My Life in Three Acts

Helen Hayes Brown was born on October 10, 1900, to Francis Van Arnum Brown and Catherine Hayes. Mr. Brown was a pork and poultry salesman who enjoyed amusement parks, John Philip Sousa, and baseball. Mrs. Brown, on the other hand, had dreams of fame and fortune through the medium of her diminutive daughter Helen.

Helen Hayes, as her name was shortened to fit the standard theater marquee, made her acting debut at age nine playing Little Mimi in Old Dutch. By her own account, she had no burning desire to become an actress, but she did have the good sense to make use of her opportunities once she found herself in the profession--opportunities which included working with some of the finest directors and actors of the day.

Hayes arranges her autobiography in the fashion of a play, in three acts. The first act includes the years in which she rose to the top of her profession, first under the guidance of her mother and then her beloved husband Charles MacArthur. The second act covers the difficult years following her husband’s death, when she took control of her own life. The last act, upon which the curtain is yet to fall, is the period of a not-too-successful retirement.

This is a candid book, to say the least. Hayes is quite forthcoming about various facets of her personal life and is equally blunt about the intimate details of many of those with whom she shared a professional and/or personal relationship. Indeed, those who avidly peruse the tabloids which grace the checkout lines of any America supermarket will find much of interest in this as-told-to autobiography.

MY LIFE IN THREE ACTS is greatly superior to David Brown’s LET ME ENTERTAIN YOU, in part no doubt because Hayes had the help of prizewinning journalist Katherine Hatch when she came to prepare her memoir. Still, Hayes and Brown knew many of the same people and were in the same places at different times. Moreover, one suspects that a joint memoir by those two would be something else indeed.