Helen Hayes' Grouch Bag
by Robert Baker
A friend in Washington sent me a letter asking me to look after Helen Hayes, the great American actress, who soon would arrive on a private one week visit to Sydney, Australia. I did cultural and public affairs work at the U.S. Consulate General in Sydney. At our first meeting, I liked her immediately for her simplicity, warmth and intelligence. That impression never changed.
Helen was in her mid-70's and touring the Pacific region with Richard Coe, retired drama critic of The Washington Post . He left me to entertain Helen while he went on a separate tour of Australia's rough Northern Territory. A star of stage and screen, she even had a theatre named for her in New York.
Shortly after their arrival, we met for coffee to arrange her schedule. Helen wanted to attend an opera and a ballet, meet the dancers, see something of Sydney, meet some interesting people and shop for Australia's famous opals. She also agreed to do a couple interviews and receptions. Her warmth, bright blue eyes and fresh complexion belied her age, although she usually rested afternoons.
A couple incidents stand out. We were in a Sydney television studio when the young lady interviewing Helen said on live camera that she looked wonderful. Then she asked if that was because Helen had a face lift. Helen was a great trouper. Her eyes lit a bit and she laughed. She raised her right hand to her cheek and said, "My dear, I consider these my battle stripes, and I would not part with one of them."
While meeting people and sightseeing, we had talked a lot about our lives, our marriages, children and careers. We attended the ballet at the Sydney Opera House. During the long intermission, Helen wanted to remain seated. We talked some more about our families. I said how hard it was to lose my Mom and Dad. Helen had lost both her daughter and her husband many years ago. Her husband, Charles McArthur, was the love of her life, a great wit, fine writer and a very heavy drinker. His film credits included The Front Page. Helen talked about him a while. Tears came into her eyes. Just before the curtain rose, she said, "It has been many years since Charlie died, but not a day goes by, but I think of him."
After the show, we went backstage to meet the cast. The faces of the young dancers lighted up as Helen went down the line to praise each one for the pleasure their dancing gave. Australia is far from New York and Hollywood, but both are wonderful towns to Aussie artists. Helen's visit for the young dancers was like someone from the Pantheon smiling at you in person.
The next evening at the opera, Helen remained seated during the interval while I went outside for a smoke. I bumped into Gough Whitlam, Australia's massive 6' 4" former Prime Minister and his almost equally large wife. Thinking it would be fun for Helen to meet a major politico who had strongly supported the arts (and whose wife had befriended my Australian girlfriend) I asked him if he would like to meet Helen Hayes. He said, “Sure, where is she?“ I introduced them to Helen. They sat on either side of her, chatting happily until the warning house lights dimmed. Mr. Whitlam turned to where I was sitting just behind Helen and said, "I suppose you want your seat back." He meant it. Helen looked surprised. I said I did, and they somewhat reluctantly bade us good-bye. Helen said when they were gone, "I have always been a little person, but sitting between them, I never felt so tiny in my whole life."
One of Sydney's most prominent hostesses, Lady Mary Fairfax, opened her magnificent Sydney harbor estate to entertain important American guests for me. I lived in a modest apartment. She gave a full-dress dinner for Helen. As her aged husband was not well, I was seated opposite Lady Mary. She was at the table head, with Helen on her right. Sydney's social elite made up the other seventeen guests. Orchids filled the Australian colonial house. The double dining room doors stood open to the flagged verandah where drinks were served. A golden sunset ran across Sydney Harbor right up to the edge of the lawn below the verandah. The excellent dinner was lit by heavy silver candelabra.
After dinner, as coffee was served around the table, Lady Mary made a graceful tribute to Helen's career based on information I had supplied. She concluded by asking Helen to "sing for her supper" with some recitation. That was not part of the planning I had gone over with Lady Mary. Helen demurred. I groaned inwardly. Lady Mary was insistent, so Helen agreed.
She wore a simple black gown with long black lawn sleeves and a strand of pearls. She rose, stood behind her chair, placed her hands on its high back, and looking up and down the table with those steady blue eyes, said she would like to give us one of her favorite poems, American Names, by Stephen Vincent Benet. She paused a moment and drew herself up.
Then this small, delicate older lady swept the table with new eyes and began the wonderful cadences of the poem. She only forgot briefly once, but instantly picked up the rhythm so the break was emotionally imperceptible. She filled the room with her voice. While she recited, everyone felt the touch of a star personality. She was like another and very different Helen from the kind lady I liked. She was still kind, but now also, very powerful. I was enthralled and amazed. At the end of her piece, she cast her eyes down. There was a long moment of wondering silence around the table, broken by a wave of loud applause. Everyone exchanged glances with a neighbor to say "wow!" I was very glad Lady Mary’s insistence had given me one of my great moments in poetry. Helen glowed in the applause.
At the week's end, Mr. Coe had rejoined us. The three of us were in the back seat of a consulate automobile on the drive to the airport. I turned to Helen and told her how much I had enjoyed being with her. I apologized that we had not found time to shop for Australian opals. Richard Coe, sitting on the other side of Helen, looked at her and said, "Did you show Bob your opal?" She raised her hand deprecatingly. Coe said that one jeweler had said it was worth a quarter million dollars. Helen gave him a brief "good grief" look and turned to ask me if I wanted to see it. I was intrigued and said sure.
She was wearing a high-necked white silk blouse and undid the top button. Helen pulled out a little plain cotton bag from inside her blouse. It was on a string around her neck. Helen had started her career as a child dancer on the stage. Back then, vaudevillians kept their wages in a little bag tied around their necks, a grouch bag. Valuables kept overnight, even under your pillow, might be stolen in the cheap hotels where many performers slept.
She opened up her grouch bag and drew out of it a scarlet Tiffany jewelry bag. From that, she took out and handed me a gorgeous fire opal. It was the size and shape of a partridge egg. It glowed with a hundred dancing lights in its silver setting. I admired it. Helen said that it came with a story.
She said back in the old days of film, "We did not have what you call doubles, but did all the tricks and acting by ourselves." She said that Lillian Gish (a star in silent films) had spent time on an ice floe in a river for a film, Way Down East . That caused her to catch chilblains. She had to go into a New York hospital when the shoot was done. Irving Thalberg, the great Hollywood producer who set up the studio star system, called his director in New York. He told him to get a fine jewel for Lillian as a reward for her stalwart performance. The director gave her that fire opal.
Helen said, "Lillian is my best friend and she gave me this. I always carry it with me for good luck." She smiled and put the opal back into the Tiffany bag, and that into the grouch bag and tucked that back into her bosom under the smooth silk blouse. How about that... Helen Hayes, Lillian Gish, Irving Thalberg, Hollywood, Broadway, and a grouch bag, all in the same story.
A couple weeks after she had left Australia, Helen sent me an inscribed copy of her book, My Life in Three Acts. We exchanged Christmas cards for some time. A few years later, she sent me a note to thank me for a play I had sent her, but said she no longer read new plays. In fact I had not written, nor sent her a play, but was flattered to think she thought I had. A great lady, meeting her was a wonderful reward in my work.