The death of Helen Hayes at 92 deprives Americans of their First Lady of the Theater, which she was for a half-century. There will be more first ladies of the stage, but none is likely to be so universally admired and mourned for that alone. In her career, to be the star of the Broadway stage meant international celebrity for excellence in acting. Today, such a reputation depends as much on television and film.
For all her road trouping -- and she did a great deal -- she was Broadway. Now, Broadway is dingy by day and touristy at night. The great achievements in the legitimate theater -- which used to mean serious plays as opposed to light fare, but now means anything live on a stage -- are taking place Off Broadway or in regional theaters like Center Stage. Miss Hayes was not all stage, either. Her career coincided with the arrival of other media, which she did not shun. She won her first movie Oscar in bTC She starred in a light-weight television series in the 1970s. But the Broadway stage was her metier. For generations, Helen Hayes was the Broadway stage.
She also helped put Washington on the map. She was born in that mecca for bad actors in 1900, where her stage career began five years later and ended in 1971. She returned often, and played Baltimore frequently as well. Kennedy Center gives out Helen Hayes Awards. She was plain in an age of glamour, diminutive but larger than life, all-American but definitive in roles as British queens.
Acting was hard work, not mere gift. She was a consummate professional. The result was authenticity in every kind of part. She was a star in six decades. Along the way she loved and married one man and worked nobly for impeccable causes and never made grist for the gossip columns, but her multitudinous awards were for public acting, not private virtue.
In her 1935 hit, "Victoria Regina," which she premiered in Baltimore before Broadway, and in which she aged 60 years every night, a character bursts in on Queen Victoria's 90th birthday and shouts, "Go it, old girl. You've done well." And that, Helen Hayes said near her own 90th, was what she wanted on her tombstone.