Picks and Pans Review: My Life in Three Acts

updated 07/23/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/23/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Helen Hayes with Katherine Hatch

At age 89, the First Lady of the American Theater has just published her eighth book. If, in her nearly 80-year career as an actress, Hayes has sometimes returned to a role to have yet another go at interpreting it, then here, as an author, she is taking an additional whack at telling the story of her life.

It's a story she told in her 1965 autobiography, A Gift of Joy, and in a volume of memoirs. On Reflection, published in 1968.

This time out, Hayes goes over much of the same territory she covered previously, but she makes admissions late in life that she had trouble facing up to in her previous books. Now, for example, she comes right out and says that her beloved husband, playwright Charles (The Front Page) Mac-Arthur, became a self-destructive alcoholic after their daughter, Mary, died of polio at age 19 in 1949. "Charlie set about killing himself," she writes bluntly. "It took seven years, and it was harrowing to watch. I longed to help, but everything I did proved wrong. Looking back, I feel sure that there was no right thing to do, but at the time I was frustrated, always trying and always doing something wrong."

Less revealing are the many anecdotes she tells about encounters with the famous. President John F. Kennedy borrowed a pen from her, and returned it. Joan Crawford was "not quite rational in her raising of children. You might say she was strict or stern. But cruel is probably the right word."

And of Lillian Gish, a pal for 50 years, she reports, "All her clothes date from 40 years back, but the dresses are still elegant, and she's proud that they still fit."

The titular three acts refer to her years as a child actress, her years with Mac Arthur and her busy and productive three decades since his death. Hayes charmingly admits that she has spent much of the third act copping honorary degrees and awards. "Sometimes when I'm asked what I've been doing since retirement, I'm tempted to answer, 'I accept honors,' " Hayes writes, adding, "Still, if putting in an appearance and being photographed accepting some honor serves to focus attention on an institution or charity, that's fine with me. It is certainly an easy way to do good."

Hayes seems by nature a nice woman, and this is a nice book—which, despite the cynical age we live in, is meant as a compliment. She is not about to deliver the low-down on anyone's sex life or stick the, knife in too deeply, but she does have some good stories to tell, and she tells them agreeably. To ask more of her at 89—onstage she portrayed a bitch once and once only (in the play Mr. Gilhooley) and happily admits she was badly miscast—would be like asking a whittler to start using a buzz saw. (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $19.95)

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