Women In History: Katharine Hepburn

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Hepburn’s feverish mannered voice – drawling, soaring and braying plaintive tones – along with her beauty and sharp wit made her a screen star in the 1930s. Known for her classic roles in The African Queen,  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and  On Golden Pond, Hepburn earned an unprecedented four Best Actress Oscar Awards and was nominated for 12 Academy Awards. A complex woman both personally and professionally, she often displayed her eccentric strength in movie roles, a characteristic that allowed her to overcome personal tragedy and triumph on the big screen.

Born May 12, 1907, the daughter of a prominent doctor and one of the leading suffrage activists who co-founded the organization later known Planned Parenthood, Hepburn was one of six children. Kate, as she was known, was encouraged to speak out, experience and engage the world. Hepburn’s life changed dramatically forever, when she discovered the body of her older brother, Tom, who had committed suicide by hanging from the ceiling of his bedroom. Katharine was just 14 years old. His death changed her life, turning a once-social teenager into a withdrawn young woman who left school and to be educated by private tutors. The impact of Tom’s death was so devastating that for a time Hepburn adopted her brother’s birthday as her own.

It was during her college years at Bryn Mawr College that Hepburn fell in love with acting. After graduating with a degree in history, she spent several years acting in productions both off and on Broadway in New York garnering favorite reviews. Her big break came when a talent scout spotted her during a performance and offered her an audition for a role starring opposite Hollywood legend John Barrymore. That film, “A Bill of Divorcement” was a defining point for Hepburn’s future movie career and secured her a lucrative long-term contract to make future films with RKO Radio Pictures Studios. Hepburn received early success for her performance in 1933’s Morning Glory, earning her the first Academy Award. Her movie career continued to blossom with a series of popular comedies, including Bringing Up Baby in 1938 with Cary Grant. But soon she appeared in a handful of flops labeling her “box office poison” and forced Hepburn to end her contract and return to the stage. During a Broadway presentation of  The Philadelphia Story, audiences embraced Hepburn in her role. Masterminding her own Hollywood comeback fitting for the big screen, she bought the motion picture rights to the story and sold them to MGM Studios with the sole condition that she would star in the film.  The 1940 film, starring Hepburn, along with co-stars Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant, earned multiple Academy Award nominations.

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With a developing range of talent and prominent roles in, Hepburn was also known for per strong personality and attitude – on and off the set. She developed a fierce personal reputation not unlike Eleanor Roosevelt, embodying the independence of the modern American woman. She had a difficult relationship with the press, with whom she could be rude and provocative. Refusing to play the coveted traditional role of a Hollywood starlet, she would not give interviews and denied requests for autographs, which earned her the nickname “Katharine of Arrogance.” The public was also baffled by her boyish behavior and masculine fashion choices, and she became a largely unpopular figure. American women disliked her looks and voice, and found her to be threatening and not sexy.

Greatest Love Story

Hepburn’s personal life was as vivid as her onscreen roles. She had relationships with several notable Hollywood insiders, including Howard Hughes. When she returned to MGM and starred alongside Spencer Tracy, the couple developed an on-screen partnership that spanned 25 years and produced nine movies. The famously volatile Tracy-Hepburn off-screen relationship brought a level of chemistry to their films, believed by many to be the most convincing in movie history.

She was quoted saying, “I found him irresistible – I would have done anything for him, but I was perfectly independent, never had any intention of getting married. I wanted to paddle my own canoe. The on-screen relationship also worked wonders in a catapulting Hepburn to super Hollywood stardom, often stealing the spotlight from other famous leading men. Hepburn found a niche playing middle-aged spinsters, such as in The African Queen in 1951, alongside Hollywood legend Humphrey Bogart. She received an Oscar for her work in 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which was also Tracy’s last film.

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Hepburn’s devotion to her leading man lasted 27 years, despite the fact that Tracy refused to divorce his wife, Louise, and struggled with alcoholism and guilt over his son’s deafness. She nursed Tracy through his final months that had taken their toll after years of drinking, smoking, taking pills and being overweight. After Tracy’s death, Hepburn starred in select films, earning Oscars for The Lion in the Winter in 1968 and On Golden Pond in 1981. She remained active into her old age, and made her final screen appearance in 1994 at the age of 87.    

Showing signs of dementia in 2003, she was diagnosed in 2003 with an aggressive tumor in her neck. She died at the age of 96 on June 29, 2003 at the Hepburn family home in Fenwick, Connecticut. In accordance with her wishes, her belongings were put up for auction with Sotheby’s in New York. The event garnered $5.8 million, which Hepburn willed to her family.

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Hepburn’s Hollywood legacy continues to live today. She is named on Encyclopædia Britannica’s list of 300 Women Who Changed the World, Ladies Home Journal’s book, 100 Most Important Women of the 20th century, and Variety magazine’s 100 Icons of the Century.  In 1999, the American Film Institute named Hepburn as the “greatest American female screen legend.” 

Perhaps her iconic role in life was the most symbolic when she refused to conform to society’s expectations of women.  Hepburn was outspoken, assertive, athletic, and wore trousers before it was fashionable for women to do so. She made no apologies for her unconventional lifestyle and demanded to portray the independent characters she brought to life on the stage and screen. Film historian Jeanine Basinger said it best: “What she brought us was a new kind of heroine – modern and independent. She was beautiful, but she did not rely on that.”

Screenshot 2016-02-25 12.30.15By Nella DeCesare
This article is feautred in our GRAVITAS Winter 2016 Issue
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