Oscar Actors: Hayes, Helen (1900-1993)–Career; Cumulative Advantage

Career Summary:

Occupational Inheritance: mother was aspiring actress

Social Class: Middle

Age at Screen Debut:

Career Span:

Age at last film: 77

Age of retirement: 77

Age of death: 92

Claiming a career that spanned 80 years, Helen Hayes was nicknamed “the First Lady of American Theatre.”

She is one of 15 actors who have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony Award (an EGOT).

Helen Hayes Brown was born in Washington, D.C., on October 10, 1900. Her mother, Catherine Estelle (née Hayes) was an aspiring actress who worked in touring companies. Her father Francis van Arnum Brown, worked as a clerk at the Washington Patent Office and as a manager and salesman for wholesale butcher.

Hayes’s Catholic maternal grandparents emigrated from Ireland during the Irish Potato Famine.

Hayes made her stage debut at 5, as a singer at Washington’s Belasco Theatre, on Lafayette Square.  By age 10, she had made a short film, Jean and the Calico Doll.

Hayes attended Dominican Academy’s primary school, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, from 1910 to 1912, appearing there in The Old Dutch, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and other shows. She attended the Academy of the Sacred Heart Convent in Washington and graduated in 1917.

Screen Career: 

She moved to Hollywood when husband-playwright Charles MacArthur signed a Hollywood deal.

Her sound film debut was The Sin of Madelon Claudet, for which she won the Best Actress Oscar.

She then played starring roles in “Arrowsmith” (with Ronald Colman), “A Farewell to Arms” (Gary Cooper), “The White Sister” (Clark Gable), Another Language (Robert Montgomery), “What Every Woman Knows” (reprising her Broadway hit), and “Vanessa: Her Love Story” (also with Robert Montgomery).

Diminutive and homespun, Hayes was less glamorous than that era’s other stars, but the qualities of modesty and practicality might have prolonged her career and lasting appeal.

Hayes returned to Broadway in 1935, where for three years she played the title role in Gilbert Miller’s production of “Victoria Regina,” with Vincent Price as Prince Albert, first at the Broadhurst Theatre and then at the Martin Beck Theatre.

Oscar Context

Helen Hayes, the fourth Best Actress winner, competed in the same category with Marie Dressler in “Emma,” and Lynn Fontanne in “The Guardsman.” It’s noteworthy that all three films were made by MGM, Hollywood’s leading studio at the time.

Her last Broadway show was a 1970 revival of “Harvey,” in which she co-starred with Jimmy Stewart.

Hayes received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor, from President Ronald Reagan in 1986. In 1988, she was awarded the National Medal of Arts.

In 1955, the former Fulton Theatre on 46th Street in New York City’s Broadway Theater District was renamed the Helen Hayes Theatre. When that venue was torn down in 1982, the nearby Little Theatre was renamed in her honor.

She died March 17, 1993, age 92.