Living on the edge of stardom

Federal worker George Hay’s side job as an actor led to brushes with the famous

Published July 2, 2010, in The Washington Post

He sees her. The blonde wears no makeup. She doesn't need to, he thinks. She's exquisite. She's alone.

George Austin Hay weaves his way through a ballroom at the Astor Hotel and engages the woman, who's wearing a tight-fitting lamé dress. They exchange pleasantries about the theater, he inquires about her study with Lee Strasberg, they say goodbye. Three minutes with Marilyn Monroe at an Actors' Equity party.

This is the most beautiful woman I've ever seen, he thinks.

George Austin Hay, left, chatted with Marilyn Monroe at an Actors' Equity party in New York. Courtesy of the Federal Highway Administration.

George Austin Hay, left, chatted with Marilyn Monroe at an Actors' Equity party in New York. Courtesy of the Federal Highway Administration.

"Okay I found one, and they are looking for the other ones," says the woman in the library of the Department of Transportation on Wednesday. "They told me not to let you leave until we find it."

It's George Austin Hay's last day on the job after 55 years with the federal government. Three misplaced library books are standing in the way of his retirement. "Public Roads," volumes 1, 6 and 9. Hay drums his fingers on the checkout counter. He's 94. He wears a gray knit tie, brown suit jacket and black pants that puddle at his ankles. He's a multimedia specialist, the department's unofficial historian, a wealth of knowledge on the nation's highways.

"After all these years you're never gonna leave," the librarian jokes.

"Every book I've borrowed I've returned," Hay says, a smile crinkling his white-whiskered face.

Alfred Hitchcock takes him by the arm. "Sonny boy, come with me," the director says, leading Hay up Madison Avenue through the "North by Northwest" shoot.

"I'd like you to walk with Cary until you come to 61st Street," Hitchcock says, pointing to Cary Grant as the crew sets up a shot of pedestrians. "Do you have that now?"

The only thing longer than Hay's federal career is his acting career, which has run from Broadway stages to background work in major motion pictures. He played opposite Helen Hayes in the short-lived revival of "What Every Woman Knows" at City Center in 1954 and 1955. After that he was a jury member and then a court reporter in the original two-year run of "Inherit the Wind" at the National Theatre (now the Nederlander).

One night he notices a familiar face in the second row. It's Harry Truman. After the show, the former president comes backstage, congratulates Paul Muni on his star turn, and spots Hay in the wings.

"Good show," Truman says, extending his hand. "How long have you been doing this?"

"A little while," Hay says.

"Keep up the good work," Truman says.

The librarian scribbles her signature on a form.

"Mr. Hay, normally I'm not supposed to sign off on your paperwork because the books aren't my property, they're DOT's," the librarian says. "But I will. Congratulations on your retirement."

Hay shuffles with his slight limp and excellent posture out of the library, through the breezeway of the department's headquarters along New Jersey Avenue SE. Amazing how the years pile up, he thinks, especially when you're on the same route: The 42 bus from his Columbia Road condo to the Dupont Circle Metro, to Chinatown, to the green line, to Navy Yard, 9ish to 5ish, five days a week, with a week of vacation now and then to do movie work.

He boards an elevator and leans against its wall. Just a bit more packing to do.

In high school in the 1930s -- before he is deployed to the South Pacific, before college at Columbia University, before Broadway -- he becomes friends with one of the teachers at a dance studio in his home town of Johnstown, Pa. The teacher has boundless energy, a real knack for movement.

"Why don't you get out of our one-horse town?" Hay asks his friend. The friend, whose name is Gene Kelly, says he doesn't think he's ready.

George Austin Hay at this desk at the Department of Transportation. (Photo by Xiaomei Chen for The Washington Post)

George Austin Hay at this desk at the Department of Transportation. (Photo by Xiaomei Chen for The Washington Post)

Hay deposits himself into slot E63-447 in a honeycomb of cubicles on an upper floor of the southeast wing of the building. He used to have his own office in the old department headquarters. He used to make informational and training films for the Army at a studio in Astoria, N.Y., where he hired Henry Fonda and Paul Newman for guest spots, where he gave Dick Cavett his first on-camera job, where he befriended an up-and-coming Walter Cronkite.

He moved to the District in 1973 to work for the Federal Highway Administration, for which he traveled the nation's arteries as a producer-director to capture the sprawling progress on film.

Kelly's success pulled Hay toward stage and screen, but the competitive life of a full-time actor wasn't for him. He wanted a solid career that would allow room for his passions: a movie now and then, painting, playing piano, active membership in many organizations such as the Arts Club of Washington, the Cosmos Club and the National Press Club.

"As the years go by, it's unbelievable how things accumulate," Hay says, sitting at his desk, surrounded by emptied file shelves, 11 boxes of this and that, paintings used in his documentary "Highways of History," a bouquet of deflating "Happy Retirement" balloons that sway in the air conditioning. Nearby is a large, yellow trash bin for discarding the less-meaningful etcetera of an office life. There's a stack of DVDs of movies he has appeared in through Central Casting.

He's the pallbearer who says "What about Chauncey Gardiner?" in the closing scene of "Being There" in 1979. He's Tom Selleck's confidante in "Her Alibi" in 1989. He's the speaker of the House behind Jeff Bridges during his climactic address to Congress in "The Contender" in 2000.

Hay likes how his life has been italicized by glittery moments and chance encounters. He stayed at his job because he enjoyed it, because it anchored him. He's leaving now because some of his friends have died and "life is going by" and he wants to savor it fully. Tomorrow, he'll sleep in. He'll paint. He'll catch up with friends. He'll make travel plans.

Over the afternoon co-workers stop by, knock on the cubicle wall and pay respects like they're at a stage door after a matinee. They praise his humility, his patience, his optimism. Hay signs some autographs.

"Take care of yourself," they say.

"It's been quite a ride," he says.

"It was a pleasure, really," they say.

"I feel it's that time," he says.

Hay's supervisor stops by with a Clearance of Employee Accountability form. He signs it. That's it, then. He'll load a few boxes into his Cadillac, drive home, park on the street, go up to his condo and wait for tomorrow, the first day of the rest of his life. ⚫