She sits bolt upright on the white couch as though she has a scepter for a backbone. She has the carriage of a queen, this tiny woman who tops out at just five feet, but who has played a royal wardrobe of roles including Victoria Regina, Cleopatra, Mary, Queen of Scots, and the dowager Empress or Russia.
The part for which she's best known is the one she's in right now, queen mother of the American theater. After 75 years on stage, Helen Hayes is entitled.
Slightly to her right, a dozen crimson roses bow in a tall vase, their scent an echo of all the opening-night roses down through the years, fro "Dear Brutus" to "The Glass Menagerie."
She considers the question of which of her roles is most like her, which one she put on like a pair of white kid gloves and found it fitted perfectly. "Victoria Regina," she smiles. "Because I'm a boss by nature. I'm bossy. I'm not imperious, but I don't really want people to curtsy low before me and back out of rooms, but I do like to run things. Ask my son [actor James MacArthur]. I have a hard time restraining that. My husband used to call me the little corporal, after Napoleon."
She is on her way up to Baltimore to see yet another production of her husband, Charles MacArthur's perennial hit about the newspaper business, "The Front Page." She's seen it in dozens of versions, this classic by MacArthur and Ben Hecht, in several countries and all over the United States. It's one more afternoon of nostalgia on a trip filled with it: She also visited Washington, where whe was born in a house on Q Street, and made her debut at age 5 at the landmark National Theater, where the lobby has just been christened the Helen Hayes Lobby by the Shubert Organization, which now manages the theater.
Twenty years ago, when the Helen Hayes Theater on Broadway was named for her, she kiddingly said, "Today I am a monument . . ." Now, a generation later, she is literally and figuratively a monument in the American theater. How does she feel about that? She parries, kidding herself again, this time looking down at her figure in a taupe and blue print dress.
"I'm a little monumental, I have to face that," she laughs. "I'm trying my best to correct it. i didn't know I said i was a monument. I thought I said I was a building. It [fame] has its ups and downs. There are times when you'd just like to kick off your shoes and be human. . . ."
But there are still all those tributes: On the occasion of her 80th birthday this October, the town of Haverstraw, N.Y., up the Hudson River from her Nyack home, dedicated a new hospital to her.
"That's a birthday present, isn't it, a $38 million hospital? That's better than Richard Burton ever did for Elizabeth Taylor!" she grins, delighted with outdoing Taylor's diamonds.
Which brings to mind a story, one of the really romantic stories, that people who know Miss Hayes love to tell. Anita Loos, the author of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" and other brilliant scripts, has known Miss Hayes since 1927.
"Of course you know the famous story about Helen and the emeralds," Miss Loos says. Then she begins to tell the story of how Broadway star Helen Hayes and writer Charlie MacArthur met for the first time at a party in 1924. "He asked her if she'd like some peanuts. She said yes and took some. And when she took some he said, 'I wish they were emeralds.' . . . A few years later, after their marriage, she was in India, where he had just bought an emerald necklace to give her. She was thrilled, of course, and he said, "I wish they were peanuts.'"
Anita Loos describes Helen Hayes as, first and last, motherly. "She loves cooking, she loves cleaning house, she loves her home on the Hudson." In a book she and Miss Hayes wrote together, "Twice Over Lightly," an antic tour of New York City, Miss Loos shares a very telling story about the actress's generous spirit. It's about the Hayes home, a Victorian mansion in Nyack dubbed "Pretty Penny."
Miss Hayes explains that after the death of her husband and their daughter, Mary MacArthur, a promising yound actress, Miss Hayes wanted to sell the 19-room house and move into a city apartment. She decided to auction off nearly 14 rooms full of Victorian memorabilia, kepping only what she needed for her five-room apartment, and donate the proceeds (minus moving expenses) to the American Academy for Dramatic Arts, "where my daughter Mary had been very happy in the last few years of her life."
But just after she'd promised them the proceeds (they later amounted to nearly $60,000), a hitch developed. On the day the final contract for the house sale was to be signed, the buyers (ballerina Nora Kaye and her husband, film director Herbert Ross) changed their minds.
"So there I was with this highly publicized auction, and I was just too much of a ham to call it off. I couldn't do that," Miss Hayes says. "So we had the auction, I went off to Virginia. . . . And I am now almost as crowded as I was before."
She describes herself as determined, strong, and joyous: "I will not lose my joy in life," she says, with a faint thrust of her Irish chin. But Miss Loos's word for her, motherly, seems the most apropos.
Forget the image of the great actress. Helen Hayes the person makes you think about home, about pumpkin pie cooling on the windowsill, and being wrapped in a quilt in front of the fireplace, and a comfroting shoulder to cry on. She is cozy.
But she also has an ageless beauty, with her fresh, pink and white complexion , delft-blue eyes, and a mass of white hair swept up on top of her head like a tiara. Today, nearly half a century later, she is the very definition of the lines she said in 1926 as Maggie in J.M. Barrie's "What Every Woman Knows." She is asked "What ism charm, exactly, Maggie?" And she answers:
"Oh, it's -- it's a sort of bloom on a woman. If you have it, you don't need to have anything else; and if you don't have it, it doesn't much matter what else you have. Some women, the few, have charm for all; and most have aharm for one. But some have charm for none."
She listens, with her head cocked to the side like a sparrow, to the question about whether an actress has to have that charm for all, the feeling that "everyone loves me" out there on the stage. "I'm not aware that I've consciously considered that, "here I am, they're all out here loving me.' I don't think so. There are times when I'm afraid. I think, oh, gosh, what did I do to these people to make them hate me so? There are audiences that just seem to repulse you, however much you try to advance to them.
"But that's what makes it interesting, of course. Actors love to play unsympathetic roles." She notes that the parts of the villains are usually the best ones in the play: "Iago is far better than Othello, and Richard III is far better than the worthy people in the play. . . ." She points out that "no actress worth her name wants to be loved all the time. They want to be admired for a performance and they want to excite people with their art.
"We dare call it an art now," she says dryly, "because somebody started that sometime back. I've been calling it a craft all my life, but then the Actors' Studio came along and everybody got to be artists, right away. Anyhow, whatever you choose to call it, you do like to be respected for your mastery of the craft. And about being loved, I don't know, that seems a little unworthy. That seems like cheating. You jsut don't want to win people over.
"It's not the true actor's aim [to be loved]," she continues. "As a matter of fact, i remember i was deeply hurt once by a review. I don't read reviews, of course, when I'm working. . . . But once I was reading the New York Times Magazine and there was a piece by a reviewer. . . . And his review of me was quoted [when I was] with the APA Phoenix, this fabulous repertory group that I joined late in life because I admired it and because I was delighted that they asked me to be tieh them. And I was playing a small role in the opening play, "The School for Scandal.' I came on and the audience, I suppose that they were impressed I was playing a secondary role in a repertory company, and it probably appealed to them. . . .They wouldn't stop applauding. This terrible, long, agonizing reception went on, and i remember standing there facing the other actors. Of course we curtsied and stayed down there long enough to break anyone's heart. . . . And it went on and on . . . I was just miserable.
"And this man said: 'That's all she [hayes] could bring to the company was that love she inspires in the audience. There she was on her entrance standing there fixed in a pose, letting all that love pour over her.' Such scorn, such contempt, as I've never [felt]. Well, I guess one does feel contemptuous for someone who aims for love. . . . He was caustic. . . . He just thought I couldn't act at all."
She pauses for a minute, still puzzled over the critic's scorn for that outpouring of love Miss Hayes generates in an audience. She herself accepts the love without scorn, although she is embarrassed by it. You could feel it as an almost palpable presence on stange the night of this year's televised Tony awards, when she received a special award for her lifelong gift to the theater. She stood tiny, lovely, resolute on stage as waves of applause washed around her. The verse quoted from Proverbs (3:16) seemed especially appropriate: "Length of days is in her right hand; and in her left hand riches and honour."
She says she's only played one villain in her life, that of an Irish prostitute who ruins a man in Liam O'Flaherty's play "Mr. Gilhooley." It received a drubbing from the critics, who felt she was badly miscast. Most of her life Miss Hayes has plalyed either lovable or admirable heroines; it's impossible to imagine her as Lady Macbeth, or Medea. But perhaps becuase she had an early bout with cloying sweetness on stage as Pollyanna, the glad girl, she makes a point of avoiding the saccharine in life. There is, in fact, a surprising tartness, like that of a green apple, ine her conversation.
When she is asked what she's going to do next, she says, "Nothing professional. You're actually writing about hasbeen, professionally." Her last appearance in a role on Broadway was in 1971 in Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey into Night"; her last appearance in a film in 1978 in "Candleshoe"; and she's done a few TV roles since the 1974 series "The Snoop Sisters" with her friend Mildred Natwick. The most recent, done for personal reasons, was a "Love Boat" episode with her son, James MacArthur, and Miss Natwick.
She still loves the theater, of course, and thinks there's a shift today away from violence on stage. "I don't know what's happened to the public, but apparently it's a revulsion against those plays or horror and gore and violence, a revulsion against that on the part of the public." Among the hit plays, she notes, are several revivals that indicate the public is looking for something else: "The Pirates of Penance," "Morning's at Seven."
Miss Hayes as an actress says that of course she prefers the stage to films. "Everybody feels the same, I'm sure. I know that it's direct contact with the people that you are there to serve and to please, the public. And it doesn't go through cutters and a whole assembly line of technicians."
Was it fun doing the film "Airport," which brought her a second Oscar, as best supporting actress?
No. "I agonize on the scree. I finally decided not to do anymore of that. . . . I was agonized and frightened the whole time I was doing it."
She says of her 40-year movie career: "I didn't dislike films because I felt superior to the whole scene in Hollywood. . . . it was because I didn't think I did it well.And I thought that my fae didn't have -- I'm not talking about beauty, because I wasn't aiming for that -- but the character of my face, it didn't seem to me expressive. . . . Everything about me was ordinary, ordinary. That was the word for me on the scree." That film career beganm with "The Sin of Madelon Claudet," which won her her first Oscar as best actress, and included "Arrowsmith," "A Farewell to Arms" (with Gary Cooper), and "Anastasia."
One of the legends of the film world, Lillian Gish, is another longtime friend of Helen Hayes's. Miss Gish, whose career spans the century as Miss Hayes's does, notes that she adn her sister Dorothy and Miss Hayes all began as child actresses, but continued it for life. "You wouldn't be in the theater if you weren't childlike, it's a land of fantasy. . . ."
She says thebest way to describe her friend is: "She's Irish. She has all the lovable Irish qualities: generosity, loving things, being happy and glad, her interest in people, her desire to help people. She's first of all beautiful."
She was born Helen Hayes Brown, her father a manager and salesman for a wholesale butcher company in Washington, her mother a would-be actress. At 5 she made her professional debut at the National as Prince Charles in "The Royal Family." By age 9 she was on Broadway in "Old Dutch," a musical, then back in washington (after two more Broadway plays) to graduate from the Academy of the Sacred Heart. She toured for a year in "Pollyanna," became a full Broadway star at 18 in Sir James Barrie's "Dear Brutus." She went on to play a succession of starring roles: Harriet Beecher Stowe in "Harriet," Addie in Anita Loos's "Happy Birthday" (being revamped this year as a musical), Mrs. Antrobus in Thornton Wilder's "The Skin of Our Teeth," Amanda Wingfield in Tennessee Williams's "The glass Menagerie," "Mary of Scotland," by Sherwood Anderson, Nora Melody in Eugene O'Neill's "A Touch of the Poet," and her favorite role, "Victoria Regina, " by Laurence Housman.
That was the one role her husband didn't want her to play. She reminisces about that in her Jefferson Hotel suite, colorful as a stage set with its long crimson drapes flanking fulllength windows, its rose and white print wallpaper, red rug, and period furniture.
"Everything about my life with Charlie helped me in everything that I did. Charlie's newspaper training made him a master of understatement. He never used too many adjectives, never overstated things, though the nespaper world does a lot of overstatement today, I'm afraid. However, Charlie was one of the school that was short and concise and to the point. And I know that he believed acting should be the same and that my approach to acting was greatly changed by Charlie. We did talk over roels, in fact he always read a play that I was going to do. The only one we disagreed on was Victoria Regina. He didn't care for it , he didn't think it had popular appeal. . . . But it had moved me tremendously and amused me. I liked it."
In "Helen Hayes Relives Her Roles," an article she wrote for the New York Times Magazine moe than 20 years ago, she tells how she found the character of the Queen for herself after weeks of struggle. She suddenly remembered in a flashback, her grandmother "Graddy" Hayes, a devotee of Victoria, who could describe her wedding procession and affect her style.
"For the 10 years I knew her, my grandmother wore the bonnet with the black egret that was high Victorian fashion and conducted herself like her idol. . . . I never saw anything but my Graddy in my mind's eye every night I played it. . . ."
Miss Hayes tells with great relish about the time the former Queen of Spain, who was the granddaughter of Queen Victoria, came to see the play. "I wen tot tea at her daughter's the infanta's apartment in New York. And the Queen said, 'How ever did you know my grandmother's every mannerism, every inflection?' And I didn't dare tell her that it was from mym grandmother, who was a very much other-side-of-the-tracks Irishwoman. . . ."
We wound up the interview in time for Miss hayes to go off to a Shubert Organization press luncheon, where she ate steak au poivre and delivered an impromptu but very articulate speech about the theater. Miss Hayes is so slouch with words. She has already written four books: "Star on Her Forehead," "On Reflection" (also with Anita Loos), "Twice Over Lightly," and "A Gift of Joy." But there's another book "vaguely in the offing . . . a biography. I don't seem to have learned anything through my whole life but my own life. However, it's nice to have learned yourself. A lot of people don't even get to learn that, do they?