In that order, the first two unlikely nouns of the title, capture one of the unique and memorable elements of a love story that took place in the 20th Century.
“The girl,” was, in fact born in the year 1900. “The boy” was just five when the new century began. But one of the legendary stories about their meeting, courtship and lifelong love story cast them as players in a drama that rivalled his best achievements as a playwright and hers as an actress.
The story of an exchange between the two that was memorialized in her obituary in the Washington Post is one that I regularly recount. I steal its tagline, shamelessly, to express my own wish that I could make a fitting return to the persons who enrich my life in large ways and small. I do that in the hope that they will ask me to elaborate on the five words. Some do. And when I tell them my version of the story I learn a great deal about them.
Just today, for example I invoked that favorite phrase to a talented young technician who resuscitated my phone. I would love to have given him a modest “tip” for his lifesaving replacement of a modem, but just before he came to resurrect my phone service I had emptied my wallet of the last bits of cash. So, all I had to give him as a small thank you were two wondrous Go Macro breakfast bars (albeit they are the very best ones I have ever enjoyed) and a Starbuck’s bottled Frappucino to toast his talent. His response to hearing “the rest of the story” was to tell me that it brought tears to his eyes. That explains how I have come to understand my version of this love story as a litmus test for the hearer’s sensitivity. Let it be that for you, as we walk together for our Sunday exploration of the Street Seems of our urban village.
Before Helen Brown Hayes had become “the First Lady of the American Theater” and shortly after she had met another young “unknown” named Charles MacArthur, legend recounts that he approached her with the opening line, “Wanna peanut?” and then poured a few into her hand, saying “I wish it were emeralds.” As she recounts in one of her books, he saw the shy girl sitting with a glass of sherry at a party they both attended. Later in their lives, MacArthur returned from a trip to India and poured important emeralds into the hand of America’s leading lady, saying “I wish it were peanuts.”
Helen Hayes described this scenario in the biographical book My Life in Three Acts, written with Katherine Hatch. Recalling the scene at a sparkling Manhattan party she tells the story this way: “I picked up a glass of sherry to fit in and retreated to a secluded niche. Twenty minutes later, a good-looking fellow with curly brown hair and sparkling green eyes came over, maybe because he felt sorry for me sitting there all alone. He held out a small paper bag. ‘Wanna peanut?’ he asked. ‘Thanks,’ I said. He poured a few in my hand and said, ‘I wish they were emeralds.’ Right then and there I fell in love.”
In 1945, returning from a sojourn in India, MacArthur dropped a sack of emeralds in her lap and said, “I wish they were peanuts.”
The complex courtship began and only came to a suspenseful culmination on the summer night in 1928 when his raffish play of newspaper life, “The Front Page,” opened in New York. Miss Hayes was still appearing in “Coquette.”
Between those moments, MacArthur gained courage to propose to her. The actress waited for that moment, knowing that it would not occur unless and until he had attained a smash hit in his career as hers gained momentum. “The Front Page” that he wrote with Ben Hecht, was that moment. She had waited until he attained the success that gave him the “emeralds” he once only hoped to bring to her.
While MacArthur became a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Hayes was on the way to winning major acting trophies named Oscar, Tony, and Emmy. Later, in years shadowed by MacArthur’s downward spiral after the untimely death of a daughter from polio, his alleged serial infidelities, and all the tests of their life partnership, she once more watched and waited. As she did, she must have felt so helpless as she was unable to “rescue him.” Yet she stated afterward near the end of her own life, that she had never loved another man.
Theirs was not an unabashed fairy tale of a life. Peanuts where real, and emeralds were symbolic. And that is precisely why I will always honor peanuts and emeralds as two of the most eloquent spokespersons for love that lives through life with all its peaks and valleys.