Helen Hayes (1900-1993)

Helen Hayes
Helen Hayes

Helen Hayes is regarded as one of the greatest leading ladies of 20th-century theatre. She became known as the "First Lady of American Theatre" after a resoundingly successful stage career. She later established a highly successful second career in movies, winning a Best Actress Oscar for her first Talkie, 'The Sin of Madelon Claudet' in 1931. Her acting career started when she was just five and spanned eight decades in all.

Helen was one of a select group of women to receive all four prestigious entertainment awards: a Tony, Oscar, Emmy and Grammy. In 1983, the Helen Hayes Awards were established, encouraging other aspiring actors and actresses to aim for the stars and reach them as she had done.


She was born Helen Hayes Brown on October 10, 1900 in Washington, D.C. Her mother was an actress and her father a salesman. Her mother would go on tour for weeks but turned to drinking to suppress her boredom with her mundane home life. She found her talented daughter to be an outlet for her own lack of success on stage, and she spent time busily pushing Helen toward the career that would make her famous.

Helen was educated first at the Academy of the Holy Cross in Kensington, north of Washington. The nuns were theater enthusiasts and Helen's first role was as Peaseblossom in the school's production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." She continued her education at the Academy of the Sacred Heart Convent in Washington, graduating in 1917.

Early Stage Career

Helen's professional career began whilst still at school when she was seen performing by Lew Fields of the comedy duo Weber and Fields. He signed Helen up, at the age of eight, and, in between schooling, she became a regular child actor on Broadway, appearing in 'Little Lord Fauntleroy' and 'Old Dutch' in 1909. In 1910 she found time to star in the Vitagraph studio recorded film, 'Jean and the Calico Doll', her first venture on the big screen. In 1914 at the Empire Theater, she played a role in ‘The Prodigal Husband,’ starring John Drew.

Helen's career continued to thrive as she got older and her roles grew bigger and more important. She had leading parts in 'Pollyanna' in 1917, 'Dear Brutus' the following year and 'Bab' in 1920. Between 1920 and 1930 Helen honed her art and became extremely well known, being called the "First Lady of the American Theater".

In 1925 she co-starred with Lionel Atwill in Shaw's 'Caesar and Cleopatra', a major hit that opened the Guild Theatre. Two years later she starred in 'Coquette' which ran on Broadway for eleven months from November, 1927 and in 1928 she played the Egyptian queen in George Bernard Shaw’s 'Caesar and Cleopatra'.

Movie Career

In 1930 Helen accompanied her husband to Hollywood when he became a screenwriter for MGM. Hollywood was rapidly expanding and changing with the introduction of sound, and stage trained performers like Helen were much in demand. In 1931, she launched her new career with a great success, 'The Sin of Madelon Claudet', for which she won an Oscar for best actress.

She went on to star in major pictures such as 'Arrowsmith' in 1931 and 'A Farewell to Arms' the following year and performed opposite some of Hollywood's leading men, working with Clark Gable and John Barrymore in "The White Sister in 1933," Ramon Novarro in "The Son-Daughter in 1932" and Robert Montgomery in "Another Language in 1933.

During the 1930s she continued to make stage appearances along with her movie work. After the theatrical triumph of 'Mary of Scotland' in 1933 she played her most famous role in 1935 as Queen Victoria' in 'Victoria Regina', which ran for 969 performances over a three year period. It was a demanding role which required her to age from youth to old age, and she did it brilliantly.


In 1941, Helen appeared in an anti-Nazi play called "Candle in the Wind." in which the action takes place during the German occupation of France in World War II. She also made numerous personal appearances to boost the morale of the troops. For the rest of the decade she continued to tour the United States with a number of different shows until the death of her daughter in 1949 when she put her career on hold.

Later Career

In 1951, she was in the Broadway revival of J.M. Barrie's play 'Mary Rose' at the ANTA Playhouse and she also returned to Hollywood to work in movies, starring in 'My Son John' in 1952, 'Main Street to Broadway' in 1953 and 'Anastasia' in 1956. She later won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as an elderly stowaway in the disaster film 'Airport' in 1970. She followed that up with several roles in Disney films such as 'Herbie Rides Again', 'One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing' and 'Candleshoe'.

Television Career

Helen was one of the first performers to appear on the new medium of television. She took to it with enthusiasm beginning in 1950 in 'The Prudential Family Playhouse' in 'The Barretts of Wimpole Street' and then in 1951 she appeared in 'Victoria Regina' once again as part of the series 'Robert Montgomery Presents'.

For the next 35 years she made regular appearances on the small screen in drama series such as 'Producers' Showcase', 'Omnibus', 'Play of the Week', 'The Snoop Sisters' and many others.


Helen was married once, in 1928, to Charlie MacArthur, a Chicago journalist and playwright. They had one natural child, Mary who died from polio, aged just 19, in 1949, and adopted a son, Jamie, who became well-known in the role of Danny Williams on the long-running television show 'Hawaii Five-O'. Helen's marriage to Charlie ended with his death in 1956.

Helen suffered from frequent asthma attacks and it was only late in her career that she discovered that the attacks were aggravated by the dust found backstage in theaters.

She was friendly with Lady Bird Johnson, wife of President Lyndon Johnson, and together they founded the National Wildflower Research Center, now the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, in Austin, Texas. The center protects and preserves North America's native plants and natural landscapes.

Helen Hayes died of congestive heart failure in New York on March 17, 1993. That evening the lights of Broadway were dimmed for one minute in her honour.

Helen Hayes Academy Awards

Two Wins:
Best Actress ... The Sin of Madelon Claudet (1931)
Best Supporting Actress ... Airport (1970)
No Unsuccessful Nominations:

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Helen Hayes Filmography

The Weavers of Life
The Dancing Town (Short)
The Sin of Madelon Claudet
A Farewell to Arms
The Son-Daughter
The White Sister
Another Language
Night Flight
Crime Without Passion (uncredited)
What Every Woman Knows
Stage Door Canteen