Backgrounder: Helen Hayes—First Lady of the American Theatre

Jen Clements


Helen Hayes MacArthur (October 10, 1900 – March 17, 1993)
“The First Lady of the American Theatre”

Perhaps the greatest actress in the history of the American stage, Helen Hayes was born on October 10, 1900 in Washington, D.C., where, at the age of nine, she made her professional debut. Later that same year, she made her Broadway debut in the play Old Dutch. Her astonishing career in the theatre, film, television, recording, and publishing spanned all ten decades of the twentieth century.

Her name first went up in lights at the Park Theater in 1920, where she appeared in Bab, which had been written especially for her. Scores of plays followed, including The Prodigal Husband with John Drew, Dear Brutus with William Gillette, Clarence with Alfred Lunt, Twelfth Night with Maurice Evans, and, of course, Victoria Regina. Miss Hayes was the inaugural recipient of the Tony Award for Best Actress for Happy Birthday in 1947.

Her last stage appearance was in 1971 in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night in Washington, D.C.

Miss Hayes’s film career began in 1931 with The Sin of Madelon Claudet, which was written for her by her husband, Charles MacArthur. She received the Academy Award for her performance. She was, in fact, the first actress to receive both the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Oscar, receiving the latter for her 1970 performance in Airport. Among her many films are A Farewell to Arms, Anastasia, and Victory at Entebbe.

Although she made numerous television appearances throughout her career, earning an Emmy in 1952 for The Twelve Pound Look, she did not undertake a series of her own until 1973, starring with Mildred Natwick in The Snoop Sisters. She is also remembered for her sterling turn as Agatha Christie’s famous Miss Marple in A Caribbean Mystery (1984) and Murder With Mirrors (1985).

Miss Hayes also authored eight books, worked extensively in radio for more than half a century, and was the recipient of the Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement, the Kennedy Center Honors, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to name but a few.

The Helen Hayes Awards were established in her honor in 1983 to honor achievement and promote professional theatre in the city of her birth. The Helen Hayes Awards remain a living legacy to the First Lady of the American Theatre.