Hand color tinted photo of Katharine Hepburn from the 1940 movie, The Philadelphia Story
Katharine Houghton Hepburn (May 12, 1907 – June 29, 2003) was an American actress of film, television and stage.
Hepburn holds the record for the most Best Actress Oscar wins with four, from 12 nominations. Hepburn won an Emmy Award in 1976 for her lead role in Love Among the Ruins, and was nominated for four other Emmys, two Tony Awards and eight Golden Globes. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Hepburn as the greatest female star in the history of American cinema.
Hepburn was born in Hartford, Connecticut, the daughter of suffragette Katharine Martha Houghton (1878 – 1951) (an heiress to the Corning Glass fortune and co-founder of Planned Parenthood) and Dr. Thomas Norval Hepburn (1879 – 1962), who was a successful urologist from Virginia with Maryland roots. She was of Scottish and English ancestry. Her siblings were Thomas Houghton Hepburn (1905–1921), Richard Houghton Hepburn (1911-2000), Robert Houghton Hepburn (1913–2007), Marion Houghton Hepburn Grant (1918–1986) and Margaret Houghton Hepburn Perry (1920–2006).
Hepburn’s father insisted the girls do swimming, riding, golf and tennis. Hepburn, eager to please her father, won a bronze medal for figure skating from the Madison Square Garden skating club, shot golf in the low eighties and reached the semi final of the Connecticut Young Women’s Golf Championship. Hepburn especially enjoyed swimming, and regularly took dips in the frigid waters that fronted her bayfront Connecticut home, generally believing that “the bitterer the medicine, the better it was for you.” She continued her brisk swims well into her 80s. Hepburn would come to be recognized for her athletic physicality—she fearlessly performed her own pratfalls in films such as Bringing Up Baby (1938).
On April 3, 1921, while visiting friends in Greenwich Village, Hepburn found her older brother Tom (born November 8, 1905), whom she idolized, hanging from the rafters of the attic by a rope, an apparent suicide. Her family denied it was self-inflicted, arguing he had been a happy boy. They insisted it must have been an experimentation gone awry. It has been speculated he was trying to carry out a trick he saw in a play with Katharine. Hepburn was devastated and sank into a depression. She shied away from other children and was mostly home-schooled. For many years she used Tom’s birthday (November 8) as her own. It was not until her 1991 autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life, that Hepburn revealed her true birth date of May 12, 1907.
Hepburn was educated at the Oxford School (now Kingswood-Oxford School) in West Hartford, Connecticut, before going on to Bryn Mawr College. Hepburn was suspended for breaking curfew and smoking, which at that time was particularly not encouraged for women. Decades later, Hepburn also confirmed that after dark, she would go swimming naked in the college’s “Cloisters” fountain. She received a degree in history and philosophy in 1928, the same year she had her debut on Broadway after landing a bit part in Night Hostess.
A banner year for Hepburn, 1928 also marked her marriage to socialite businessman Ludlow (“Luddy”) Ogden Smith, whom she had met while at Bryn Mawr and married after a short engagement. Hepburn and Smith’s marriage was turbulent, and they spent less and less time living together as Hepburn pursued her career on the stage and traveled. They were divorced in Mexico in 1934. Fearing that the Mexican divorce was not legal, Ludlow obtained a second divorce in the United States in 1942 and a few days later he remarried. Katharine Hepburn often expressed her gratitude toward Ludlow for his financial and moral support in the early days of her career. “Luddy” continued to be a lifelong friend to her and the Hepburn family.
On September 21, 1938, Hepburn was staying in her Old Saybrook, Connecticut beach home when the 1938 New England Hurricane struck and destroyed her house. Hepburn narrowly escaped death before the home was washed away over the cliffs.
She stated in her 1991 book entitled Me that she lost 95% of her belongings in the storm, including her 1932–1933 best actress Oscar, which was later found intact.
Hepburn had developed her acting skills during her time at Bryn Mawr. While there, Hepburn met Eddie Knopf, a young producer with a stock company in Baltimore, Maryland, who cast her in several small roles, including a production of The Czarina and The Cradle Snatchers.
Her first leading role was in a production of The Big Pond, which opened in Great Neck, New York. The producer had dismissed the original actress at the last moment, and Hepburn was substituted. Terror stricken, Hepburn arrived late and stumbled over her lines, tripped over her feet and spoke so fast she was almost incomprehensible. She was also dismissed, but continued to understudy and gain small stock company roles.
Hepburn was cast in the Broadway play Art and Mrs. Bottle. Hepburn was dismissed from this role too, although she was later rehired when the director could not find a replacement. After another summer of stock companies, in 1932, Hepburn landed the role of Antiope the Amazon princess in The Warrior’s Husband (an update of Lysistrata), which required her to wear a very short costume, and received excellent reviews. Hepburn became the talk of New York City, and was noticed in Hollywood.
In the play, Hepburn entered the stage by jumping down a flight of steps while carrying a large stag on her shoulders — an RKO scout (Leland Hayward, whom she would later romance) was so impressed by this display of physicality that he asked her to do a screen test for A Bill of Divorcement, which starred John Barrymore, David Manners, and Billie Burke.
She demanded $1,500 per week for film work (at the time she was earning between $80 and $100 per week). After seeing her screen test, RKO agreed to her demands and cast her. At 5 feet, 7 inches (1.71 m), Hepburn was one of the tallest leading ladies of the day. The director George Cukor became a lifetime friend and colleague. Barrymore pinched her posterior on the set in one of many attempts to seduce her. She said, “If you do that again I’m going to stop acting.” Barrymore replied, “I wasn’t aware that you’d started, my dear.”
After the positive audience reaction to A Bill of Divorcement, RKO signed Hepburn to a new contract. But her non-conformist, anti-Hollywood behavior off screen made studio executives fret she would never become a major star. The following year (1933), Hepburn won her first Oscar in Morning Glory, as a young actress who rejects romance in favor of her career. That same year, Hepburn played Jo in the screen adaptation of Little Women, which broke box-office records.
Intoxicated by her success, Hepburn wanted to return to the theater. She chose The Lake, but RKO would not release her and she made the forgettable Spitfire. Having satisfied RKO, Hepburn went immediately back to Manhattan to begin the play, in which she played an English girl unhappy with her overbearing mother and weak father. The play was generally considered a flop, and Hepburn’s performance elicited Dorothy Parker’s quip that the actress “ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.”
In 1935, in the title role of the film Alice Adams, Hepburn earned her second Oscar nomination. By 1938, Hepburn was a bona fide star, and her forays into comedy with the films Bringing Up Baby and Stage Door were well-received critically. But audience response to the two films was tepid, and the good reviews from the critics were not enough to rescue her from an earlier string of flops (The Little Minister, Spitfire, Break of Hearts, Sylvia Scarlett, A Woman Rebels, Mary of Scotland, Quality Street). As a result, Hepburn’s movie career began to decline.
Katharine Hepburn would often come to interviews dressed in men’s suits, saying that it was “comfortable”. Without meaning to, she made a fashion statement, and women who admired her started wearing trousers, which was not encouraged at the time.
“Box office poison”
Some of what has made Hepburn greatly beloved today—her unconventional, straightforward, anti-Hollywood attitude—at the time began to turn audiences sour. Outspoken and intellectual with an acerbic tongue, she defied the era’s conventions, preferring to wear pantsuits and disdaining makeup. She also had a famously difficult relationship with the press, turning down most interviews, which did not help her exposure to the public. On her first outing with the Hollywood press corps after the success of A Bill of Divorcement, Hepburn talked with reporters who had invaded her and her husband’s cabin aboard the ship City of Paris. A reporter asked if they were really married; Hepburn responded, “I don’t remember.” Following up, another reporter asked if they had any children; Hepburn’s answer: “Two white and three colored”. Hepburn’s aversion to media attention did not thaw until 1973, when she appeared on The Dick Cavett Show for an extended two-day interview.
Adding to her self inflicted public dislike were her criticisms of other female stars. Her outspoken jilts against other leading ladies of her time, such as Ginger Rogers, offended many and helped stain her public image.
Hepburn could also be prickly with fans; though she relented as she aged, early in her career Hepburn often denied requests for autographs. However, on movie sets, she was eager to learn the ways of the stage and camera crews and befriended many of them. Even so, her refusal to sign autographs and answer personal questions earned her the nickname “Katharine of Arrogance” (an allusion to Catherine of Aragon). Soon, audiences began to stay away from her movies.
Hepburn was affected by a series of flops when, in 1938, she – along with Fred Astaire, Mae West, Joan Crawford, Dolores del Río, Marlene Dietrich, and others – was voted “box office poison” in a poll taken by exhibitors. In 1939, Hepburn was going to do producer David O. Selznick a favor and play the role of Scarlett O’Hara because he did not yet have anyone else signed for the role. Hepburn insisted that she did not have the lustful sexual appeal that the part demanded and told Selznick that his studio needed to find the woman who did. Hepburn rehearsed the lines thoroughly just in case. The night before the deadline, Selznick finally cast Vivien Leigh. Unknown to Hepburn and the rest of Hollywood, Leigh was long favored for the role, but as an English actress, she was deemed unsuitable. Her affair with Laurence Olivier, while he was in the middle of a divorce, made her a controversial choice. The vast “search for Scarlett” was orchestrated to make it seem as if no other actress could be found, thus limiting the shock of Vivien Leigh landing the role. Hepburn was later the maid of honor at Leigh and Olivier’s wedding in 1940. Hepburn remained a close friend of Vivien Leigh until Leigh’s death in 1967.
Yearning for a comeback on the stage, a play was written especially for her by Philip Barry, The Philadelphia Story, a year after Hepburn had starred in the film version of his play Holiday. In the new play, she played spoiled socialite Tracy Lord and received rave reviews. With the help of ex-lover Howard Hughes, she acquired the film rights and sold them to MGM; the resulting film was one of the biggest hits of 1940. As part of the deal with MGM, Hepburn got to choose the director—George Cukor—but not her costars—Cary Grant and James Stewart. She wanted Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy for the roles played by Grant and Stewart respectively. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her work. Her career was revived almost overnight.
At the height of the pre-McCarthy stages of the post-war Second Red Scare, Hepburn’s strongly progressive social views also became a target of anti-communist hysteria. Myron Fagan, the right-wing writer, producer and director at the center of Hollywood’s anti-communist witch-hunting denounced her after Hepburn had spoken up on behalf of fellow actors, directors, and screenwriters facing the notorious blacklist of the 1940s. Despite Hepburn’s lack of actual membership in (or any formal links to) the American Communist Party, Fagan, in his polemical speech against “the Reds” in Hollywood, named Hepburn as “an example”, forwarding the claim that “Katharine Hepburn’s love for Joe Stalin is no secret”.
Hepburn and Tracy
Hepburn made her first appearance with Spencer Tracy in Woman of the Year (1942), directed by George Stevens. Behind the scenes the pair fell in love, beginning what would become one of Hollywood’s most famous romances, despite Tracy’s life long unwillingness (he was a Catholic) to divorce his estranged wife, the former Louise Treadwell; they had married in 1923.
Hepburn and Tracy became one of Hollywood’s most recognizable couples. Hepburn, with her agile mind and distinctive New England accent, complemented Tracy’s working-class machismo. When Joseph Mankiewicz introduced them, Hepburn, who was wearing special heels that added several inches to her slender frame, said, “I’m afraid I’m too tall for you, Mr. Tracy.” Mankiewicz retorted, “Don’t worry, he’ll soon cut you down to size.” As The Daily Telegraph observed in Hepburn’s obituary, “Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were at their most seductive when their verbal fencing was sharpest: it was hard to say whether they delighted more in the battle or in each other”.
Most of their films stress the difficulties that couples can have when they try to find an equable balance of power. The sparring over power and control is almost always resolved in an agreement to share. They appeared in nine movies together, including Keeper of the Flame (1942), Adam’s Rib (1949), Pat and Mike (1952), Desk Set (1957) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), for which Hepburn won her second Academy Award for Best Actress.
Hepburn and Tracy carefully hid their affair from the public, using back entrances to studios and hotels and assiduously avoiding the press. They were undeniably a couple for decades, but did not live together regularly until the last few years of Tracy’s life. Even then, they maintained separate homes to keep up appearances. Their relationship, which neither would discuss publicly, lasted until Tracy’s death in 1967. Their relationship was complex and there were periods during which they were estranged. During one estrangement, Tracy had a brief romance with actress Gene Tierney while filming the Plymouth Adventure in 1952.
Hepburn had had several prior liaisons, most notably with her agent Leland Hayward, John Ford and Howard Hughes. Tracy, however, seems to have been her true love. Tracy had several affairs while estranged from Hepburn, notably while filming Plymouth Adventure with his co-star Gene Tierney. Hepburn took five years off after Long Day’s Journey Into Night to care for Tracy while he was in failing health. Out of consideration for Tracy’s family, Hepburn did not attend his funeral. She described herself as too heartbroken to ever watch Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, saying it evoked memories of Tracy that were too painful.
The African Queen
One of Hepburn’s Academy Award nominated performances was her role as Rose Sayer in The African Queen (1951), where she played a prim spinster missionary in Africa (around the time of World War I), who convinces Humphrey Bogart’s character, a hard-drinking riverboat captain, to use his boat to destroy a German ship. Hepburn received her fifth Best Actress nomination, losing to Vivien Leigh for A Streetcar Named Desire.
The African Queen was shot mostly on location in Africa, where almost all the cast and crew suffered from malaria and dysentery—except director John Huston and Bogart, neither of whom ever drank any water. (Many of the studio shots were completed in the unlikely location of Worton Hall aka Isleworth Studios which is sited in the Greater London suburb Isleworth, West London.) Hepburn, ever the urologist’s daughter, disapproved of the two men’s drinking and piously drank gallons of water each day to spite them. She wound up so sick with dysentery that, even months after she returned home, the famously vigorous actress was still ill. The trip and the movie made such an impact on her that later in life she wrote a book about filming the movie: The Making of The African Queen: Or, How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind, which made her a best-selling author at the age of 77.
In an interview in Playboy, Huston spoke of how on their days off, he and Bogart would go hunting for big game, and how one day Hepburn asked to go along. He described her as a “Diana of the Hunt” — utterly fearless — and able to shoot with the best of them.
Later film career
Following The African Queen, Hepburn often played spinsters, most notably in her Oscar-nominated performances for Summertime (1955) and The Rainmaker (1956), although at 49 some considered her too old for the role. She also received nominations for her performances in films adapted from stage dramas, namely as Mrs. Venable in Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) and as Mary Tyrone in the 1962 version of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night.
Hepburn received her second Best Actress Oscar for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, though she believed it was meant to honor Spencer Tracy, who had died shortly after filming was completed. The following year, she won a record-breaking third Oscar for her role as Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter, an award shared that year with Barbra Streisand for her performance in Funny Girl. Peter O’Toole, her co-star in The Lion in Winter, has said in many interviews, including with host Charlie Rose, that Hepburn was his favorite actor to work with. He and Hepburn remained friends until her death.
Hepburn continued to do filmed stage dramas, including The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969), The Trojan Women (1971) by Euripides, and Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (1973). In 1973, she first appeared in an original television production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie.
Two years later, Hepburn received an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Special Program (Drama or Comedy) for Love Among the Ruins, which co-starred friend Laurence Olivier and was directed by George Cukor. Hepburn also appeared in one of her most well received roles of her later period with John Wayne in Rooster Cogburn, the sequel to Wayne’s Academy Award winning film True Grit. Rooster Cogburn was essentially The African Queen done as a western. Hepburn won her fourth Oscar for On Golden Pond (1981), with Henry Fonda. In 1994, Hepburn gave her final three movie performances — One Christmas, based on a short story by Truman Capote, as Ginny in the remake of Love Affair; and This Can’t Be Love, directed by one of her close friends, Anthony Harvey (The Lion in Winter).
On June 29, 2003, Hepburn died of natural causes at Fenwick, the Hepburn family home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. She was 96 years old, and was buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery, Hartford, Connecticut. In honor of her extensive theater work, the lights of Broadway were dimmed for an hour.
The book Kate Remembered, by A. Scott Berg, was published just 13 days after Hepburn’s death.
In 2004, in accordance with Hepburn’s wishes, her personal effects were put up for auction with Sotheby’s in New York. Hepburn had meticulously collected an extraordinary amount of material relating to her career and place in Hollywood over the years, as well as personal items such as a bust of Spencer Tracy she sculpted herself (used as a prop in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner on the desk where Sidney Poitier makes his phone call) and her own oil paintings. The auction netted several million dollars, which Hepburn willed mostly to her family and close friends, including television journalist Cynthia McFadden.
Family and personal life
Hepburn’s genealogy has been researched through the Whittier line back to King Louis IX of France. She is listed as one of the descendants of the Mayflower compact author William Brewster (her family tree).
In her 1973 interview on The Dick Cavett Show that although she agreed with Christian principles and thought highly of Jesus Christ, she did not believe in religion or in the afterlife. Her paternal grandfather, Sewell Hepburn, was an Episcopal clergyman, but on the subject of religion, she told another member of the journalism community she loved so much to shock (this time a Ladies Home Journal reporter) in October 1991:
I’m an atheist and that’s it. I believe there’s nothing we can know except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for other people.
In 1910, the Hepburn family lived at 133 Hawthorne St. in Hartford, Connecticut. Eight years later, they were recorded living at 352 Laurel St., also in Hartford. By 1930, Katharine’s parents and four younger siblings had moved to a large eight bedroom house at 201 Bloomfield Avenue in West Hartford. As of 2007, the house is owned by the University of Hartford.
Margaret “Peg” Perry, Hepburn’s last surviving sister, died on February 13, 2006, aged 85. Perry was a librarian in Canton, Connecticut.
Robert Hepburn, the last surviving sibling of Katharine Hepburn, died on November 26, 2007. Robert was a doctor who followed in the footsteps of their father, Dr. Thomas Hepburn. He was the head of the urology department at Hartford Hospital for more than 30 years.
Hepburn’s professional legacy is today carried on within her family. Hepburn’s niece is actress Katharine Houghton, who appeared as her daughter in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Hepburn’s grandniece is actress Schuyler Grant.