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McCall's (February 1956)

"Meet My Helen Hayes"

By James MacArthur as told to Sidney Fields

Most parents can be problems, and mine are no exception. In many ways I find I have to take care of them, if you know what I mean. I may be just seventeen, but I’ve known that fact for a long while.

One day, for instance, Mom came home and said: “Something marvelous has just happened. A friend of mine let me invest some money in a wonderful new gadget! A push-button can opener!”

“What,” I asked, “is a push-button can opener?”

“As I understand it, dear,” she told me, “you just press a button or something and the can opens.”

That was two years ago. Nothing ever happened with that push-button can opener, and I’d say her money was down the drain.

Don’t misunderstand. I think my mother is a great actress and the sweetest, gentlest and most generous woman I ever met. But she’s vague at times and often impractical and sometimes does strange things, like the can-opener business. She knows practically nothing about handling money.”

When we go into a restaurant, for example, Mom never looks at the check. Pop doesn’t either. Well, I think you ought to look at a check before you pay it. Waiters can make mistakes. They’re human. I’ve told my parents that dozens of times. They still don’t look. They’re really naive, when you get right down to it.

My Uncle Alfred, my father’s brother, is a whiz at finance. He’s in the insurance business in Chicago and tries to advise Mom and Pop about money now and then. Now, I understand him most of the time, I think, and Mom nods and says, “Yes, Alfred. Of course, Alfred. Sure, Alfred.” But when he’s gone she shakes her head and says, “Oh, I wish I knew what Uncle Alfred was talking about.”

I guess you have to have a shell around you when you’re an actress, especially about money. Mom just doesn’t have one. The miracle is that she manages at all where finances are concerned.

I think I’ve got the shell myself. For instance, I go to Solebury School in New Hope, Pennsylvania. (My parents let me pick the school, and I didn’t want a swank one. Swank doesn’t fit anywhere in our family.) Anyway, my allowance is five dollars a week. That may seem a lot. It isn’t. Between club dues and paying for the school paper and toothpaste, a dance now and then and a few other things you need, it’s not much, really. So when possible I earn a few dollars. Last summer I was lucky enough to work on a television show, Climax, and they paid me $1,000. After taxes and paying the agent his fee I had $690 left. I put $190 of it into the bank to shore up my checking account and take care of things like presents for the family, a date, a weekend in New York, and I sent the remaining $500 to Uncle Alfred to invest for me. Now, Mom and Pop would never do that.

Every few years or so Mom will find someone she once knew who’s down on his luck or just plain lonely, and she’ll move him right into the house with us. Well, I’m all for kindness, but these people live with us for six months, a year or more. Now, I’m not criticizing her. How can you criticize goodness like that? But Pop, who feels the same way I do about it, swaps a hopeless look with me whenever it happens.

Another thing, Mom and Pop are both indifferent to social custom. Once they went away for a weekend, and Pop forgot to bring the right shoes and came down to dinner wearing a tux and tennis shoes. He doesn’t do this to be funny, you understand. He’s just casual about social etiquette. And Mom doesn’t cater to any current fashion, either. She never runs around to the dress shops just to be decked out in the latest style. Someone once said, “Helen Hayes doesn’t dress badly. She just doesn’t dress, period.” The remark didn’t bother Mom at all. She’d rather be worrying about her family than dressing to kill; or she’d rather collect different roses or good pictures than furs or jewels.

She’s contrary about fashion too. Once mom was invited to the home of a very rich man in Detroit. The host was a Picasso enthusiast, and brought out a tray with a horse on it painted by Picasso. All the guests flocked around it, gasping, “How wonderful! What genius!” Mom took one look and said: “Aren’t you holding it upside down?” And he was. He’d been holding it upside down for five years. No, Mom’s no phony. She sees what she sees and doesn’t pretend to see what she doesn’t. In that respect she’s a little like a kid. Kids are honest that same way. Mom’s a kid in lots of ways, and kids need caring for.

The first time I realized both Mom and Pop need care was when my sister Mary died. That was in 1949. I was eleven then, too young to know the meaning of it. It didn’t sink to any depth for a while. I’ll never forget that day. I was getting ready to go see Mary in the hospital, and I remember very clearly saying to myself: “Gee, I hope she doesn’t die!” and then, quickly: “What are you saying!” feeling shame at my foolishness. I got into the car and was driven from Nyack, New York, where we live, to the hospital in New York City. Twenty minutes after we got there Mary was gone. She was nineteen and very beautiful. Mom came to me and said: “You’ll have to look after your father now.” And Pop came to me and said: “You’ll have to take care of Mom now.”

I don’t know if the hurt will ever go. It’s still there, I know. I see it in lots of ways still. Things like that make a family closer. It started a change in me. As a kid I’d do things like grabbing Pop’s cane from behind him, or pretending not to listen to Mom. Well, when a family tragedy happens, you stop that stuff. You’re not so thoughtless. You’re careful to talk to your parents, and listen. You understand and see things you didn’t before. Death was something I couldn’t realize, being young. I only know I felt miserable along with Mom and Pop.

I went through a pretty bad period when at Solebury. I started smoking before I was allowed to. You’re allowed to smoke at sixteen with your parents’ permission. I wasn’t sixteen, so they put me on probation for three weeks, and when I was caught a second time they gave me three more weeks, both times with work -- cleaning out the pond, raking the driveway, weeding out the tennis court. But I kept cutting up. And out of the thirty-six weeks in the school year, I spent twenty-four weeks on bounds, except to get a hair cut, and for five I was on probation. Furthermore, I had to go to bed right after the study hour at 9:15, while the other guys had an extra hour. If I’d done one more wrong thing I’d have been expelled. I wasn’t being tough or wise; I suppose it was a delayed reaction to Mary’s death. Or maybe that’s just an excuse I’m using now. But it had one good result: It took Mom’s and Pop’s mind off Mary a little.

By my next year at Solebury I’d settled down, but it had been rough on Mom and Pop. They heard all abut it, of course, from the headmaster. They knew I wanted to go to Harvard or Dartmouth, and twenty-four weeks on bounds is hardly the best recommendation for entering a good college. But they didn’t scold me. They always use the quiet way. “It’s up to you,” they’d say.

That’s worse than a bawling out. You can react to a scolding; you can retort.They only hit me twice in my life. When I was about five, Pop was on the phone talking about a movie he was writing and I was trying to crawl out the window to the roof, although Pop was yelling at me not to. But I did, finally, and he grabbed me just in time to prevent my falling. Mom and Mary heard him roaring and came running into the room, and when they saw he was going to whack me they screamed: “No! Don’t, Charley! Don’t!” But he ordered them very sternly from the room, and I really got the hairbrush treatment that time. I never forgot it.

The second time was almost ten years later when I had started going out. I’m supposed to be in before midnight when I do go out, but this night I was at an interesting party and didn’t look at the clock until after two a.m. When I got home at three there wasn’t a light on in the whole house. I started tiptoeing upstairs and suddenly all the lights went up. There was Mom standing there. She was furious. Those blue eyes were blazing. She swung at me so hard she hurt her own hand. That got her madder. I rushed upstairs in a hurry because when Mom’s mad it’s a mess. I don’t mean she screams or rages, but it takes two or three days for her to cool off. You just have to be patient with her at such a time.

Once Mom tried to use “psychology.” I was six then, and a bad actor at times. One day Mom asked my aunt what she did when her two boys were bad. My aunt said she used psychology. When her boys were bad my aunt would say: “I’m a bad mother. Hit me. Hit me. I deserve it.” Well, one day I hit our dog with a stick and Mom said quietly, “I’m sure you’d do a thing like that only because I’ve been a bad mother. I deserve to be hit, not the dog.” I must have agreed with her, because I hit her across the shins. She screamed. That was the end of the psychology.

Mom isn’t big, you know. She just makes five, one. With that soft voice and upturned nose and blue eyes you’d never expect temper. She’s reserved with people; she shakes hands firmly, is polite and warm, but always reserved. The one thing she can’t keep reserved is her eyes. They either laugh or flash fire.

At home it’s a good idea to remember her temper in the morning. She’s always asking me questions in the morning: “Where did you go last night? What time did you get home? How come you aren’t mowing the lawn?” But after she fixes breakfast (she’s a pretty good cook, you know), her eyes begin to laugh. After breakfast she bustles around getting things tidied up, and then she tends to her letters and makes her phone calls and works in the garden. Mom’s not methodical, but things get done very well.

When chores are done we usually sit around on the back porch talking or watch the ball game on TV. Mom’s a Giant fan, and not just because I am, either. She really likes baseball and knows it. If the games aren’t one we tune in music. Sometimes the radio causes a crisis. Pop wants the news. Mom wants good music. I want rock ‘n roll. So I listen to either news or music. If I accidentally tune in a classical number, Mom will say: “Oh, Jim, leave that on a minute, will you?” And then she’ll say, as if talking to herself, “That’s the Beethoven ‘Second Piano Concerto.’” It kills me the way she knows those things.

We have dinner about 7:30 and then talk or play three-handed canasta. I like that feeling at night at home. I belong. It’s my place. Mom usually goes to bed at eleven and reads before she sleeps. Novels. Classics. Mysteries. Once in a while she turns on the television late show when there’s a good English thriller.

When Mom’s rehearsing a new play things are in a turmoil. She usually stays in New York and rushes home on her one free day off and works like crazy to get the house in order. Then she rushes back to work. It’s tough on her.

She’s always moving around fast. When she has an 8 a.m. appointment and it’s ten minutes away by cab, she leaves at 7:55. I’d toe-tap and get nervous for fear I’d be late and leave at 7:45. Pop would start rushing around at 7:30, dash out at 8:15, then dash back to make one more phone call. Pop is never on time. He even misses boats to Europe.

Mom has to have her finger in everything. When there’s something to be done she won’t trust anyone to do it. She does it herself. I guess that’s where I get it from. But with Pop, you have to keep after him. He’s finished a play with Anita Loos, called Cock-a-doodle Daisy -- Gilbert Miller expects to produce it this fall -- and when he was writing it I’d give him a nudge now and then. “How’s the play going?” I’d ask. Asking him keeps him working on it.

Mom never gives up when she believes in something. During the war she got worked up over the kids in Europe, trying to get them over here where they could be fed and safe until the war was over. She even went to Washington, faced a Senate hearing and told the senators what they ought to do about those kids. They asked her if she would take one of them herself and her blue eyes flashed.

“Certainly,” she said. “I have two of my own.” She did take one, an English boy, Charley McNaughton. She even took his mother too. Charley was all right. We had fun. He used to chase Pop around the house with a curtain rod yelling: “Stick ‘em up!” Once in a while he’d smack Pop right across the shins with the curtain rod.

Mom’s sense of right and wrong is very keen. Last summer when she and I flew back from Paris, where she was in The Skin of Our Teeth, she phoned the air line on a Tuesday and asked for a berth and they said none was left. But on the plane she sat behind a man and found out he had applied for a berth on Friday and got one. Her Irish temper blazed. She sure let the air line know about it.

She can be awfully vague, too. She’ll make careful plans for the family to go out to dinner and at the last minute remember that she hasn’t decided where we are to eat. Or she’ll say we’re driving to Nyack from New York, and just when we’re ready to leave she’ll remember that she hasn’t told Pop about it, or ask: “By the way, who’s got the car?” She probably lent it to a friend. Things like that happen hundreds of times.

Mom was born a Catholic and still goes to church. Pop is Protestant; he went to missionary school once -- his father was a preacher and Pop has a remarkable memory of the Bible. But neither of them tried to inject their beliefs into me. I guess theirs was a special kind of problem, coming from two churches. They did send me to church and Sunday school to give me a good basis in religion. I was confirmed in the Dutch Reformed Church and attend it when I’m home. At school I go to the Episcopal Church or the school chapel.

They never push me about anything. Least of all the theater. There were at least seven little parts I could have had in plays Mom or Pop were connected with. But Mom said no. School comes first.

Would they like me to be an actor? I don’t know, actually. If I ask they say: “You’re old enough. Make your own decision. If you’re happy in your decision, no matter what it is, we’re for it. And we’ll even help you to the starting point. After that you’re on your own.”

I’ve never really talked to them seriously about acting. Pop is horrified at the thought. “For heavens sakes!” he says, “Not an actor! That’s a death worse than fate.” He probably means it. Up to now I guess he was worried I’d be arrested for breaking windows. Now he’s worried about my becoming an actor. But he needn’t fear. I’ll probably study economics, or business, or maybe even archeology.”

The truth is I’ve done very little acting. When I was nine my sister Mary was at Olney, Maryland, in stock, and she phoned Mom and asked if I could come down and be in The Corn is Green with her. Mom wondered how Mary could study her part and take care of a nine-year-old boy too. But Mary said she’d love it, and I went down and played in the play for two weeks and even learned a little Welsh. Later Mr. Richard Aldrich, the producer, brought The Corn is Green to his playhouse at Falmouth, Massachusetts, and I was in it again.

I went back to Falmouth in the summer of 1954 because I wanted a job to earn a few dollars. Mom said I could. I started by parking the cars, and got a boost to painting the scenery, and then was made assistant electrician and finally promoted to electrician.

Later on I lined up with the other apprentices and tried out for a part in Life With Father with Howard Lindsay and Dorothy Stickney. I made it. But Mom wasn’t as proud of that as she was of my electrician’s job and doing the lighting for Barbara Bel Geddes in The Little Hut and for Gloria Vanderbilt Stokowska in The Swan. Why she was so proud of my becoming the electrician I don’t know. I got the job because the electrician was fired. Maybe she was proud because I was miles away from home and alone and on my own. Mom, being an actress, is away from home a lot herself.

When the school term ended last June, Mom read a script for Climax, the television show, and asked Pop and me to read it too. We all liked it. Mom thought there might be a part in it for me and said if I could get it, okay. Then we went off to Europe, where Mom did The Skin of Our Teeth.

When Mom and I got back she went on to Washington with Skin. I was asked to come too for a walk-on, but I decided to gamble on making the part in Climax, mostly because I’d get a free trip to California. It’s produced there. After I read for five TV executives they said: “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.” That’s the brush-off. I wasn’t a pro and they could see it.

I phoned mom in Washington. Pop was still in Europe. I asked her for permission to go to California and try again for the same play, this time before the director, Mr. Martin Manulis. Mom said the strikes were against me -- my failure the first try-out, and it might look as if I were trading on her name. But she agreed to let me go.

I got to California. Mr. Manulis let me read again and work on a couple of scenes. Everybody seemed to like it and I got the job. The best part of the whole experience was another young man on the show who had a Thunderbird. He let me drive.

After the show on last August 25 there were maybe five or six offers to do other things, and some required an answer right away. But for one thing I had a date that night, and for another I had to write a new constitution for the “Town Hall” at Solebury. That’s our student government. To tell you the truth, I’m afraid of doing anything as an actor that would flop. I have my mother to live up to. I wouldn’t want to do anything to shame her.

She started acting when she was seven; success didn’t come easy. Before she was twelve she was in eight plays. You either have it or you don’t. Mom has it, because she went through child parts, ingenues, flappers and finally character roles. Very few actresses have made such transitions and survived. Why, she even survived Hollywood. When she was brought out there in 1931 she was already a stage star, and the casting director called her “Miss Hanes” and asked: “What’s your specialty, Miss Hanes?” She disliked Hollywood, but her first picture won her an Oscar -- The Sin of Madelon Claudet. Pop wrote the screen play.

Mom was twenty when she got billed as a star. She was to open in a Broadway play called Babs, in a theater where the electric sign was vertical and five stories high. It was too big for just Babs, and too small to say “Babs, by Mary Roberts Rinehart.” Somebody got the notion that “Helen Hayes in Babs” would just fit. It did. But it’s a frightening thing to be a star at twenty. Unless you’re good, you’re through. But Mom did, and still can do, anything on the stage, in movies, radio or television.

I never acted with her face to face, but last May she came down to school to do “An Evening of Queens,” her own idea of scenes from Macbeth, Mary of Scotland, Catherine the Great, and Victoria Regina. I ran on as a messenger in Macbeth and moved her around in a wheel chair in Victoria Regina. While watching her act, one minute I see her as my mother and the next she drops all those characteristics and becomes another person so completely I can’t believe it. It’s magic. It’s unfaltering greatness, that’s what it is. Yet, even to this day, she’s humble about acting. She has a great respect for it. She still says that you’re not a star because your name is in lights. Only your performance can make you a star.

Yet, as great as she is, the boss in our family is Pop. We all three make decisions. But Pop makes the final ones. If he says no about anything around the house -- decorating or gardening, even -- Mom won’t do it. When she’s considering a play she asks Pop to read the script, and they decide together whether she’ll be in it.

My relationship with my parents isn’t unique. I respect them because they are decent human beings. True, Pop never took me fishing, but they take me out to dinner and talk to me as an equal and I prefer it that way to fishing.

I suppose, like all sons, I’m something of a mystery to them. But then, they’ve been mysteries to me. The Christmas I was seven, Mom decided to buy me a pony. She couldn’t find a pony so she bought me a Sicilian donkey at Macy’s. Poor Pop, he had to get up on Christmas Day before dawn to receive it, and it was below-zero weather. Who wanted a donkey? My feet dangled over its sides, it was so small. I felt silly.

Her name was Susie. Mom housebroke her and she’d come inside regularly and clean out the ashtrays. She loved cigarette butts and was better than a silent butler. But once in a while she’d break loose and go galavanting down the streets of Nyack. Someone would call the cops. The cops would call us and Mom would go flying down the street after Susie.

Pop was writing a movie then and Herman Mankiewicz, the producer, arrived from Hollywood to talk to him about it. Mr. Mankiewicz phoned his wife as soon as he got to our house and just then Susie walked into the room. Mr. Mankiewicz, who was on the phone, said: “Oh, what a big dog they have here!” Then suddenly he jumped as if he’d been bitten and yelled: “Holy smokes! It’s a donkey!” And then he started shouting into the phone: “No, dear! I’m sober as a judge!”

What with their vagueness and no sense about business or money and the strange things they do, my parents, as I said in the beginning, can be problems. But they’re really pretty lovely problems.

To probe the heart and mind of a seventeen-year-old boy about his famous parents should be a frightening and wonderful challenge. In the case of James Gordon MacArthur it was wonderful but not the least bit frightening. He is steady, articulate and without pretension.

A sturdy 150 pounds, and five feet, seven inches tall, he plays guard on the Solebury varsity football team. He is also president of his class; president of the “Town Hall,” the student government; president of the Drama Club; and co-editor of The Scribe, the school paper.

He graduates from Solebury this June. Though he scored a signal success in the television show “Climax” last August, his mind at the moment is not on acting. It’s on entering a university and carving out a career, and (to be complete) on a co-ed at Solebury named Joyce Bulifant, a bright and lovely blonde bundle.

About recording his impression of his mother and father, Jim says simply: “When you put something down on paper you can’t mince words. They have to say exactly what you mean. You can’t shade them or change them as you do when you’re talking. Let’s try to be exact.”

He tried, but never found all the superlatives he wanted to use. His constant prayer is that at least some of the qualities of his mother and father may brush off on him.

Charles MacArthur, James MacArthur, Helen Hayes

James MacArthur, Helen Hayes

James MacArthur

Charles MacArthur, James MacArthur, Helen Hayes

James MacArthur, Helen Hayes

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