Helen Hayes, the "First Lady of American stage," as she was called by the audiences she captivated with her talent, grace, and charm, is best known for playing the roles of Queen Victoria and Mary, Queen of Scots.
Hayes was born in 1900, in Washington, DC, to Francis Van Arnum and Catherine Estelle Brown. Her father worked as a manager and salesman for a wholesale butcher. Her mother was an actress with different touring companies, but was deeply frustrated by her unfulfilled dreams of becoming famous. Hayes was influenced by her mother and maternal grandmother to become an actress herself.
Hayes made her first stage appearance as a student in Miss Minnie Hawkes'dancing school playing a Gibson Girl at the school's May ball. She joined the Columbia Players, a Washington, DC company, in 1905. At age 5. she made her professional debut as Prince Charles in The Royal Family. Little did she know she would go on to portray other members of royalty in many distinguished roles to come.
In 1909, Hayes made her New York debut at the Herald Square Theater as Little Mime in Lew Fields' production of Old Dutch. She, then, went back to Washington, DC to enter the Academy of Sacred Heart Convent, from which she graduated in 1917. Soon after her graduation, Hayes opened as the lead in Pollyanna and toured the country during the 1917-18 season.
From 1922 to 1924, Hayes performed in a production of To the Ladies both in New York and on tour. Next, she played in Oliver Goldsmith's ribald 18th century comedy She Stoops to Conquer. In 1925, she played Cleopatra in Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra.
Hayes met the man who would become her husband, Charles MacArthur, just before playing Cleopatra. They were married in 1928 and had several children. She stated once that she handled the raising of her children "like it was another role to learn" because she wanted to be "the best mother there was."
Hayes's performance as Maggie Wylie in J.M. Barrie's What Every Woman Knows created a huge sensation. She made her feature film debut in 1931, starring in The Sin of Madelon Claudet, a role that won her an Oscar for Best Actress. Also, that year, she played opposite Gary Cooper in the film version of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.
In late 1933, Hayes opened in her legendary role as Mary Stuart in Mary of Scotland. The play was written by Maxwell Anderson, especially for her. Her next role as royalty was offered to her in 1935. On December 12 of that year, she opened in Baltimore as Queen Victoria in Victoria Regina. Soon, the play moved to the Broadhurst Theater on Broadway and ran for 123 weeks. The produciton continued to break box office records when Hayes took it on a tour of 43 cities in the United States.
The role of Queen Victoria was a demanding one, in which Hayes had to age 82 years in two and one-half hours. She performed the role an astounding 969 times in four years. Asked many years later about how she prepared for the role of Victoria, Hayes said her grandmother, a devotee of Queen Victoria, had always worn the bonnet that was high Victorian fashion and conducted herself like her idol. Hayes would imagine her grandmother every night when she played the role.
In 1939, Hayes played in Ladies and Gentlemen, a play her husband wrote with Ben Hecht. She always said that her husband helped her in every role she ever played by teaching her his approach to acting, which was a belief that nothing should be overstated, but instead, it should be "concise and to the point".
Hayes produced and acted in "Helen Hayes Theater" on the CBS Radio Network from September 1940 to December 1941. In a 1941 national poll, she was voted radio's best actress. In March of 1944, she brilliantly played another historical figure, Harriet Beecher Stowe, on stage for seven months.
On July 28, 1946, Hayes made her London debut, as Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie, by Tennessee Williams. Several years later, she starred in another hit, Mrs. McThing, as Mrs. Howard V. LaRue. Her performance was hailed as "funny," "moving," and "altogether superb."
On November 21, 1955, New York's Fulton Theater was renamed in her honor. She continued to perform for the next 15 years with same creativity that made her famous. She won an Academy Award in 1970, for her role in Airport, making her the only actress ever to win Academy Awards in both the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories.
Hayes gave her final stage performance in 1971, in Long Day's Journey Into Night. It was at this time that she revealed that she was allergic to dust and that she had been hospitalized for brief periods during every one of her stage performances in the last 30 years. In the middle of her run in Long Day's Journey, her doctor ordered her to quit the stage or she would surely die.
Hayes kept herself busy during the following years by starring in a television series called "The Snoop Sisters" and by writing four books: Star on Her Forehead, On Reflection, Twice Over Lightly, and A Gift of Joy. She continued to be in the public eye as spokesperson for Meals on Wheels and presiding over the annual Helen Hayes Awards for theater in Washington, DC. She also appeared on television and in movies, including Disney's Candleshoe with Jodie Foster in 1977 and a pair of TV movie versions of Agatha Christie's A Caribbean Mystery and Murder With Mirrors in the mid-1980s.
The many awards she won during her career include three Tony awards--one for Happy Birthday (1947), one for Time Remebered (1958), and a special one for career achievement (1980), the two Oscars mentioned earlier, an Emmy for her work in television (1952), and a Grammy for her recording of the Bill of Rights (1976). Hayes died in Nyack, New York at the age of 92.