Helen Hayes, `First Lady of the Theater'

HELEN HAYES, who died Wednesday in suburban New York, was a person of the theater in the deepest sense.

Although she won acclaim in other fields - two Oscars for film, an Emmy for television work, and even a Grammy for a spoken-word recording - her three Tony Awards for theater are the prizes that best reflect her career. She was a vivid communicator who thrived most vigorously on close rapport with a live, responsive audience.

Broadway further recognized her unique abilities by naming a theater in her honor - the only other actress given a similar accolade was Ethel Barrymore - and when Manhattan's perpetual change resulted in the building's demolition, another was promptly rechristened with her name. Such love between an individual performer and the entire theatrical community is rare, and both sides of the decades-long romance clearly cherished it.

Miss Hayes started her career at the age of 5, playing a prince in a stock-company production. Although she never grew beyond five feet tall, she went on to play a wide range of parts, some of them much larger than life - the most celebrated being Queen Victoria in "Victoria Regina," in which she appeared nearly 1,000 times during the 1930s. Her other major productions ranged from "What Every Woman Knows" in 1926 to "Time Remembered" in 1957. Her third Tony, bestowed in 1980, was for her lifetime of achi evement.

She won her first Oscar for her first major film role in "The Sin of Madelon Claudet" (1931), written by Charles MacArthur, her husband. The movies of her later career were often undistinguished, but cinemagoers always enjoyed a visit from the first lady of the American theater, no matter how unmemorable was the spectacle that surrounded her. Her shining charisma in public and her unshakable integrity in personal life will be long remembered.

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