George Austin Hay says goodbye after 55 years of federal service and acting gigs

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By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2010

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.

"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?"


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