Helen Hayes, 92, whose onstage versatility and offstage generosity earned her the title “First Lady of the American Theater,” died yesterday in the New York suburb of Nyack.
Hayes was hospitalized at Nyack Hospital with congestive heart failure and an irregular heartbeat early last week. She died in her sleep with her family in attendance. At the request of her son, actor James MacArthur, no other details were provided.
Hayes won two Tony Awards, two Oscars and an Emmy in a career that spanned more than 70 years.
She undoubtedly would have won more Tonys had her early stage triumphs not predated those awards by more than a decade. Her performance in Anita Loos’ “Happy Birthday” inaugurated the best actress Tony award in 1947 (and was shared with Ingrid Bergman).
She won her first Oscar, for best actress, in “The Sins of Madelon Claudet,” in 1931 and became a major Broadway star in the mid-1930s with consecutive appearances in the title roles of Maxwell Anderson’s “Mary of Scotland” (1933) and Laurence Houseman’s “Victoria Regina” (1935).
In 1952 Hayes won the best-actress Emmy for “Not a Chance,” a Schlitz Playhouse of the Stars presentation. Her second best-actress Tony came in 1958 for Jean Anouilh’s “Time Remembered”; she won her second Oscar, for best supporting actress, for 1970’s “Airport.”
In 1980, she was selected as one of 10 American artists to be commemorated on a gold medallion issued by the Treasury Dept. The next year, she was awarded the Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime achievement.
Hayes also did regular turns on radio in the 1930s and ’40s, winning the Best Radio Actress award in 1940 for the “Helen Hayes Theater” program.
The unlikeliest of her awards was a recording-industry Grammy in 1977 for a record on which she read the Bill of Rights.
But Hayes was primarily a theater figure, a leading lady whose contemporaries and equals were Katharine Cornell and Lynn Fontanne.
Like them, she married a man of the theater and was devoted to the theater world. However, Hayes was a different kind of star than Cornell and Fontanne, for she preferred cloaking herself in character roles to bringing her own force of personality to bear on a part.
She was born Helen Hayes Brown in Washington on Oct. 10, 1900, to a traveling salesman and a sometime stock-company actress. Hayes made her professional debut at age 5, playing Prince Charles in “The Royal Family” at the National Theater.
Her Broadway debut came four years later, as Little Mimi in Lew Fields’ production of “Old Dutch.” As a child and young woman, she toured relentlessly, performing one-night stands in trivia like “Pollyana.”
Throughout her teens and 20s, Hayes had great success in lighter roles and was frequently cast as a flapper. Her most notable performances were in Booth Tarkington’s “Clarence” (1919), “To the Ladies” (1922) and “Dancing Mothers” ( 1925).
While playing in the Theater Guild’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Caesar and Cleopatra” in 1925, she met writer Charles MacArthur, who proposed to her on the opening night of his collaboration with Ben Hecht, “The Front Page ,” in 1928.
The couple bought a house in the Hudson River town of Nyack, N.Y., which became as important a part of their lives as Genesee Depot, Wis., was to the Lunts; they lived there when MacArthur died in 1956, and she lived there still at the time of her death.
Hayes reached the second pinnacle of her career in the mid-’30s, playing Mary , Queen of Scots, in the Maxwell Anderson play “Mary of Scotland,” and Queen Victoria (to Vincent Price’s Albert) in the Lawrence Housman play “Victoria Regina.” The latter role required her to age from girlish innocence into genteel widowhood. Variety reported of the play, “With Helen Hayes on the stage it is engrossing and the fineness of her acting makes ‘Regina’ a standout.”
Loos’ “Happy Birthday” not only won her her first Tony (for playing an elderly, teetotaling librarian who gets soused); it also marked her singing debut. Though the show wasn’t not a musical, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II — who produced the comedy — wrote “I Haven’t Got a Worry in the World” for her to sing.
Hayes made her West End debut in 1948, playing Amanda in the London premiere of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.” She then played Lucy Andree Ransdell, Joshua Logan’s Americanized Madame Ranevskaya, in “The Wisteria Trees” (1950); and Mrs. Howard V. Larue II in “Mrs. McThing” (1952).
Two more memorable portrayals followed in that decade: A duchess who hires a milliner to impersonate her nephew’s dead sweetheart in “Time Remembered,” with Richard Burton and Susan Strasberg; and Norah Melody, the wrecked wife of a wrecked innkeeper in Eugene O’Neill’s “A Touch of the Poet.”
“Poet” opened in 1958 and marked Hayes’ first appearance in the theater that was named for her.
In the later part of her career, she played mostly in revivals, notably “The Show Off” (1967) and “Harvey” (1970).
She also committed herself to a number of charitable causes, particularly the Actors’ Home.
Among her namesakes are Washington, D.C.’s annual theater awards. And when the first Helen Hayes Theater was destroyed (along with the Morosco and the Bijou) to make way for the Marriott Marquis Hotel, the Little Theater was rechristened for her.
Hayes’ valedictory appearance, in 1971, was as Mary Tyrone in a Catholic University production of O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
She remained in front of the cameras many years more, appearing as late as 1983 in a TV adaptation of an Agatha Christie mystery.
Hayes appeared in several of the leading dramatic television series of the ‘ 50s, including “Robert Montgomery Presents,” for which she reprised “Victoria Regina” in 1950.
Her autobiography, “On Reflection,” was published in 1968.
She is survived by her son. A daughter, Mary MacArthur, died from polio when she was just 19, in 1949.
Her funeral will be private, but a memorial service will be held later, said John Springer, the actress’ spokesman.