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Nyack People & Places: Helen Hayes & Pretty Penny

by Mike Hays
“Pretty Penny.” A friend of Helen Hayes dubbed 235 North Broadway, Nyack “Pretty Penny, because that’s what it cost.” Helen Hays, the First Lady of American Theatre, called that house, home for 60 years. South Nyack resident, talk show host, actress and comedienne Rosie O’Donnell owned it from 1996 to 2000.

Helen Hayes died in 1993 at the age of 92. She was one of only 12 people who won Oscar (2), Emmy (9), Grammy, and Tony (2) awards. She was a spry and friendly presence in the village in her later years and her charitable work lives on in our community notably in the Helen Hayes Rehabilitation Hospital in Haverstraw.

Stairway drawing 

The river side of Pretty Penny

Helen Hayes — who insisted on being referred to as “Mrs. MacArthur,” lived in the house with her husband, playwright Charles MacArthur, and her children. Her daughter Mary became the tragic face for polio when she contracted and died from polio in 1949. Helen Hayes started the Mary MacArthur Fund, and Jonas Salk credits her for helping him start funding for a polio vaccine. Charlie never recovered from Mary’s death and drank himself to death in 1956. Her son, Jamie MacArthur went on to star as Danno in the original Hawaii Five-O TV series.
The list of people who visited Helen Hayes at “Pretty Penny” is a who’s who of the 20th century. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Vivian Leigh, Laurence Olivier, Noel Coward, Ben Hecht (a neighbor living on Perry Lane), Ruth Gordon (for four years), Lilian Gish, Ronald Reagan, Marilyn Monroe, Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, to name but a few. In its heyday, the house was serviced by a staff of six including Herman, a butler/chauffeur/valet who wore a white coat while serving lunch as seen in a feature article in Life Magazine in 1939.
The house itself is an architectural gem but hard to see today because it is hidden by a high brick wall. It was built in 1857 then renovated and expanded by famous local architect Horace Greeley Knapp in 1872 into its current Italianate design with rooftop belvedere. The interior is theatrical with unusual details including a two-story glass topped entry way on the North Side. Behind the house overlooking the Hudson River, a series of terraces step down to the river. Helen Hayes’ rose garden still thrives along with a terraced fountain and swimming pool. The lower tennis court and boat dock are gone replaced with a low-roofline new dwelling on the shore.

Just One of the Neighbors

“Actress Hayes, who called herself Charlie MacArthur’s wife in this Hudson River village, the lady who entertained World War II troops at the Camp Shanks embarkation camp in Orangeburg, the president of the Nyack Garden Club who had meetings among her beautiful backyard roses, was well sought after on stage and screen but in Nyack, the ordinary pace of life was just as much a lure,” writes former Journal News editor and Columnist Art Gunther. “Often, notables are splashed in self-promoting, even outrageous and scandalous behavior on the front pages of supermarket tabloids, magazines and now in social media, Helen Hayes preferred her publicity to be her body of work, her village life in Nyack and her charity efforts.”

Painting Pretty Penny

Edward Hopper, whose boyhood home is just down the street, was commissioned by Charlie MacArthur to paint Pretty Penny as a gift to Helen. While he chafed at doing commission work (he never again accepted a commission), the $2,500 offer, as Mrs. Hopper was quick to point out, was too good to turn down.
Hopper sketched the house over two days in November 1939 and completed the painting in December. Helen Hayes donated the painting to the Smith College Museum of Art.

Pretty Penny to be demolished for apartments?

It almost happened. In the early 1960s, Helen Hayes was having trouble with a neighbor’s son who, along with a gang of “toughs”, took advantage of Helen’s standing offer for kids to use her pool. Noisy late-night parties ensued. The local police were of no help. Exasperated, she decided to sell and took the best offer, which was from developers who would demolish the house and turn the property into garden apartments. Helen had already bought an apartment in NYC and scheduled an auction of personal possessions when pressure from the village caused her to change her mind and hang on to the house.

Michael Hays is a 30-year resident of the Nyacks. He grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. He is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.

Nyack People & Places features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY. Sponsored by Weld Realty.

Photo Credit: Mike Hays, Smith College Museum of Art
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