There are two things that all D.C. residents love: the first lady and the performing arts. It’s no surprise then that in the capital, “First Lady of American Theatre” Helen Hayes is an icon. Born in 1900 in Washington D.C., Hayes’s career spanned nearly eighty years. She was the first EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) recipient to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan in 1986. But out of all her accomplishments, perhaps one of the most overlooked is Helen Hayes’s involvement in the desegregation of the National Theatre.
When West Side Story premiered in the summer of 1957, Felicia Montealegre wanted to be in Washington.
Felicia, wife of composer Leonard Bernstein, had come down with the flu while on a trip to Chile and was missing the August 19 premiere of Bernstein’s show at The National Theatre. A contemporary retelling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet that takes place in New York’s Upper West Side, the show was scheduled to open in Washington for a three-week pre-Broadway tryout.
"Well, look-a me. Back to the nation’s capitol, & right on the verge,” Bernstein wrote to Felicia days before the premiere. “This is Thurs. We open Mon. Everyone’s coming, my dear, even Nixon and 35 admirals. Senators abounding, & big Washington-hostessy type party afterwards.”