A Child of the Century

updated 03/29/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/29/1993 AT 01:00 AM EST

A tiny woman, she cast the longest of shadows

IT COMES AS A SHOCK TO LEARN THAT Helen Hayes, the First Lady of American Theater, stood just 5' tall. In a career that spanned the century, in roles ranging from Cleopatra to Miss Marple, the diminutive actress was able to command the stage—to make it her living room and to invite the audience in—like few before her. "I had a feeling," she once wrote, "that the public thought of me as a member of the family."

By the time she succumbed in her sleep at the age of 92 last week, Hayes had perfected a grace so simple as to be misleading. Born in Washington in 1900—the daughter of actress Catherine Hayes Brown—she made her first professional appearance at age 5 as Prince Charles in The Royal Family and debuted on Broadway four years later in the musical comedy Old Dutch. Though she said she became an actress at her mother's prompting and always just "floated along," Hayes worked tirelessly for the next 70 years. Perhaps her greatest triumph was a three-year run as Queen Victoria in Victoria Regina in the 1930s. By the time she retired from the stage in 1971, Hayes had a Broadway theater named after her and a bevy of awards—including three Tonys and two Oscars (for The Sin of Madelon Claudet in 1931 and Airport in 1970).

Still, she found time to raise a family. At a party in 1924 she met playwright Charles MacArthur, who immediately swept her off her feel when he gave her a handful of peanuts saying, "I wish these were emeralds." Four years later, after his great success with The Front Page, the couple married. They had a daughter, Mary, who died at age 19 in 1949 during a polio epidemic, and adopted a son, James, now 55, an actor best known for his role as the stoic Danno on the 1970's TV series Hawaii Five-O.

Hayes said she delighted in the home life—home being a magnificent, 19-room Victorian on the Hudson River in upstate New York, where she continued to live after Charles's death in 1956 and throughout her retirement. Not that she ever sat still. "If you rest, you rust," said Hayes, who actively supported the Actors Fund, a Mexican orphanage and Mother Teresa, and wrote several memoirs, including 1990's My Life in Three Acts. "I don't seem to have learned anything through my whole life but my own life. However, it's nice," she said, with her usual modesty. "A lot of people don't even get to learn that, do they?"

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