James MacArthur Official Website: Welcome To My Digital Scrapbook!
James MacArthur Official Website Other Goodies Articles, Photos & Video Email Credits, Biography & Info News and Updates James MacArthur Official Website Logo

Good Housekeeping (February 1962)

"My Mother, Helen Hayes"

By James MacArthur as told to Arthur Whitman

I don’t know Helen Hayes, Great Lady of the American Theater. I can’t even imagine the six-year-old girl names Helen Hayes Brown who first walked onstage in Washington, D.C., in 1906. I never met the tiny, blue-eyed ingenue the little girl had become by the time she got her first star billing in New York, 18 years later.

For that matter, I don’t even know the glamorous star who was -- and still is -- an international celebrity, but was happiest to be known as Mrs. Charlie MacArthur, the wife of one of the best-known stage and screen writers of his day.

I’m aware that all those other Helen Hayeses exist. It’s just that I never knew them and that I want to make clear at the beginning that though this is about a great actress, it is not the saga of a great career. It’s about a woman I call Mom.

Though I’ve always known she was an actress, it’s a fact that never concerned me much, especially as a child. What Mom did was as natural to me as it was to my friends that their fathers worked in offices or their mothers taught school, and about as important -- which is to say that it was not very important at all.

Looking back, I wonder how I could have been so blase. But here’s an instance of my attitudes about Mom and acting when I was young. Mom always made it her business to have me with her whenever it was possible. One summer -- 1946, I think, when I was eight -- Mom was playing in stock with my older sister Mary, in a show called Alice Sit-by-the-Fire. We’d been swimming in the morning, and in the afternoon, Mom and Mary had a dress rehearsal. They wanted to keep me occupied, so Mom said, “Jamie, sit out front and make notes for us.” Notes are what a director jots down during rehearsal so he can tell the actors later where he thinks they were good or bad.

I took my assignment very seriously, making notes almost every time Mom or Mary stepped onstage. The rehearsal ran late. When it was over, Mary wanted to go off and rest awhile before the performance.

“Not until we’ve heard Jamie’s notes,” said Mom, and I remember Mary fidgeting as I babbled through everything I’d written down. Later, at the performance, I noticed that right in her first scene, Mom was doing something I’d suggested.

Now I know that notes are an important part of theater, and I would be flattered if an incident like that occurred tomorrow. But way back then, I took it as a matter of course that Mom would accept direction from me. I wasn’t nearly as pleased about it as I’d been in the morning, when Mom had praised me for being a good swimmer.

This doesn’t mean that I didn’t learn at an early age that Mom wasn’t just like every other mother. When I was even younger, in 1943, Mom was touring in Harriet, a play about Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin. We were in a town near Seattle, and I was in Mom’s dressing room during a matinee. In the play, she had a line that went: “My son! Where is my son?”

I heard her and rushed onstage, yelling, “Here I am, Mommie! Here I am!”

The audience roared, and Mom joined them. Then she whispered something to me and led me off-stage by the hand. Now that I’m an actor myself, I realize she should have chained me to a post.

I didn’t know any kid in our home town of Nyack, New York, whose mother was involved in things quite that strange.

My parents bought the big house in Nyack, where Mom still lives, in 1933, four years before I was born. Nyack is a small, quiet town on the west bank of the Hudson River, about 30 miles north of Manhattan. Pop’s father, Dr. William Telfer MacArthur, a traveling evangelist, had moved his family to Nyack in 1909, when Pop was 13. Pop had lived there till 1916, when he left to become a cub reporter on the Chicago Tribune. When he returned, he bought a big Victorian frame house on Broadway, in Nyack. Broadway is a quiet street, lined with 100-year-old oaks. Our house is one of a long row of houses set close together with small front yards and long, narrow back yards that slope hundreds of feet down to the river.

When they moved into the house, Pop was a famous writer, with stage comedies like Lulu Belle and The Front Page to his credit, as well as a long list of movies. One of these was The Sin of Madelon Claudet, in which Mom gave an Oscar-winning movie performance as Madelon, in 1931. Mom, of course, was one of the best-known stars in the country. She’d been a sensation on the New York stage in the 1920s, in such plays as Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra and What Every Woman Knows, by Sir J.M. Barrie.

As though Pop and Mom’s presence wasn’t enough for sleepy Nyack, Pop’s friend and collaborator, Ben Hecht, bought a house two blocks up the road, and Pop’s guests were often people like Harpo Marx, one of the famed Marx brothers; Robert Benchley, the wit who kept all New York laughing; and Bea Lillie, the great comedienne. They were also honored often by visits from John Barrymore, “The Great Profile,” who, in those days, could stop traffic almost anywhere in America.

Although I wasn’t around in the earliest years at Nyack, I was told about Barrymore’s odd visiting habits. Every once in a while he decided he had to see Helen and Charlie. He would make the trip to Nyack without notice. Once there, he would go through the ritual of calling Pop on some slight pretense, as though he just happened to be passing through the metropolis of Nyack. Pop’s part of the game was to take it all very seriously, then go into town and get the great actor.

Once Jack called to say he was out of cigarettes and to ask if he could borrow some. Pop set out with an extra pack in his pocket and came back with Jack in tow. The visitor sat down on the couch opposite the big window facing the Hudson, lit a cigarette and stayed three weeks.

Mom denies it, but some of my friends’ parents used to tell me that after Mom and Pop moved in, they received several “inspection visits” from prominent local ladies. Everyone liked Mom and Pop, but some of the women felt the need to gossip, so my parents became the subject of many local jokes. The one everyone still remembers is that Helen and Charlie were such spendthrifts that they even had their initials engraved on all the water faucets -- H and C.

Pop left Nyack temporarily to join the army in 1942, when I was five, which is probably why so many of my earliest memories are of Mom alone. I remember that when I was very young, she insisted on spending at least one evening a week with me. Whenever that evening came, she and I would go off to the kitchen alone. Mom would turn off all the lights, take me in her lap and tell me stories. Quickly the dark room would fill up with giants and boys and good guys and bad guys and all the other things she used to tell me about.

Sometimes she’d let the radio do the entertaining. I remember listening to Inner Sanctum, a marvelous spooky old radio show. Mom and I would hold hands tightly in the pitch-black kitchen and scream whenever a door creaked.

It’s probably because of Pop’s absence, too, that I remember Mom so well as a disciplinarian. Looking back, I made the Katzenjammer Kids look like angels.

We had a big poodle, Turvy, who always used to grab cookies out of my hand. Sometimes I thought that was just great, but sometimes I wanted the cookies myself, and didn’t see anything funny in Turvy’s trick. One day Turvy grabbed a cookie from me and settled down to chew it up. I grabbed a stick and hit him. Mom saw me and cried: “Jamie! How could you be so cruel? It’s my fault because I’m a bad mother. Don’t hit that poor, helpless dog again. Hit me!”

I obliged with a crack across the shins. Then I ran for my life, but actresses keep in good shape, and she chased till she caught me. That was the end of the child psychology.

If Drs. Freud and Gesell never had a chance with Mom, common sense in dealing with me was always one of her strong points. In the summer of 1945, when I was seven years old, I was offered a one-week bit part to warm any boy’s heart. I was to walk onstage with a popgun, in some play I don’t even remember, fire it once and walk off. For going through this arduous scene eight time, I was to receive $50 -- two years’ allowance at the time. The offer was irresistible to me.

But I hadn’t reckoned with Mom.

Mom has a stage manager that led Ben Hecht to say once that “loose in Paris in 1793, Helen could have won the French Revolution singlehanded.” It’s in this manner -- erect, commanding, in a voice full of emotion -- that I remember Mom saying of my one-week engagement with a popgun: “No! No! Jamie is going to have a normal childhood!”

I had to turn the part down. So for revenge, I took up smoking. I filched some cigarettes and practiced lighting up in private. Then I marched up to Mom, stuck a cigarette into my face and lit up with finesse.

I was watching Mom more carefully than she seemed to be watching me. She played it cool. “Smoking, Jamie?” she asked after a while, in the voice of a saint.

“Mmm,” I mumbled, trying to talk with a cigarette between my lips.

“Is it good?”


“Then why don’t you learn to do it right?” She stopped what she was doing to give me very detailed lessons in inhaling. You know the end of that story!

Next summer, Mom had a change of heart. She let me take a small part for a couple of weeks as a Welsh child in The Corn Is Green. To this day I kid her because she seemed to think smoking was worse than acting.

Mom always remained the family disciplinarian, where I was concerned. All the time hew as gone, Mom used Pop as a kind of authority looming behind her: “Your father will hear about this!” But after the war, as I got to know Pop again, I began to realize that he didn’t much like the role of disciplinarian. He was pretty relaxed about life. I remember him once or twice, when I was older, saying, in all seriousness, “Do as I say, not as I do!”

It never struck me until recently, but Mom’s looks always said more than her words. I can never remember her using an exclamation of any kind, yet she could certainly be emphatic. I think she did it all with looks. She could talk calmly and let a glance do the exclaiming.

On the rare occasions when Mom gets mad, she goes through clear stages. First she gets mad. Then she gets madder, then maddest. She cools off in stages, too, going back through madder and mad, to, finally, all-right again. It’s when she’s at the high point of this cycle -- maddest -- that all she’ll do is look at you. But that look can be more expressive than an erupting volcano.

During the summer of 1953, when I was 15, the kids in my gang at Nyack were experimenting with staying out late. Mom’s stages started when a friend of mine, Footie Glynn, told me he had come in very late the night before. He opened his front door cautiously, peeked in and -- pow! -- his father’s fist, obviously waiting and timed perfectly, hit him square in the eye. I thought this was very funny, but Mom definitely did not agree.

She entered what I now know was Stage One. She got talkative mad, explaining at great length what a thoughtless pup Footie was to worry his parents like that. By evening, when I went out, she was in Stage Two. She still talked, but only enough to say things like, “I won’t talk about your staying out late any more!”

She was in Stage Three when I came home, at two in the morning. I was well aware it was way past eleven, when I was supposed to be home. I checked the house before I went in, and was relieved there were no lights on. I took my shoes off on the porch, eased the door open, slid through, closed it carefully -- and jumped a foot when all the downstairs lights clicked on! There stood Mom, at a switch near the front door, in the maddest stage -- murderously silent, with an expression as black as death on her face.

I waited for her to say something -- a minute that seemed like an hour. Finally, I withered and went past her, with a roller-coaster feeling in my stomach. I was awake half the night waiting for the blowup. Next day Mom tapered off. In the morning, all she could do was tell me how awful I was once or twice. By afternoon, she was talking it all out about boys who have no consideration for anyone, the way mothers usually do in these situations.

She never punished me, but she didn’t have to. The look on her face when the lights went on is as real to me now as it was when it happened, nine years ago. I never did anything like that again.

Mom would often seem to get mad at Pop’s teasing, too. Mom is a good cook, but since she’s always so busy and has a hectic, irregular schedule, she seldom bothers to fix big meals herself. When she does, she always goes through a rigamarole about how awful everything will be. “I don’t know why I’m bothering,” she’ll say. “It’s going to come out terrible. No one will be able to eat it.”

On Thanksgiving Day in the early 1950s, Mom was preparing a huge turkey and carrying on in her usual way. “Be prepared for anything,” she told Pop. “If the turkey doesn’t come out any better than my specials usually do, we’ll just have to go out and eat.”

Pop grabbed me and we both disappeared until dinner was ready. Then Mom came into the dining room and found us at the table in our coats and hats, ready to go out and eat. She pretended to be angry, but she spent most of the meal giggling.

The turkey, needless to add, was excellent.

From time to time, Mom has painted, sculpted, designed and sewn clothes, all excellently. She won’t do anything without working very hard at it, so she seldom has time to stay with any of these interests for long. But when she does get some leisure, she’ll plunge into her painting or sculpting as though her life depended on it. She doesn’t like anyone to see her work, though, and few people know she does it.

She owns several great paintings by Degas, Renoir, Matisse and other modern French artists, many of which she bought in Europe in the 1920s before the painters had much recognition. But she doesn’t feel right about keeping great works of art where no one can see them, so these canvases seldom manage to stay on our walls for more than a few days at a time. They’re always in the process of being crated and shipped, on loan, to art shows or museums.

Occasionally, right after one of them comes down, Mom will hang one of her own paintings in its place for a little while, then take it down again.

I discovered, when I was about 16, and just waking up to serious music, that Cesar Franck, the great modern composer, was a favorite of Mom’s. I took this as a sign of culture on her part, and was very snobbishly proud that she liked Franck. I boasted about it one day to a friend. In an effort to impress him, I said, “All you hear in our house is classical music. As a matter of fact, my Mom doesn’t listen to anything lighter than Cesar Franck.” My friend was properly humble until I took him home to prove my point. Of course, we found Mom listening to a record of Oklahoma!

She’s the same way about reading. She loves classics and serious modern books like Doctor Zhivago and The Leopard. But she also likes Eric Ambler thrillers and mysteries by Agatha Christie. Her only demand is that it be good reading.

Mom also happens to be the most discerning reader of plays I’ve ever met. Nearly every play I read, I decide Mom could do superbly. She almost never agrees. But when she calls me about a play, it’s always right, even when it’s the kind of part I never would have thought of for myself.

She’s just as discerning about acting. When I was younger and going through periods of changing taste and smart-guy attitudes, I would come home from a movie or play with an unkind remark about an actor, saying he was a “ham.” In Mom’s mind, though, the word “ham” means only one of two things: that he’s amateurish, or that he’s a complete phony who’s out of his depth in a role. I soon learned that anything an actor did honestly, Mom could understand and appreciate. This was true whether he was a comedian in a B movie or a towering performer in a serious role. She didn’t feel that one sort of thing was better than the other. With total professionalism, she held the view that if a performance was right in its own terms it was worth respecting. Her attitude was an education in taste and in acting. She wasn’t trying consciously to teach me anything except a little understanding and humility in my judgments.

Mom did teach my sister Mary some things about acting, and even appeared in plays with her -- Alice Sit-by-the-Fire was only one of several over the years. Mary was a tall, blue-eyed girl with brown hair and all the charm in the world. Everyone who knew her loved her. She seemed to have inherited most of Mom and Pop’s talents and abilities. Like Mom, she had a great capacity for understanding people and for loving them. Like Pop, she had a way of seeing through frauds and shams and of finding the humor in every situation -- except, it seemed, where the situation involved me.

Looking back ten or fifteen years, though, it’s hard even for me to blame her for that. Much of my childhood seems to have been devoted to teasing Mary and otherwise making her life miserable.
When I was nine and Mary was sixteen, I went fishing one afternoon with a friend named Hunky Mole. In four hours or so, we managed to catch only one eel, about 20 inches long, but I decided to bring the eel home and have some fun with Mom and Mary. We couldn’t locate Mom, but I heard Mary running the water for a bath. I knocked on the door and hollered, “Got something for you, Mary!”

“For Pete’s sake!” she called, opening the door a crack. “What is it?”

I stuck my hand in and pitched the eel toward the tub. Mary’s shriek brought Mom away from whatever she’d been doing, probably the best luck Hunky and I had all afternoon. Mom just gave us a few whacks and a lecture. Mary would have strangled us, I’m sure.

A year later, the whole family was going to Europe on the Queen Elizabeth, and Mary and I shared a stateroom. Mary spent half of an afternoon primping for a dance. I couldn’t go into the cabin while she was dressing, so to retaliate, I locked the door after she’d gone to the ball. She got back about three in the morning and found she couldn’t get into the room. She knocked, then banged on the door, then tried calling me softly and finally began yelling loud enough to wake everyone in the passageway. Through it all, I pretended not to hear. A steward finally opened the door, while I still faked the sleep of innocence. She didn’t talk to me for the rest of the trip.

The saddest time of Mom’s life up till then was when Mary died in 1949, when she was nineteen. I was eleven at the time. Despite all my horseplay, I took Mary pretty much for granted, as brothers usually do their sisters. I loved her, of course, but not in the something-special way that Mom and Pop did. In doing a play called Good Housekeeping together in a Westport, Connecticut, theater, Mary came down with a cold, and Mom sent her back to Nyack to rest up. I remember being surprised to see Mary, but her cold was no more important to me than playing tennis was, or getting ready for school, or any of a hundred other things I had on my mind.
Pop was in a hospital in New York with ulcer trouble then, and when Mary was taken down there, I just thought it was a matter of their wanting to keep each other company. Mom was still in the play, I think, and there was nobody else around to tell me that Mary had polio.

The next thing I remember about it was rushing in a car down to the hospital in Manhattan. I arrived 20 minutes after Mary died in an iron lung.

Mary’s death affected Mom and Pop differently. It was a terrible blow to both of them, but it seemed especially hard on Pop. I couldn’t possibly describe his grief, except to say that everyone felt he never got over it. Mom, terribly stricken at first, did seem to get over her grief in time. I think, though, that it’s more appearance than reality. I’ve heard it said that actresses, like Mom, who spend their lives toying with their own emotions to entertain people, lose the capacity to feel things deeply and don’t experience what other people would in the same circumstances. I don’t believe this for a minute. If my own observations count for anything, they feel more.

The subject of Mary seldom comes up in our family now, but when it does, Mom’s still the same as I remember her immediately after Mary’s death. It’s as though it had all happened just hours ago.

About my own acting, Mom has always maintained a sort of helpful hands-off policy. I know I couldn’t begin to list the things I’ve learned about my trade just by being around her. I’m just as sure that I know important people I wouldn’t have met except that they were her friends. But aside from these things, our careers are managed separately, and that’s that. Mom expects me to do whatever I do on my own. Since this is just what I expect of myself, we get along beautifully. Professionally, I sometimes help her with last minute travel arrangements and she sometimes baby-sits with my son Charlie when my wife Joyce and I are both busy.

If I ask her a question, she’ll answer it with another that will make me think the thing through for myself. It was that way when I got my first real acting job.

In the summer of 1955, between my junior and senior years in high school, Martin Manulis, the TV and movie producer, asked me out of the blue one day if I would like to audition for a part in a Climax! TV series production called The Young Stranger. I asked Mom if she thought I should, and question number one was: “Well? Do you want to?”

I decided I did and went ahead with the audition. I was terrible. I felt pretty bad about it, but decided that there was nothing wrong with going on to college and becoming a doctor or a lawyer, or something. I was in this frame of mind when Martin called me up a few days later to ask if I wanted to go to the West Coast for further auditions. I was sure the only reason Martin was following me up was that I was Helen Hayes’ son. When I told Mom how I felt, the extent of her advice was to ask me question number two: “Do you think Martin would do that when his own reputation and livelihood depend on the show’s being good?”

The answer was obvious, and I’ve never worried since then about being given special treatment because of Mom.

These days, I must confess, I’m more worried about her career than about mine. I’m not trying to be presumptuous. The problem is that she’ll do more than she should. One of her faults has always been an inability to say, “No,” when asked to do something she feels is worthwhile. Pop used to say, “Helen will never die. God will call on the telephone and she’ll say, ‘Yes.’”

Her most recent active project has been touring with the Theater Guild’s American Repertory Company, under State Department auspices, as part of our cultural exchange program with other countries. She and the other members of the company are not treated just as actors on tour, but as honored representatives of the United States. This means that wherever they go, they must attend a whirl of receptions, balls, formal dinners and other semiofficial events. This sounds exciting and glamorous and may even be that, but not when you’re obligated to keep going all day, every day. When you must maintain such a hectic pace, you’re putting up with a strain that would tax an army mule.

When Mom came back from her spring, 1961, tour of Europe, I knew she didn’t want anything more than to put her feet up and sit in the sun at Nyack for a while. But then there came another telephone call, and now, as I write this, she still hasn’t returned from a thirteen-week tour of major South American cities that started last August.

I’ve been skirting one issue: the matter of my being an adopted child. It may sound odd, but the reason I haven’t discussed it is that I think about it so seldom -- almost never, really, unless I’m asked. This may tell you a lot more about Mom than almost anything else I could think of to say about her.

I don’t know that I ever did think much about being adopted, except as I reacted to what Mom and Pop felt about it. I can remember Pop getting very angry about newspaper stories that referred to me as their “adopted son.” The last time this happened was when I was a senior in high school. I can still remember Pop’s words: “He’s been our adopted son for seventeen years. When does he stop being adopted and start being our son? Don’t these people have any heart?”

After Pop died, in the spring of 1956, when I was 18, Mom showed me a letter he’d written me twelve years earlier, while he was away in the army. In it, he’d “promoted” me from corporal to master sergeant, and had very carefully used the word “adopted” in some natural way. It was part of Mom and Pop’s lifelong effort to help me understand about myself in a way a child could accept as natural.

While we were looking at the letter, Mom asked if I wanted to know about my birth.

“No,” I answered without hesitation. But she wouldn’t accept that as final.

“Think about it,” she said. “I have your birth certificate and adoption papers, if you ever want to see them.”

I did think about it then, long and hard, but there was nothing I had to work out, really. Years earlier, I’d read somewhere that none of us is more than 30 percent a product of inheritance. The other 70 percent is environment. If this is true, I’d certainly been modified quite a bit by the people I called Mom and Pop -- by the house where we lived, the things we did, the friends we knew. If after all that, I still wasn’t Mom and Pop’s son, then I wasn’t anybody’s son, and the word had no meaning. I didn’t want to see Mom’s papers.

This was not a great, dramatic decision for me. It was something that had been forming itself in my mind without conscious effort, I guess, ever since I first became aware of myself as a person, when I was ten or twelve years old. But I dreaded the tearful scene I thought might follow if I made an occasion to explain all this to Mom. I knew I owed it to both of us to say what I thought, but I wasn’t going to say it till she asked again. She never did, and we’ve never discussed it again. I doubt we ever will. Mom understands these things, and I’m grateful.

Naturally most other folks, including many of her fans, see Helen Hayes, the Queen of the Theater, in another, more impersonal, light. But this is the way I feel about Mom -- and, as you can see, it’s a good feeling. I’m sure I’d feel this way even if Mom never appeared on any stage, anywhere.

Helen Hayes

Helen Hayes

James MacArthur

James MacArthur, Helen Hayes

James MacArthur

Helen Hayes, James MacArthur

James MacArthur, Helen Hayes, Charles MacArthur

Helen Hayes, James MacArthur, Joyce Bulifant

James MacArthur

>>Back to Top<<

{Home} {Current News} {Latest Site Updates} {Film Credits} {Television Credits} {Stage Credits}
{Other Credits} {Combined Credits} {Biography} {FAQ} {Charles MacArthur Salute}
{Email James MacArthur} {Photo Index} {Articles & Interviews} {Non-English Articles}
{Video Clips} {Contact Site Administrator} {Site Help} {Search Site} {Interactive Games}
{View/Sign Guestmap} {Join Mailing List} {Join Discussion Group} {Send an E-Card} {Free Screensavers}
{Site Visitor Statistics} {Site Awards} {Site Accreditations & Affiliations} {Links} {Privacy} {Copyright}
Site Layout and All Original Site Content © 2001-11 curator@jamesmacarthur.com. All rights reserved.

Site best viewed at 800x600 or higher screen resolution.