Pretty Penny

BENNARD B. PERLMAN

January 17, 1992|By BENNARD B. PERLMAN

In Nyack, a village picturesquely perched on the banks of theHudson River, Helen Hayes has lived, appropriately enough, on a street named Broadway for the past 61 years. Her beautifully preserved clapboard house, with its corinthian-columned front porch and topped by a cupola, is surrounded by a high brick wall on three sides, but the open section at the back allows an uninterrupted panorama of gently sloping lawns and the tranquil river beyond.

It is a scene of which paintings are made.

And soon enough the 91-year-old grand dame of the American stage steered the conversation toward artists, telling tales involving Renoir, Degas, El Greco, Arthur B. Davies and Walt Kuhn. I asked her: ''Did you ever consider any career other than acting? Did you ever think of becoming an artist yourself?''

She replied, ''No, my only painting was of three ducks and I'll show it to you.''

She led us though a hallway and into the entrance foyer, pausing before a small landscape. ''I bought this for about $250 at an auction and got it because nobody else would bid on it. It's a Thomas Cole,'' she said matter-of-factly, explaining that it was once all blackened in one corner from having been placed behind an oil lamp. ''It was a mess but I cleaned it. There was a look of water here so I added three ducks.''

Another famous resident of Nyack had once lived only two blocks down the street, and I could no longer resist the temptation to ask: ''Did you ever know Edward Hopper?''

Helen Hayes replied in the affirmative, then shared the following story:

After she and her husband, Charles MacArthur, had bought the house in 1930, he determined to have Hopper come out and do a painting of it. ''Hopper came out here with [New York art dealer] Frank Rehn, who was handling Hopper. Charlie had the idea that Hopper, who was a local boy, should be doing this local house of ours. But when Hopper -- he was a glum, difficult man -- came out he said he wasn't interested.''

Then, according to Ms. Hayes, Hopper's wife, Josephine, must have persuaded him to do it, for one day the MacArthurs' daughter ''came running in, her pigtails flying, and said: 'There's a man outside painting our house!' '' Edward Hopper had stationed himself, unannounced, inside a small wooden door cut through the brick wall. He was not actually creating a painting of the house but making a pencil sketch, from which an oil would be produced in his studio.

Apparently, Hopper initially felt that the house was too hemmed in by trees, eliminating the Hopperesque quality of sky and negative space which gives his works that lonely, isolated look. So he waited until autumn, when all the leaves had fallen off the trees. ''It's the only commission he ever accepted,'' Helen Hayes added.

The oil, which initially hung in the downstairs parlor, was given its title by the MacArthurs. They called it ''Pretty Penny.'' The name does not refer to the $1,500 Depression-era price they paid for it, but rather to a radio series, ''The New Penny,'' in which Helen Hayes took part. ''All the money I made on that show went into the house and to buy that painting,'' she confessed.

And where is the Hopper oil now? ''I gave it to Smith College,'' she said, somewhat ruefully. ''It was the first college that ever took a chance on me and gave me a honorary degree [in 1940]. They've come tumbling like peanuts ever since.'' It was evident that she regretted having made the donation, for that painting would be cherished by her today.

Having consumed two hours of her time, we were ushered out through the kitchen and what appeared to be a tradesman's entrance. Cognizant that departing in such a manner might be taken as an affront by some visitors, Helen Hayes MacArthur stood in the doorway and as she bid us goodbye, called attention to a sign which read: ''Back-door friends are best.''

Bennard B. Perlman is a Baltimore artist and author of ''Robert Henri: His Life and Art.''

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