Katharine Hepburn

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Katharine Hepburn

Katharine Houghton Hepburn (May 12, 1907June 29, 2003) was an iconic star of American film, television and stage, widely recognized for her sharp wit, New England gentility and fierce independence. A screen legend, Hepburn holds the record for the most Oscars for best actress, of which she won four. She was nominated for twelve Best Actress Academy Awards, the record for nominations until 2003, when Meryl Streep earned her 13th nomination for Adaptation. Hepburn won an Emmy Award in 1975 for her lead role in Love Among the Ruins, and was nominated for four other Emmys and two Tony Awards during the course of her more than 70-year acting career. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Hepburn the greatest actress of all time.


Hepburn's early years

Hepburn was born in Hartford, Connecticut to Thomas Norval Hepburn, a successful urologist, and Katharine Houghton, a suffragette and birth control advocate who, along with Margaret Sanger, helped to found the organization that became Planned Parenthood. Hepburn's father was a staunch proponent of publicizing the dangers of venereal disease in a time when such things were not discussed, and her mother campaigned for birth control and equal rights for women. The Hepburns demanded frequent familial discussions on these topics and more, and as a result the Hepburn children became well-versed in social and political issues. Once a very young Katharine Hepburn even accompanied her mother to a suffrage rally. The Hepburn children, at their parents' encouragement, were unafraid of expressing their frank views on various topics, including sex. "We were snubbed by everyone, but we grew quite to enjoy that," Hepburn later said of her unabashedly liberal family, who she credited with giving her a sense of adventure and independence.

Her father insisted that his children be athletic, and encouraged swimming, riding, golf and tennis. Hepburn, eager to please her father, emerged as a fine athlete in her late teens, winning a bronze medal for figure skating from the Madison Square Garden skating club, shooting golf in the low eighties, and reaching the semi-final of the Connecticut Young Women's Golf Championship. She would later be recognized for her athletic physicality — she fearlessly performed her own pratfalls in films such as Bringing Up Baby, which is now held up as an exemplar of screwball comedy.

She was educated at Bryn Mawr College, receiving a degree in history and philosophy in 1928 , the same year she debuted on Broadway after landing a bit part in Night Hostess.

A banner year for Hepburn, 1928 also marked her nuptuals to socialite businessman Ludlow Ogden Smith, whom she had met while attending Bryn Mawr and married after a short engagement. Hepburn and Smith's marriage was rocky from the start — she insisted he change his name to S. Ogden Ludlow, so she would not have to adopt the "too ordinary" name of "Mrs. Smith." Hepburn realized quickly that marriage was incompatible with her need for freedom; three weeks after they were married, the couple separated. They decided to carry on their marriage in a platonic fashion, and the two would remain lifelong friends. They divorced in 1934 after Hepburn was established as a film star.

Hepburn's acting career begins


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Hepburn cut her acting teeth in plays staged at Bryn Mawr and later in revues staged by stock companies. During her last years at Bryn Mawr, Hepburn had met a young producer with a stock company in Baltimore, Maryland who cast her in several small roles, including in a production of The Czarina and The Cradle Snatchers.

Hepburn's first leading role was in a production of The Big Pond, which opened in Great Neck, New York. The producer had suddenly fired the play's original leading lady and asked Hepburn to assume the role. Terror-stricken at the unexpected change, Hepburn arrived late and, once on stage, flubbed her lines, tripped over her feet and spoke so rapidly that she was almost incomprehensible. She was fired from the play, but continued to work in small stock company roles and as an understudy.

Later, Hepburn was cast in a speaking part in the Broadway play Art and Mrs. Bottle. Hepburn was fired from this role as well, though she was eventually re-hired when the director could not find anyone to replace her. 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 debuted to excellent reviews. Hepburn became the talk of New York City, and began getting noticed by Hollywood.

In the play, Hepburn entered the stage by leaping 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 the studio's next vehicle, A Bill of Divorcement.

In true Hepburn fashion, she demanded an outlandish $1,500 per week for film work (at the time she was earning between $80 — $100 per week). After seeing her screen test, RKO agreed to her demands and cast her, launching her film career aside legendary actor John Barrymore and director George Cukor, who would become a lifetime friend and colleague.


RKO was delighted by audience reaction to A Bill of Divorcement and signed Hepburn to a new contract after it wrapped. But her non-conformist, anti-Hollywood behavior off-screen, which would make her one of the silver screen's most beloved stars and a feminist icon, at the time made studio executives fret that she would never become a superstar. Off-set, Hepburn, who had begun to attract significant press attention, would wear overalls and ratty tennis shoes instead of glamorous clothing fit for a starlet, prompting RKO executives to confiscate her overalls when she refused to change her wardrobe. After RKO refused to return her clothing, Hepburn followed through with her threat to walk across the studio lot in her underwear in full view of several cameras. Embarrassed, the RKO executives confiscated all the photographs and gave her back her overalls.

Though she was headstrong, her work ethic and talent were undeniable, and the following year (1933), Hepburn won her first Oscar for best actress in Morning Glory. That same year, Hepburn played Jo in the screen adaptation of Little Women, which broke box-office records.

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 foray into comedy with the film Bringing Up Baby was well-received both critically and at the box office. But it was not enough to rescue her from an earlier series of flops such as The Little Minister (1934), Spitfire (1934) and Break of Hearts (1935), and her career began to decline.

Box office poison

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Hepburn and James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story

Some of what has made Hepburn greatly beloved — her unconventional, straightforward, anti-Hollywood attitude — also began to turn audiences sour. Outspoken and intellectual with an ascerbic tongue, she defied the era's "blonde bombshell" stereotypes, preferring to wear pants suits and disdaining makeup. She also had a famously difficult relationship with the press, turning down most interviews. When she did speak with the press, occasionally she fed them whoppers to amuse herself. 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 on the 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.

She could also be prickly with fans — though she relented as she aged, in her early career Hepburn often denied requests for autographs, feeling it an invasion of her privacy. On the set she was saddled with the label "difficult to work with", an attitude that earned her the nickname "Katharine of Arrogance" among directors and crew. Soon audiences began staying away from her movies.

In 1939, Hepburn's career came to what was perhaps its lowest point when she lost out on the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. It was around this time that a publication branded her "box office poison". Hepburn's retort was quick and telling: "Not everyone is lucky enough to understand how delicious it is to suffer."

Smarting, Hepburn returned to her roots on Broadway, appearing in The Philadelphia Story, a play which Philip Barry, the screenwriter for an earlier Hepburn film Holiday, wrote especially for her. She played spoiled socialite Tracy Lord to rave reviews. On the advice of millionaire Howard Hughes, who at the time was her lover, she purchased the rights to the play and turned it into a hit movie. She was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her work in the movie, in which she appeared with Cary Grant and James Stewart. Her career was revived almost overnight.

Hepburn and Spencer Tracy

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Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy

In 1942, Hepburn made her first appearance opposite Spencer Tracy in Woman of the Year. Behind the scenes the pair fell in love, beginning what would be one of Hollywood's most famous romances.

They are one of Hollywood's most recognizable pairs both on screen and off, and have in large part become the standard by which other film romances are judged. Hepburn, with her agile mind and New England brogue, complemented Tracy's easy working-class machismo. Tracy seemed to be the only one Hepburn would allow to tame her. When Joseph Mankiewicz introduced them, Hepburn, who was wearing special heels that added several inches to her lanky 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 London 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."

The pair carefully hid their love from the public, using back entrances to studios and hotels and assiduously avoiding the press. They were undeniably a couple for decades, but never married. Though Hepburn and Tracy were virturally inseparable and essentially lived together when they were in the same city, they maintained separate homes to keep up appearances. Tracy, a devout Catholic, had been married to another woman since 1928 and remained so until his death. Friends and biographers have speculated that Tracy's Catholicism was not the main reason why he never sought a divorce — rather, he would have felt too guilty about abandoning his deaf son, John. Hepburn, out of respect for Tracy's family, did not attend his funeral.

Hepburn in all filmed nine movies with Tracy, including Adam's Rib and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, for which Hepburn won her second Best Actress Oscar.

Before Tracy, Hepburn had relationships with several Hollywood directors, including Leland Hayward. Hepburn also had a famous affair with billionaire aviator Howard Hughes. At one point, Hepburn and Hughes were engaged to be married, but at the last minute Hepburn called off their engagement.

Hepburn figures in Martin Scorsese's 2004 biopic of Hughes, The Aviator, portrayed by actress Cate Blanchett, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the role. Blanchett, who thanked Hepburn during her acceptance speech, carried one of Hepburn's silk gloves in her purse during the Oscars for luck. As noted in the film, Hepburn did not leave Hughes for Tracy (Hepburn and Hughes split up years before, in 1938).

The African Queen

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Hepburn in The African Queen

Hepburn is perhaps best-remembered for her role in The African Queen (1951), for which she received her fifth Best Actress nomination, although she did not win (losing to Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire). She played a prim spinster missionary in Africa who convinces Humphrey Bogart's character, a hard-drinking riverboat captain, to use his boat to attack a German ship.

Filmed mostly on location in Africa, almost all the cast and crew suffered from malaria and dysentery — except director John Huston and Bogart, neither of whom ever drank any water. Hepburn, ever the urologist's daughter, disapproved of the two mens' boozing 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.

Later Film Career

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Hepburn on the set of The Lion in Winter

Following The African Queen Hepburn often played spinsters, most notably in her Oscar-nominated performances for Summertime (1955) and The Rainmaker (1956). She also received nominations for her performances in films adapted from stage dramas, namely as Mrs. Venable in Tennessee Williams's 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 what some said was essentially a pedestrian role in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. She always said she believed the award was meant to honor Spencer Tracy, who died shortly after filming on the movie 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.

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Hepburn in On Golden Pond

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's 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 Laurence Olivier and was directed by George Cukor. Hepburn also appeared opposite John Wayne in Rooster Cogburn (a.k.a. Rooster Cogburn and the Lady), which was basically The African Queen done as a Western. Hepburn won her fourth Oscar for On Golden Pond (1981) opposite Henry Fonda. In 1994, Hepburn gave her final two movie performances — as Ginny in the remake of Love Affair and One Christmas, which was based on a short story by Truman Capote.

Hepburn's legacy

Hepburn died on June 29, 2003 at 2:50 p.m., at Fenwick, the Hepburn family home, in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. She was 96. In honor of her extensive theater work, the bright lights of Broadway were dimmed for an hour.

Her autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life, was published in 1991. The book Kate Remembered, by A. Scott Berg, was published just 13 days after her death; it documents the friendship between the actress and Berg, whom she had chosen to be her biographer. The book had been completed some time before its publication, but Hepburn had stipulated that she did not want it released until after her death.

Hepburn's professional legacy is today carried on within her family. Hepburn's niece is actress Katharine Houghton, who appeared with her in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). Hepburn's grand-niece is actress Schuyler Grant; the two appeared together in the 1988 television movie Laura Lansing Slept Here.

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 and her own oil paintings. The auction netted several million dollars, which Hepburn willed mostly to her family and close friends.


  • Hepburn used her brother's birthdate as her own for years.
  • Hepburn's brother committed suicide.

Stage work









Further reading



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