Theater's 'first lady,' Helen Hayes, is dead Winner of Tonys, Oscars was 92

March 18, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

She was known as "the first lady of the American theater." Emphasis on the word "lady."

Helen Hayes, who died yesterday at age 92 of heart failure in a hospital near her home in Nyack, N.Y., epitomized grace, charm and a quality that eludes many lesser souls in her profession -- unpretentiousness.

Referring to her lofty title in an interview two years ago, Miss Hayes was quoted as saying, "It's a role I never wrote, nor did I practice it in front of a mirror. I'm too lazy to pretend offstage."

Nor should the word "theater" be played down. Even though the two-time Tony winner retired from the stage in 1971, her name remained synonymous with theater. Last night at 8 p.m., Broadway marquees were dimmed for one minute in her memory.

Although she never felt completely at home on the screen, she achieved success there as well, earning Oscars for best actress in "The Sin of Madelon Claudet" (1931) and, 39 years later, for best supporting actress in "Airport." She also starred in her own television series, "The Snoop Sisters," opposite Mildred Natwick in 1973 and 1974.

The Broadway and film worlds remembered the actress with sadness.

"I'm just heartbroken, because I thought she'd go on to 110," said Morton Gottlieb, a producer who worked with her on Broadway in "Time Remembered" in 1958 and "The White House" in 1964. "She was inspiring to see onstage and to know offstage," Mr. Gottlieb said.

VTC Actors Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, longtime friends of Miss Hayes, called on her fans to celebrate her generosity of spirit and love of the theater.

"That sometime temple has lost one of its pillars," they said through a press representative.

Born in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 10, 1900, Miss Hayes made her professional stage debut in that city at age 5, at the urging of a relentless stage mother.

She remained loyal to her hometown, and its theatrical community remained loyal to her, establishing an awards

ceremony in her honor in the 1980s. The annual Helen Hayes Awards are presented for outstanding theatrical achievement in Washington. Last year, a bruised vertebra kept her from the ceremony for the first time since it began in 1985.

"I think the biggest letdown for her in 1992 was that she couldn't be more mobile," said Paul Gamble, associate director of the awards. "When she came to town, she wore us out. We'd take shifts with her because there were so many things she wanted to do."

The diminutive actress performed frequently at Baltimore's Ford's Theatre at the height of her stage career, perhaps most notably as Queen Victoria -- one of her most beloved roles -- in the pre-Broadway premiere of Laurence Housman's "Victoria Regina."

Her most recent performance here was a one-night engagement of "A Program for Two Players," an evening of Shakespeare excerpts performed with Maurice Evans at the Lyric Opera House in 1963.

The author of eight books, she wrote that she never yearned to be an actress, but she always was one. She also was always in love with the theater. As she recounted in her 1990 autobiography, "My Life in Three Acts," that love affair began when she attended a production of "The Merry Widow" at Washington's National Theatre.

After the final curtain, she refused to leave her seat, screaming, "I won't leave the theater!" And, as she put it, "of course, I never did."

Her Broadway debut came at age 9 in a play called "Old Dutch," and by the time she was 18 she was a Broadway star, playing opposite William Gillette in James M. Barrie's "Dear Brutus." She won her two Tonys for "Happy Birthday" in 1947 and "Time Remembered" in 1958.

What was the secret of her appeal? In a 1991 "American Masters" series on PBS, Jason Robards chalked it up to her "American-ness of character." She exuded decency, strength, conviction and warmth.

In "My Life in Three Acts," Miss Hayes described it this way: "By nature I was not theatrical, not majestic or awe-inspiring, and no more glamorous than many women who came to watch me perform. Perhaps the absence of glamour contributed to my popularity. It may be that audiences felt comfortable with an actress who seemed cozy, approachable, unlike the flamboyant leading ladies I once knew in the theater."

Two Broadway theaters were renamed in her honor. The first, commemorating her 50 years on stage, fell to the wrecker's ball in 1982. On "American Masters," she kidded about its successor, calling it the time she "became a theater."

The final stage role of her career was in Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night," which she was performing at Catholic University's Hartke Theatre in Washington when backstage dust triggered a severe allergic reaction, prompting her to retire from the theater.

"I liked the idea of a circle being completed," she wrote, referring to the fact that both her debut and her swan song took place in the city where she was born.

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