In Helen Hayes's First Novel, Set at the Oscars, It's Not Who Won It but Whodunit

updated 03/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/21/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

The gleaming black Cadillac swings into the vast Long Island shopping mall. Inside the limo anxiety is building. Helen Hayes, cloaked in mink, is late for a book-signing date. While this superbly trained actress appears thoroughly self-possessed, the publicist at her side is a jangle of nerves. It is her job to deliver Hayes to the B. Dalton bookstore. And here they are losing valuable time as the chauffeur, clearly lost, noses the car around the parking lot of the 95-acre mall.

The reason for this unusual foray into the commercial heartland is Hayes's latest venture. With the considerable help of author Thomas Chastain, she has "written" a mystery about a murder at the Academy Awards called Where the Truth Lies. Now, still a trouper at 87, she is heading out on a grueling cross-country promotion tour with stops in Boston, Cleveland, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Fifteen minutes late though it is, Hayes's entrance into B. Dalton's is flawless. As the crowd breaks into applause, she moves briskly to the New Fiction counter, as regal as Queen Victoria—a role she once played on Broadway. Then, settling herself behind a table, she cheerfully proceeds to sign books for the next 90 minutes.

Hayes has been charming audiences ever since she skipped onstage as a pint-size Gibson Girl in 1906. Since then she has appeared in a staggering number of plays and 18 movies. Although she retired from the theater in 1971 and made her last TV movie two years ago, Hayes keeps on performing in one guise or another. "Very few ladies are perhaps as foolhardy as I am," she says.

"They grow up a little bit and learn to mind their manners. I'm the girl who can't say no." Since 1965 Hayes has received co-writing credit on half a dozen books, including one she did with old pal Anita Loos, and two autobiographies. A passionate mystery fan, Hayes had never thought of producing one herself until two years ago, when book packager Bill Adler suggested she team up with a professional writer on a Hollywood whodunit.

Hayes's partner-in-crime is Chastain, 67, a best-selling mystery writer. He devised the plot and did the actual writing, while she provided the inside information. Hayes proved an abundant source, a fount of facts, opinions and reminiscences. To get it all down, Hayes spoke for hours into a tape recorder in her rambling Victorian house in Nyack, N.Y. Later, she and Chastain met weekly to map out the story at a Manhattan restaurant.

The novel's main character is Halcie Harper, a Hayes-like actress who plays a crucial role in solving a murder, which occurs during the Academy Awards telecast. "Helen seemed to me such a natural character for this kind of book," says Chastain, "that if I had tried to make her up I really couldn't."

Hayes had two reasons for tackling the project. One was that she was eager to learn firsthand about the intricate craft of mystery writing. "I got a chance to go backstage and see a pro at work," she explains. "I learned how you can mislead without cheating." She also wanted to speak her mind about Hollywood, a town she knows well. "What appealed to me the most," says Hayes, "was the opportunity to describe some of the quirks, postures and ridiculous carryings-on of that world."

Hayes's dislike of Hollywood goes back to the '30s when she moved there with her husband, writer Charles Mac-Arthur, who died in 1956. "My husband started me not liking Hollywood," says Hayes. "He was indignant about it during his years of slavery there. I used to rebuke him and Ben Hecht because they went out there for more money than they thought they would ever make in their lives and then were furious at the treatment they received. But I said, 'If you came out here for the money, take it and shut up.' "

Some of Hayes's stories became highlights in the life of her fictional alter ego, Halcie Harper. One involved the time in 1932 when Hayes won and briefly lost the Best-Actress Oscar she had been awarded for her work in The Sin of Madelon Claudet. "I went to a party at Norma Shearer and Irving Thalberg's house after the ceremony," recalls Hayes. "When it was over I couldn't find the Oscar. It was panic time because the Academy called the next morning and said they were sending someone over to pick it up for engraving. I looked everywhere. More than a week later someone opened the trunk of the car and there it was."

Attached as she is to Halcie Harper, Hayes insists her fictional self could never become a Hollywood version of Agatha Christie's Jane Marple. "I wouldn't dare to try to encroach on Miss Marple," says Hayes, who has twice played the grande dame of detectives in TV movies. She admits, though, to possessing one deeply ingrained Marple-like trait: She is an inveterate and skillful watcher of people. "As an actress," says Hayes, "one does study people's actions, facial expressions and postures. When I was very young in New York, my mother and I would ride the subway from our Greenwich Village apartment to the theater district. I would be working someone out like a jigsaw puzzle, and my mother would nudge me and say, 'Stop staring, Helen.' "

Hayes, who reads mysteries at airports and late at night in bed, prides herself on her ability to spot the culprit. "I can do it like a shot," she says. "I just try to close my mind to this great gift I have of figuring everything out. When I was reading Tom Chastain's manuscript, I phoned him and said, 'Tom, I'm terribly sorry, but I'm two-thirds through and I've guessed.' And he said, 'Well, just keep on reading.' So I did and, damn it, he fooled me. I was way off the track. He had fooled me proper."

With her first novel in the stores, Hayes has begun working (again with a collaborator) on another book about her life. When she's not in her Nyack house on the Hudson River, Hayes visits her son, actor James (Hawaii Five-0) MacArthur, in Honolulu. A tireless traveler, Hayes tries to spend several months each year at her villa in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Wherever she goes, she is accompanied by longtime assistant Vera Benlian. At home, she attends an exhausting round of benefits and galas. Hayes occasionally ventures out to the movies but rarely sees anything she likes. ("I can't tell one film star from another," she complains. "It's probably my age, my failing eyesight or something.")

Hayes probably won't attend next month's Academy Awards ceremonies. "I don't know whether I'd dare," says the actress, whose disdain for Hollywood comes through loud and clear. "I might just get a knife in my back."

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