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Helen Hayes, Legend of U.S. Theater, Dies

March 18, 1993|PATT MORRISON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Helen Hayes, the diminutive and demure grande dame of the American theater, whose 87 years of stage, film and television performances--as tots, ingenues, queens, nuns and matriarchs--earned her the enduring affection of four generations, died Wednesday. She was 92.

She had been brought to Nyack Hospital in that New York City suburb and admitted March 8 for treatment of congestive heart failure.

Her family was with her when she died, a hospital spokeswoman said.

Miss Hayes' twin careers entranced her public. Her acting brought her two Academy Awards and Broadway's highest acclaim--a theater named for her. And then there was her exemplary personal life, as wife, mother, Catholic and a dedicated volunteer for medical research and the elderly, a civic campaign she embarked on after her only daughter, Mary, died of polio at age 19.

Perhaps the last of America's great ladies of the stage, the Washington-born actress, who stood 5-feet-nothing and once described herself to a magazine as "a little Irish biddy," also managed, without tiger skins or tantrums, to outlast and usually out-act Hollywood's ferociously slinky glamour queens on their own film turf.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 19, 1993 Home Edition Part A Page 3 Column 6 Metro Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Helen Hayes--A caption in some editions of Thursday's Times mistakenly said Vincent Price appeared with Helen Hayes in a movie version of "Victoria Regina." They appeared together in the 1935 stage version.

Offstage, Miss Hayes' life was every bit as ladylike--although not always such smooth sailing--as her conduct in front of audiences. It was an appeal she was at a loss to explain, except, she wrote once, "I sometimes think that I am the triumph of the familiar over the exotic."

And it may have been that familiarity that enabled her to become one of the very few actors or actresses to cross comfortably between film and stage, although she always preferred the latter.

With her disciplined stage technique and personal uprightness (she once lost an alphabet game among New York's 1920s literati because she did not know swear words), she was never entirely at ease in Hollywood, whose star system and "arrogance" she came to loathe, especially after the less-than-kind treatment accorded her husband, writer and playwright Charles MacArthur.

She nonetheless made more than a score of movies and beat Hollywood at its own game, winning Oscars almost 40 years apart: as best actress in her first major film role, "The Sin of Madelon Claudet," in 1932, and as best supporting actress in "Airport" in 1970.

(Her first film was "Jean and the Calico Doll," a hectic, two-reel Vitagraph production in 1910, back when "it was considered undignified . . . to work in this medium unless (one) was starving." But she had "much more fun in those tuppenny thrillers than I ever did at MGM 25 years later," she wrote in one of her three books of memoirs.)

In between the films was the stage work that really mattered to her. From her professional debut at age 5 in "The Prince Chap" (well attended by her father's Elks club and her mother's bridge group) to a Broadway career that began four years later with "Old Dutch," Miss Hayes snagged some of the best roles the theater could offer.

They ranged from Margaret in "Dear Brutus" by Sir James M. Barrie and Amanda in Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie," to playing Harriet Beecher Stowe, Cleopatra in George Bernard Shaw's "Caesar and Cleopatra," Volumnia in Shakespeare's "Coriolanus" and Mrs. Antrobus in "The Skin of Our Teeth." With her daughter, Mary, she performed in "Alice-Sit-by-the-Fire" and "Good Housekeeping"--during which Mary caught the cold that turned out to be polio.

Memorable Stage Role

One of her most memorable stage roles was "Victoria Regina" (a part she acted 969 times, and of which, years later, seeing tapes of her national tour, she remarked scornfully, "Phony, totally overdone . . . all those Shrine auditoriums where you worked so hard to reach the balcony").

The other was as another queen, the doomed "Mary of Scotland," a role Miss Hayes believed tested her true talent--whether a sprightly 5-foot Irishwoman could convincingly portray the tall, romantic, tragic Scots queen. "I became" she said, "the tallest 5-foot woman in the world."

Her stage reputation even kept matinee idol John Barrymore on the straight and narrow. By 1933, he was drinking hard and reading his lines from cue cards. But starring with Miss Hayes in "Night Flight," he was flawlessly professional. "I was working with a real actress," he told the director. "I didn't want to make a goddamn fool of myself."

Her long affair with the theater was forced to an end in 1971, after a revival of "Harvey" with James Stewart and during "A Long Day's Journey Into Night." She was allergic, doctors learned, to the dust that clings so densely to theater seats and scenery.

It was a reluctant parting. "For 60 years," she wrote, "I've heard, 'Two minutes, Miss Hayes,' and I've sprinted onto the stage. It's become a reflex. Pavlov's actress, that's me."

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