Helen Hayes was born in Washington D.C. on October 10, 1900. Her mother, Catherine Estelle (née Hayes), or Essie, was an aspiring actress who worked in touring companies. Her father worked at a number of jobs, including as a clerk at the Washington Patent Office and as a manager and salesman for a wholesale butcher. Hayes' Irish Catholic maternal grandparents immigrated from Ireland during the Irish Potato Famine; her mother was a great-niece of Irish singer Catherine Hayes.
Hayes began a stage career at an early age. She said her stage debut was a 5-year old singer at Washington's Belasco Theatre (on Lafayette Square, across from the White House.By the age of ten, she had made a short film called Jean and the Calico Doll, but only moved to Hollywood when her husband, playwright Charles MacArthur, signed a Hollywood deal. She attended the Academy of the Sacred Heart Convent in Washington and graduated in 1917