NYACK, N.Y. — "Ah, that's our mockingbird," Helen Hayes says. She is sitting on the porch of the white Victorian house she and Charles MacArthur bought nearly 60 years ago. There is indeed a lovely liquid trilling to be heard in the trees. "He likes to join the conversation," she says.
It is a warm spring morning but the sun has not yet burned the haze off the Hudson below, giving the river a soft and timeless look that you can imagine Ichabod Crane and boatloads of patroons gazed upon in their time.
In the '60s, having lost both her husband and her daughter Mary and with her actor son James MacArthur newly married and living elsewhere, Hayes put the house, with its 18 rooms and its tall and spacious windows providing stunning views of the river, up for sale.
Local rowdies were sneaking into the swimming pool on the slope below the house at midnight and having raucous beer and sex parties. But her neighbors were so appalled at the idea of her leaving that they picketed the house. The developers who had planned to buy and convert it were scared off; the town got its rowdies under control and Helen Hayes continues to have the joy of her memento-filled home.
"My paintings are the Hudson River School," she says. "I sold all my snob paintings years ago--long before their prices went crazy, as is my wont."
Helen Hayes is one of the glories of American acting, a link in her lifetime and theirs between the theater of Lew Fields and Victor Herbert and of Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams (the two greatest, she believes). In a country and a profession that loves superlatives, she was being called "the first lady of the American theater" in the mid-'30s, after her triumph as Queen Victoria in "Victoria Regina." It made her uncomfortable, she says, because there were a few other first ladies around, among them Laurette Taylor, Katherine Cornell and Ina Claire.
Hayes will be 90 in October and she says with considerable firmness that she is retired. Late-blooming asthma cut short her stage career. "I've been deprived of that," she says sadly. And while there are still polite inquiries from films and television, she says, "I wouldn't take a part. I've never been happy with anything I've ever done that I could see later. Acting for that little red light-- oooooh! I watch things on the little screen and I say, 'Oh, why didn't they let me do that again?' "
Early in her career she was under contract to MGM but she never really felt at home in Hollywood. When the contract was up, she left with relief. "I don't think I'm much good in pictures," she said at the time, "and I have this beautiful dream that I'm elegant on stage." Yet she won an Academy Award as best actress for her first screen role in "The Sin of Madelon Claudet" in 1931 and another as best supporting actress for her role as the stowaway in "Airport" in 1970--a span which is at least one measure of one of the longest and most honored careers in American acting.
Hayes has just now published an autobiography--"Helen Hayes: My Life in Three Acts" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $19.95)--written in collaboration with Katherine Hatch, a friend who lives in Cuernavaca, where Hayes also has a house and spends part of the year.
She had written earlier memoirs, including "A Gift of Joy" and "On Reflection" in the '60s, and the new one was intended to be "Helen Hayes' Mexico," or some such, stories and impressions of a country she loves. She didn't think it came off but sent it to Anita Loos' agent, a mutual friend, as a courtesy to her co-author. The agent found the publisher, but the changes that were requested amounted to a new book.
"I talked it," she says, and sent the tapes to Hatch, who polished the words into shape, carefully preserving Hayes' own tone, which is energetic and cheerful but remarkably candid about herself and her associates.
The blessings of seniority are not without number, but one of them is a refreshing freedom to let candor reign. She speaks of Lee Strasberg and the Actors Studio, "which I blame for many of the things wrong with the American theater then and now." There is a devastating portrait of Joan Crawford, reaffirming many of the things Christina wrote in "Mommy Dearest." (Hayes tried to send a gift to Christina, who had been forced to spend the summer at her boarding school, the only child in residence. Crawford's secretary said the mother did not want her daughter to have any gifts. Hayes sent one anyway, but doesn't know if Christina ever got it.)
There is an acid-etched portrait of Richard Burton, with whom she worked on Broadway in "Time Remembered." Hayes became what she calls an "unwilling auditeur " to Burton's noisy lovemaking with Susan Strasberg in the next dressing room. (Strasberg has written about the destructive relationship in her own memoir, "Bittersweet.")