All About Katharine Hepburn
One of the greatest – probably the greatest for many people – actresses that graced the silver screen and the stage was Katharine Hepburn. Her roles in the movies greatly enthralled the audience, but her very private life also lent a mysterious charm about her. Katharine Hepburn’s career as an actress extended for more than five decades, touching on a wide variety of genres, making her a versatile actress. Her open-mindedness of many things lent her character a characteristic strength that set Katharine apart from other actors and actresses in her time.
Katharine Houghton Hepburn was born in Hartford, Connecticut on the 12th of May 1907. Her parents were Dr. Thomas Norval Hepburn, and Katharine Martha Houghton. Her father was an accomplished and pioneering urologist, while her mother was the heir to the Corning Glass company profits and a suffragist leader. Between Katharine’s parents and success, the Hepburns lived a comfortable and affluent lifestyle. Katharine also had five more siblings – she was the second oldest. Thomas, with whom Katharine was very close, was the oldest, Richard and Robert followed suit, and Marion and Margaret were the youngest in the family.
Besides living comfortably, the Hepburn children were also encouraged to be freethinkers and be open-minded, intellectually and socially. This was probably due to their father’s involvement and advocacy in sexual hygiene and their mother’s activist leanings for women’s rights and birth control. Their parent’s liberated influence on them which was reflected when the children created a group act, performed around the neighborhood, and collected money. They sent all the profits they earned to New Mexico for the Navajo children.
The children also enjoyed being physically active, with the encouragement of their parents. Katharine herself was involved in many sports, such as: golf, horseback riding, wresting, and tennis. She particularly liked swimming, and was also into acrobatics and could perform tumblings and trapeze walking. Unknowingly, her athleticism would benefit her in acting scenes that require her to do fall down, trip over something, and other stunts. Her interest in sports also gave her the discipline and perfected her character that she will be known for in later years.
Katharine experienced her first heartbreak when her oldest brother Thomas died in 1921. Thomas was found dangling in the attic rafters, with a blanket sheet tied around his neck, which seemed like a suicide. Their parents refused to believe this since Thomas was a cheerful child, and asserted that the death was a result of a failed attempt at a hanging trick. Her brother’s passing had a great effect on Katharine, and she spent months depressed and withdrawn, refusing to play with other children and not wanting to leave home. She spent this time being homeschooled by a private tutor. Throughout the years, Katharine would state Thomas’ birthday – 8th of November, without the birth year – as hers, until she disclosed her real date of birth in her memoirs when she was in her eighties.
After her depressive bout, Katharine studied in a private school in Hartford called the Oxford School, and continued to obtain her college degree in Bryn Mawr College in 1924. Katharine was not quite the exemplary student and would at times sneak out and swim naked in a fountain. She would even get suspended for smoking and curfew breaking. Four years later, she graduated, armed with a Bachelor of Arts in History and Philosophy degree, and a desire to be onstage. Her Broadway debut was in the play Night Hostess, and though her role was insignificant – she played The Other Hostess – this spurred her to pursue acting.
Good things come in threes, and Katharine’s year in 1928 seemed to give her just that. Katharine met Ludlow Ogden Smith, a businessman from Philadelphia, during her last year in Bryn Mawr, and the two married soon after. Ludlow was 29, and Katharine 21. After the marriage, Ludlow changed his name to Ogden Ludlow, as persisted by Katharine as she didn’t want to gain the name Katharine Smith. She felt that the name would be too plain, and would associate her with a radio singer bearing the exact name. The marriage sadly was not built to last, and in less than a month, Ludlow and Katharine were separated, but not yet divorced. Katharine busied herself with acting and theater.
In 1932, Katharine starred in a theatrical play The Warrior’s Husband as Antiope, princess of the Amazon. Critics praised her performance and gave her recognition in New York. Katharine exercised her athletic abilities in one scene when she jumped over a stairway with a stag hanging on her shoulders. Her performance was so remarkable that Radio-Keith-Orpheum (RKO) Pictures invited her for an audition for the film called A Bill of Divorcement. Katharine asked for a fee of $1500 a week, but thought RKO would turn her down. Her screen test, however, proved her skills worthy of the amount, and RKO granted her the request. Katharine was cast.
The producer, David O. Selznick, was hesitant in casting Katharine because of her unconventional looks. Katharine had a splash of freckles and sharp cheekbones that did not display the soft, feminine features of the time. Selznick worried that Katharine’s natural – and almost masculine – beauty would not appeal to the audience, but director George Cukor saw talent in her. On the 30th of September 1932 A Bill of Divorcement debuted Katharine Hepburn, and Hollywood saw, as the magazine A Hollywood Reporter wrote, “A new star on the cinema horizon.” The film also forged what would be a lifelong friendship and professional rapport between Katharine and George Cukor.
Taking advantage of their “new star,” RKO Pictures lost no time in casting Katharine in more movies, and in 1933 alone, she worked on three movies: Christopher Strong, Morning Glory, and Little Women. The latter became the most successful Hollywood film that year, and Morning Glory gave the Katherine her first Academy Award for Best Actress. Prompted by her early success, the twenty-five-year-old ingénue continued filming more movies in 1934, but her marriage with Ludlow had its worst blow. In that year, the couple filed for divorce, but the two kept on a lasting friendship throughout their lives.
Unlike the recent year, 1933 – and even the succeeding years – did not fare well for Katharine. Her two movies in 1934, Spitfire and The Little Minister were received lukewarmly, and so were her three other movies in 1935, Break of Heart, Alice Adams, and Sylvia Scarlett. Her movie downslide continued with her 1936 historical films, Mary of Scotland and A Woman Rebels, and Katharine’s 1937 movies such as Quality Street and Stage Door did not peak as well. Only her screwball comedies in 1938, Bringing Up Baby and Holiday, both with Cary Grant, slightly redeemed her, but it was not enough. Hollywood exhibitors, hence, dubbed her as one of the “box office poisons,” together with Joan Crawford, Fred Astaire, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich.
Perhaps it was her eccentricity and her non-conformist manners that unsettled both Hollywood exhibitors and audiences. In a time when Hollywood actresses possessed delicate qualities, curvaceous contours, and come-hither looks, Katharine was a tomboy who towered above other females with a 5’7’’ height, and her athletic interests resulted in a lithe, slender body. She never wanted to wear heavy makeup. Even her New England accent was peculiar. Aside from her physical features, Katharine had an aloof, but outspoken attitude. She was a very private person and often declined interview invitations, and never signed autographs.
Katharine was also very honest, even brutally so, when it comes to her fellow actors and actresses. Her perfectionism was not in any way tolerant to mediocrity. She was reported to have said to one actor, “You know you can’t act, and if you hadn’t been good-looking you would never have got a picture at all.” She even reprimanded John Barrymore when he pinched her bottom, saying, “If you do that again I’m going to stop acting.” Katharine was assertive, strong, and critics either loved her or hated her, and Hollywood was not used to seeing a woman like her.
Persistent as she was, Katharine tried to revive her career by revisiting the theater. Playwright Philip Barry wrote a play with Katharine in mind, and she accepted the female lead role. In 1938, the comedy The Philadelphia Story was shown on Broadway. Katharine’s role as Tracy Lord, a bratty, upper-class socialite, was right up her ally. Barry’s excellent script and Katharine’s stunning performance was the perfect partnership that gave the play glowing reviews.
Katharine planned to make a film version of The Philadelphia Story, and asked her ex-boyfried Howard Hughes, director, producer, and self-made billionaire, for financial assistance so she could own the film rights. She approached Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) Inc, and struck a deal with them: she would sell the rights to MGM, but she herself would star in the film and have some decision-making power over the film creation. MGM agreed, and Katharine made her first move in choosing her favorite director and friend, George Cukor, to direct the film. Her first initial choices for her co-stars were: Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, but James Stewart – who also was her co-star in the play – and Cary Grant took the parts. The film was a hit, both among the critics and the audiences, and gave Katharine an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, but not a win. Still, Katharine’s career was rocketing again.
Soon after, Katharine appeared in a 1942 romantic comedy, Woman of the Year, in which she starred opposite Spencer Tracy. The romance between the two never left, off-screen and on-screen, and the movie began their lifelong love affair. Producer Joseph Mankiewicz introduced Spencer and Katharine to each other. A documentary accounted the first time they met, wherein Katharine said, “I fear I may be too tall for you, Mr. Tracy,” as she was wearing heels and stood at 5’9’’, and Spencer was 5’10’’ tall. Mankiewicz replied, “Don’t worry, he’ll cut you down to size.”
Spencer and Katharine soon found in each other a good companionship that blossomed into something more. Just within a few days that the movie started filming, both already had nicknames for each other: Spence and Kate. Spencer had brusque mannerisms about him, a striking contrast with Katharine’s well-bred demeanor, but the two balanced each other off perfectly. Woman of the Year director George Stevens said, “I saw Spence and Kate’s friendship develop right under my eyes. They were such an unusual couple. I became terribly fond of them.” Another great actor, Gene Kelly, observed about the couple, ”They’d just meet and sit on a bench on the lot. They’d hold hands and talk – and everybody left them alone in their little private world.”
Katharine and Spencer were indeed an item, but there was one thing that hindered them from fully enjoying themselves: Spencer was already married to actress Louise Treadwell and had two children with her. Spencer was unwilling to divorce Louise because of his Catholic faith, and Louise never took it as an option herself. The married couple were already living separately, with Spencer’s cottage located near Katharine’s home in Beverly Hills. Katharine and Spencer’s affair would last for years, but pictures of them together were very rare, let alone being seen as affectionate with each other. Both avoided prying eyes, and the media respected their privacy.
After the success of The Philadelphia Story and Woman of the Year, Katharine was clearly out of the woods of her “box office poison” face. She made another movie with Spencer the same year in 1942, but this time it was a drama called Keeper of the Flame, which sparked some controversy because of its political theme. It would be nine years and nine movies after since 1942’s Woman of the Year that she would receive another Academy Award nod for her female lead role in The African Queen (1951). Humphrey Bogart, her co-star, earned his one Oscar as the Best Actor in this movie. That same year, Time magazine featured Katharine on the cover of their September 1st issue.
The African Queen was the first film in which Katharine played an unmarried woman. To give more realism, most scenes were really filmed in Africa. The water was unsanitary, and many fell ill during their stay, including Katharine, who would gulp down great amounts of water daily. Her African experience resulted in unforgettable memories that she would later, in her seventies, pen her own book titled The Making of The African Queen: Or, How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind.
Two other films after The African Queen featured Katharine as an old maid, Summertime (1955) and The Rainmaker (1956), both of which gave her Best Actress nominations. In 1962, after filming the movie Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Katharine retreated from the Hollywood scene to be by Spencer’s side: he had a heart attack and was severely ill. Five years later, both of them return to the silver screen to film their ninth and last film together, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Katharine’s niece, Katharine Houghton, also joined the cast as Spencer and Katharine’s daughter. Both Katharine and Spencer felt and knew that the movie would be the latter’s last movie. It was said that Katharine shed real tears when Spencer said his last line in the script.
On the 10th of June, 1967, just a short time after the movie finished filming, Spencer passed away. During Spencer’s funeral, Katharine chose to be absent, as a sign of respect to his estranged wife, Louise, and their children. Katharine rarely talked about her life, let alone her two-decade relationship with Spencer, but in her autobiography, she wrote, “I loved Spencer Tracy. I would have done anything for him.” She believed that her Oscar win for Best Actress in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, was a tribute to Spencer. Katharine amazingly won back-to-back when she won another Academy Award for Best Actress the next year of 1968 for her movie The Lion in Winter.
Katharine might have had a liking for working on film versions of theatrical play, perhaps an attempt to reconcile both theater and cinema. Three of her adapted films were The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969), The Trojan Women (1971), and A Delicate Balance (1973), all of which garnered Katharine Academy Award nominations. She also crossed over to television in The Glass Menagerie (1973), a classic play by Tennessee Williams, and Love Among the Ruins (1975). The latter won her the Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Special Program. In 1991, Katharine won her fourth Academy Award for Best Actress in On Golden Pond, a record-breaking achievement that no one has ever yet surpassed. The last movie that she made was Love Affair in 1994.
From 1932 to 1994, Katharine Hepburn’s acting career included five decades, over forty movies, eleven Academy Award nominations, and four Academy Awards. Many of the roles Katharine played were sophisticated women of strength, a character which her own personality and life could do justice. Not only was she a powerful and influential figure in Hollywood, but her deviant outlook and I-just-don’t-care attitude led to a most significant trend in fashion: women’s trousers. Katharine was not one to follow trends; she started one.
At a time when only men wear trousers and everyone thought it indecent for women to follow suit, Katharine defied the norms. She even found herself a tailor to sew custom-fit suits for her. Once, when her jeans were stolen from her dressing room, in an attempt to force her into wearing a skirt, she boldly waltzed out of the room only in her undergarments, refusing to put her legs into a skirt. Her defiance and determination to do things her way were probably misunderstood at the height of her career, but nobody could doubt the indomitable spirit.
Even later in her acting career, Katharine still succeeded to in keeping herself around an air of mystery and eccentricity. Rarely did she give interviews, but when she did, it was definitely a sensation. In 1973, Katharine conceded to an interview on The Dick Cavett show. In preparation, she visited the set where the talk show was filmed a day before the scheduled live interview. As she was testing out the furniture, the chair she sat on, and the table before her, she began to re-arrange the set design herself. She physically carried and replaced the wobbly coffee table because she wanted to put her feet on a sturdier table. Disliking the rust-colored carpet, she even offered to bring a rug to put over it. The hilarious scene continued to doing the actual interview without an audience.
Another interviewing incident that sparked the interest of many was in 1981 with Barbara Walters. The conversation peculiarly veered towards a moment where Katharine likened to becoming “a thing… a tree or something.” Walters continued with a question of “What kind of a tree are you, if you are a tree?” Katharine answered, “I would like to be an oak tree, that’s very strong and very pretty.”
At the ripe age of eighty-four, Katharine Hepburn wrote her own autobiography simply titled “Me,” which was released in 1991. In the book, she explained why she chose to reveal such an amount of personal and intimate details of her life, knowing that she valued her privacy and seclusion. She wrote, “Something changed me. I think – and I am not saying I know – I think that I’ve always thought of myself as an actress. Now in the last few years I’ve seen this creature whom I created sitting around saying, ‘Hey, what goes on, what are we going to do? We’re wasting time, Let’s get going!’ Katharine talked about the movie star creature whom she thought was who she is, but then realized, “I’m not going to hide behind you (referring to the movie star creature) anymore. What are you anyways? You’re not ME.” She also wrote that when she realized that she was “[her] main gift from her parents,” she had suddenly become “interested in writing this book.”
Even at her oldest age, “The Great Kate” never ceased to discover who she was. At the age of 96, Katharine Hepburn passed away, on the 29th of June, 2003, in Connecticut. Broadway dimmed their lights for an hour to pay homage to her life. Katharine Hepburn was voted the greatest female legend in American cinema. Seven years after her death, the stamps series Legends of Hollywood paid tribute to her as the sixteenth Hollywood personality to have her face on a stamp. The release of the stamp was met with great excitement from both the American film community and human rights activists.