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AN APPRECIATION : Always a Lady: Helen Hayes and the Grand Style

March 19, 1993|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Champlin is the retired arts editor of The Times

In her memoirs, Helen Hayes, who died Wednesday at the age of 92, told one of the most romantic stories I know, even for an industry in which romantic stories are as common and necessary as oxygen.

When she met playwright Charles MacArthur, who was to become her husband, at a party in the Manhattan studio of artist Neysa McMein, it was love at first sight. Late in the evening, he poured some salted peanuts into her hand and said, "I wish they were emeralds."

Years later on an anniversary deep into a marriage that had been troubled because of his personal problems, he poured some emeralds into her hand and said, "I wish they were peanuts."

It was a profoundly poignant remark, because what MacArthur was saying was, in effect, "I wish we could be again where we were that night at Neysa's, young and confident, with our careers on the rise and the world stretched out before us."

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She was then already one of the new stars of the theater; as co-author of "The Front Page" he was one of the hottest writers around. More triumphs lay ahead of her but "The Front Page" was, as it turned out, the peak of his success and fame. The later pages, a chronicle of disappointments and a losing battle with alcohol, made Hayes something of a widow years before she actually was.

When a great actress dies--and Helen Hayes was--it is customary to think first of the performances that made the reputation. But in her case you are bound to think first, and with great admiration, for the private courage with which she bore the two great tragedies of her life: the sad decline of a husband she never stopped loving, and then the death by polio, in the young prime of her life, of their daughter Mary.

I paid a call on Helen Hayes a few years ago in the large, comfortable Victorian-style home on the west bank of the Hudson River in Nyack, N.Y., where she and MacArthur had lived and where she now lived alone except for a brisk and pleasant young Irish woman as her companion.

A dusty and seldom visited basement playroom, which actually opened on to the wide green lawn that swept down toward the river, was crammed with the mementos of a life in the theater: playbills, caricatures, signed photographs and unidentifiable relics, each of which, I had no doubt, could tell a story if there were only time.

She had just published another volume, candid and cheerful, of her memoirs, documenting a career that had really begun because her mother hoped that Helen would achieve the mother's own unfulfilled dreams of a stage career.

Already in her late 80s, Hayes was vigorously on the move, active in the affairs of the Actors Fund when we talked, doing signings to promote the new book, commuting to a second home she had in Cuernavaca, traveling (often to Ireland) for the sheer pleasure of it and still contemplating the occasional offers to appear in films.

A later generation that had certainly never seen and likely never heard of her long-running triumph in "Victoria Regina," opposite Vincent Price, probably met her as a feisty passenger, belting a hysterical fellow passenger in "Airport" in 1970, a delightful performance for which she earned a quite deserved Academy Award for best supporting actress. It was her second Oscar, the first for "The Sin of Madelon Claudet" in 1931, which husband MacArthur adapted from a play and in which she co-starred with a young Robert Young.

At that, her most impressive screen role was probably as Catherine opposite Gary Cooper as Lt. Henry in Ernest Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms," directed by Frank Borzage in 1932.

What is true is that she had the commanding presence, the aura, that attaches to the few pre-eminent men and women of the stage. She carried forward the grand style from the grand days preceding the drama of the kitchen sink.

Yet what is also true is that Hayes, unlike many a stage star, took well to the camera and did not give the impression of the actor acting (and projecting to someone sitting several yards to the rear of the cinematographer) that has limited the screen appeal of some stage actors. The camera liked her no less than as the audiences sitting in the balcony did, and she understood the camera's need for intimacy. It is startling to think that she made her first--silent--appearance as early as 1917.

Fame and fortune are enviable, up to a point, and Helen Hayes enjoyed both. Yet what may have been most to be envied about her was the lesson she gave of accepting the hard losses in her personal life with a philosophical serenity that comes of understanding life must go on.

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