Katharine Hepburn (born 1907) was a critically successful actress on the stage and on the screen for over 50 years, delighting audiences with her energy, her grace, and her determination.
Katharine Hepburn was born in Hartford, Connecticut. Her birthdate is variously given; the years most frequently cited are 1907 and 1909. In her autobiography (1991), Hepburn stated her birthdate as 1907. She was one of six children (three of each gender) born to a socially prominent, well-to-do, activist family. Her mother was a well-known and passionate suffragette; her physician father was an innovative pioneer in the field of sexual hygiene. Educated by private tutors and at exclusive schools, she entered Bryn Mawr College in 1924. Upon graduating four years later she immediately embarked on a successful career in the theater. Her critical success as an Amazon queen in the satire The Warrior's Husband led to a contract with the film studio RKO. In 1932 she made her film debut in that company's A Bill of Divorcement, playing opposite John Barrymore. She received rave reviews for her performance and achieved overnight stardom.
Her screen career lasted for over 50 years and was based on a persona whose essentials included energy, grace, determination, trim athletic good looks, and obvious upper class breeding (as indicated, among other things, by a clipped manner of speaking). This persona, when intelligently utilized by producers and directors, led her to four Academy Awards as "Best Actress:" Morning Glory, 1933; Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, 1967; The Lion in Winter, 1968; and On Golden Pond, 1981. Hepburn also garnered an additional eight Oscar nominations over the years: Alice Adams, 1935; The Philadelphia Story, 1940; Woman of the Year, 1942; The African Queen, 1951; Summertime, 1955; The Rainmaker, 1956; Suddenly Last Summer, 1959; and Long Day's Journey Into Night, 1962. Her role in the 1975 made-for-television film Love Among the Ruins won her an Emmy award.
Hepburn's career, however, was not without its setbacks, most notably in the 1930s. A return to the Broadway stage in 1934 in a flop play—The Lake—led to the well-known quip by the acerbic wit Dorothy Parker that the actress "runs the gamut of emotion, all the way from A to B." In 1937 Hepburn, along with various other female stars, was described as "box office poison" in a trade paper advertisement placed by an important exhibitor. RKO's indifferent response led Hepburn—at a cost to her of over $200,000—to buy out her contract from the company. Shortly thereafter she was rejected for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in the film version of Gone with the Wind.
Determined to re-establish herself, she returned to the Broadway stage, playing the lead in a successful production of Philip Barry's comedy of manners, The Philadelphia Story. Having invested in the production she controlled the screen rights, which she ultimately sold to MGM in return for a tidy profit and a guarantee by the studio that she would play the lead in the film version. She did, and the film was a critical and a commercial success. Her Oscar nomination was but one manifestation of the dramatic way she had reestablished herself in Hollywood.
Hepburn's next MGM film brought into her life Spencer Tracy, with whom she began a liaison that lasted for over two decades until his death in 1967. Although separated from his wife, Tracy never divorced her, and his romance with Hepburn was a quiet, tender, and private affair. In the 1960s Hepburn interrupted her career to care for the ailing Tracy. They were a team professionally as well as personally and made nine films together over a period of 25 years: Woman of the Year, 1942; Keeper of the Flame, 1942; Without Love, 1945; Sea of Grass, 1947; State of the Union, 1948; Adam's Rib, 1949; Pat and Mike, 1952; The Desk Set, 1957; and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, 1967. These films were not all either commercially or critically successful, but whether comedies or dramas they were provocative and interesting, especially for their emphasis on the personal interplay between the sexes. Both Tracy and Hepburn played strong characters in these films, but neither was forced to give in to the other.
Hepburn had been married in 1928 to the social and well-to-do Ludlow Ogden Smith, who had changed his name to Ogden Ludlow because she did not want to be Kate Smith. The marriage actually lasted about three weeks before they separated, but they were not divorced until 1934 and they remained friendly. Among her other romantic attachments in the 1930s was the eccentric tycoon Howard Hughes.
The actress was not particularly fortunate in her choice of vehicles in any medium after the beginning of the 1970s. But for a few notable exceptions, such as On Golden Pond (1981), the roles, whatever their promise, did not make really good use of her considerable talents. Her television debut in 1972 as the mother in a version of Tennessee Williams' moving The Glass Menagerie was not auspicious. A pairing with the rugged action star John Wayne Rooster Cogburn, (1975), while apparently a great deal of fun for the stars on location proved to be lackluster. She had some success playing the noted French designer Coco Chanel in a Broadway musical which opened in 1969; Coco had a long run but did not make impressive use of her capabilities. Several later Broadway ventures proved abortive.
Katharine Hepburn never conformed to the conventional star image, but there is no doubt that she was a super star in more than one medium. A strong-minded independent woman, she governed her life and her career to suit herself. In the process she entertained and delighted and aroused millions and did so without compromising her cherished beliefs. Hepburn, without any doubt, was, as one of her biographers claimed, "a remarkable woman."
Although she suffered some significant injuries in a 1985 automobile accident, and illnesses usual to one of her years, Hepburn golfed, cycled, and swam in the sea into her nineties.
Katharine Hepburn provided some new perspectives on her personality and the roles she played on stage and screen in her autobiography, published after she retired from performance. In it she stressed the important influence of her liberal intellectual family, and her continued closeness with her siblings and their offspring. Through this charming, witty and frank summing up of herself may be discerned the natural aristocracy of the person and the solidity and permanence of her character.
Biographies of Hepburn were by Charles Higham (1975), Michael Freedland (1984), and Anne Edwards (1985). A moving and witty book is Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir (1971) by Garson Kanin.
See also Katharine Hepburn's autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.
For a detailed listing to 1983 of Katharine Hepburn's stage appearances, tours, awards and films, refer to Contemporary Theater, Film and Television Biographies, Volume I, pps. 240-241. Hepburn has also written The Making of the African Queen for those who are film fans and want to see behind the scenes. □
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