Born Helen Hayes Brown in Washington, DC, she began a stage career at an early age. By 10, she had made a short film called Jean and the Calico Doll, but she only moved to Hollywood when her husband, playwright Charles MacArthur, signed a Hollywood deal. Her sound film debut was The Sin of Madelon Claudet, for which she won the Academy Award for Best Actress. She followed that with starring roles in Arrowsmith, A Farewell to Arms, The White Sister, What Every Woman Knows and Vanessa: Her Love Story. But she never became a fan favorite.
Hayes and MacArthur eventually returned to Broadway, and she starred for three years in Virginia Regina. Eventually, a theater was named in her honor. She returned to Hollywood in the 1950s, and her film star began to rise. She starred in My Son John and Anastasia, and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1970 for Airport. She followed that up with several roles in Disney films such as Herbie Rides Again, One of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing and Candleshoe.
Hayes wrote three memoirs: A Gift of Joy, On Reflection and My Life in Three Acts.
She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6220 Hollywood Blvd.