at age six and made her Broadway debut when she was eight. At age 19, with a fistful of credits, her name was suggested to Eugene O’Neill for the principal female role in his autobiographical play The Straw. The playwright, not knowing who she was, was initially skeptical about her ability or insight into his tragedy—not realizing that her Irish background and her parents’ troubled marriage gave her more understanding of his characters than he could ever imagine.
In time, she demonstrated this affinity—and the playwright revised his opinion of her—after her appearance in a radio version of The Straw. Had he lived to see it, O’Neill would also have loved Hayes in the posthumous A Touch of the Poet, as well as her last stage triumph, the 1971 Kennedy Center production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night, when she played the thinly fictionalized version of O’Neill’s morphine-addicted mother. She died at age 92 on St. Patrick’s Day, 1993.
There is another Hayes quote from On Reflection that I am fond of. Decidedly unsentimental, it not only applies to her but also to the nature of creative achievement in general:
“This is the day of instant genius. Everybody starts at the top, and then has the problem of staying there. Lasting accomplishment, however, is still achieved through a long, slow climb and self-discipline.”
(The picture accompanying this post shows Hayes with Gary Cooper in the 1932 screen adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Despite the restrictions of censors, the two stars are better matched and more vibrant than the two who took over their roles in the 1957 remake, Jennifer Jones and Rock Hudson.)