FRONT PAGE MARRIAGE: Helen Hayes and Charles MacArthur by Jhan Robbins

FRONT PAGE MARRIAGE: Helen Hayes and Charles MacArthur

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There should be a richly atmospheric, funny/sad book in the seeming mismatch between man-of-the-world Charles MacArthur (quintessential newsman/playwright) and nun-like Helen Hayes (First Lady of the Theater). But this skimpy, saccharine narrative is little more than a slipshod patchwork of anecdotes--most of them second- or third-hand, many of them iffy, none of them well-told. Robbins (Bess and Harry) begins with brief accounts of the separate pre-1928 careers of Hayes and MacArthur: his notorious pranks, womanizing, wit; her stunning success as a very young actress, with a pushing (and drinking) stage mother. Then there's the screwball-comedy courtship, wedded bliss (except for his drinking), mutual Broadway triumphs, mutual Hollywood disappointments (though screenwriter Charlie worked hard to show Helen at her best on film), return to N.Y., settling in Nyack, children (one adopted), more stage successes for Helen, daughter Mary's polio death, and ""30 for Charlie."" (""Helplessly his wife watched her Charlie die."") A potentially involving story--but, unfortunately, Robbins tells it primarily by stringing together anecdotes from other people's books; furthermore, these borrowings are sometimes misquoted and taken out of context. (See, for example, how Josh Logan helped Helen to recover from Mary's death--an anecdote so mangled in its lifting from Logan's Josh that no reader would know that Logan wrote The Wysteria Trees [sic], which he ""had especially selected for her."") And the new anecdotes gathered by Robbins tend to be almost comic in their banality: ""'They'd hold hands, stare into each other's eyes and drink their coffee very slowly,' recalled Amos Newcomb, a former busboy."" Add in Robbins' clichÉ-ridden prose, his ill-informed comments on the plays and films, his gushingly worshipful attitude toward Miss Hayes--and even the most undemanding fans should be directed instead to Robbins' sources, such as Ben Hecht's Charlie or the various Hayes memoirs.

Pub Date: April 6th, 1982
Publisher: Putnam