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Good Cooking (October 1950)

"Home Comes First with Helen Hayes"

Helen Hayes, beloved leading lady of the American theatre and wife of playwright-producer Charles MacArthur, is small, quiet, and wistfully beautiful. She likes to tell jokes on herself. On a recent Sunday, the MacArthurs invited fourteen friends to a picnic lunch. At the last minute the man engaged to help Mrs. Sternberg, their Dutch cook, disappointed them. Miss Hayes told Mrs. Sternberg not to worry: she would set the outdoor table and help arrange the food. For the first time in years, Mrs. Sternberg's calm deserted her. "Oh, if you please, Mrs. MacArthur --" she pleaded, "No!"

Actually, Miss Hayes is a competent cook. She manages to satisfy her twelve-year-old son, James, who has very definite tastes -- he likes seafood and what his mother calls "the Coney Island cuisine," hot dogs and hamburgers. Shrimp cocktail is his all-time favorite. When Mrs. Sternberg is out for the evening, Miss Hayes goes marketing and cooks dinner for Jamie. The menu invariably is frozen shrimp cocktail, hamburgers, toasted buns and coleslaw.

James in the main reason that The Wisteria Trees, Miss Hayes' most recent Broadway play, will not go on tour. She feels she can't leave him until he's grown-up enough not to need her around. Miss Hayes, who made theater box-office history with her coast-to-coast tours of Victoria Regina and Harriet, smiled a little ruefully, "It's a terrible thing to do to my producer," she said. "But you know how children are -- they like to know you're there."

The MacArthurs have never believed in "child storage" in boarding schools and summer camps. James goes to school in Nyack, New York, where the MacArthurs live, and stays home summers. He did go away to school one year, when his father was in the Army. James decided home was better.

Home is a sprawling white Victorian house on a street called North Broadway. It's set back from the road and the grounds behind it slope down to the Hudson River. Because renovating and decorating the house cost so much, the MacArthurs call it "Pretty Penny." They love it, though they're apt to grumble about not having enough room for guests. "We've lived here eighteen years -- the happiest years," Miss Hayes said. "This is my home forever more."

At home, Miss Hayes passes her days very quietly -- weeding the rose garden, mowing the lawn, playing with her French poodles (Nappy, a boisterous black poodle, and Camille, his nine-year-old mother, who is an elegant white).

Miss Hayes has her own kitchen specialties, too. Breakfast is where she really shines -- she always cooks it for the family. Most days, her own breakfast consists of protein-bread toast and coffee, but every now and then she makes scrambled eggs. "Nobody can scramble eggs like I can," she said with her disarming smile. "I make them in the top of the double boiler, and I don't add milk, or anything. They come out nice and soft." When there are houseguests, Miss Hayes whips up waffles and bacon for everybody, or in the winter, buckwheat cakes. Then, she said, "the kitchen is like Grand Central. The dogs go everywhere I do, and the guests take heart and follow us in to make their own breakfast favorites. I don't know how Mrs. Sternberg stands it."

Born in Washington, Miss Hayes has Southern food tastes -- she remembers as a child having gorgeous great breakfasts of sausage cakes or sausage, hominy, scrapple or fried pork roll. She loves hominy in any form, but can't get her family to eat it. She also loves Southern fried chicken, crab cakes and deviled crabs -- "all terribly rich stuff, we don't have it very often."

When she is working in a play, the family has dinner about 6:30 (she doesn't like to eat after the theater). The MacArthurs almost always have a hot soup for dinner, then chicken or a roast, potatoes and a couple of green vegetables. "We're not salad eaters and we rarely eat desserts -- even Jamie isn't fond of them," Miss Hayes said. "There's one exception, though, that we all break down for. It's my mother's lemon pie. Having grown up with Mother's, I resent the chiffon stuff that passes for lemon pie nowadays."

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