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Happy Birthday, Katharine Hepburn!

Katharine Houghton Hepburn was born at 22 Hudson Street, Hartford, Connecticut on May 12, 1907. The second of six children, she was the daughter of Dr. Thomas Norval Hepburn, a urologist at Hartford Hospital, and Katharine "Kit" Martha Houghton, a member of the prominent Houghton family from New England and Upstate New York. Kit's father, Alfred Houghton, was the younger brother of Amory Houghton, the head of the Corning Glass Company. Both progressive freethinkers, Kit and Thomas fought for social change in America: he helped establish the New England Social Hygiene Association, which educated the general public about venereal disease, while she was president of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage association and later campaigned for birth control with Margaret Sanger. Kate later wrote of her progenitors, "Mother and Dad were perfect parents. They brought us up with a feeling of freedom. There were NO RULES. There were simply certain things which he did and certain things which he didn't do because they would hurt others."
Kate and her brother Tom (1910s)
By Kate's own account, she grew up a tomboy. "I was freckled wore my hair like a boy's," she recalled. "In fact, with one brother Tom older and my two younger, Dick and Bob, being a girl was a torment. I'd always wanted to be a boy. Jimmy was my name, if you want to know." Her athletic father taught his children to dive, swim, run, jump and play golf and tennis. Golf soon became a passion of hers; when Kate was around twelve or thirteen, her mother arranged for her to have lessons at the Hartford Golf Club with an Englishman named Jack Strait.

In April 1921, Kate's adored brother Tom died "under strange circumstances" while they were visiting their aunt in New York. According to Kate, "I went upstairs to wake him. There he was next to the bed his knees bent hanged from a torn piece of sheeting. It was tied to a rafter. He was dead strangled. It made no sense. In a state of numb shock I cut him down and laid him on the bed. Tom was dead. He was just plain dead. [...] At first the newspapers said Tom had committed suicide. There was no reason for this that anyone could see. Then Dad made a statement that it was very possible that Tom was practicing hanging himself. Dad had told us about this trick of pretending to hang as a kid." The incident made the 14-year-old Kate moody, nervous and suspicious of people; instead of going to Oxford School, she chose to have a private tutor. "I didn't want to be in any school," she said. "Too many girls. Too much curiosity."

In 1924, Kate enrolled at Bryn Mawr College, a women's liberal arts university near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She attended Bryn Mawr primarely to satisfy her mother, who had studied history and political science there. She disliked the experience at first; "Having not been in school for several years, I was really not at home or at ease with a lot of strange girls," she said. Fortunately, by the beginning of her second year, "it wasn't so bad. [...] I'd gotten used to all the girls and I supposed they'd gotten used to me." She did, however, find it difficult to keep up with the scholastic demands of college. In her third year, she was suspended for eight days for smoking in her room.

As Pandora in The Woman in the Moon
It was at Bryn Mawr that Kate discovered her love for acting. She played the leading man in A. A. Milne's The Truth About Blayds (1922), Teresa in The Cradle Song (1911) by Gregorio Martínez Sierra and, in her last year, she was Pandora in John Lyly's The Woman in the Moon (1595). "Pandora was a great part," she wrote. "She played in different moods under the influence of different planets. I was warlike under Mars. Loving under Venus, etc., etc. Funny, tearful, etc. My father said all he could see in that performance were the soles of my dirty feet getting blacker and blacker. And my freckled face getting redder and redder." The positive response she received for her performance in The Woman in the Moon cemented Kate's plans to pursue an acting career. In June 1928, after graduating with a degree in history and philosophy, she travelled to Baltimore to meet producer Edwin H. Knopf, who ran a successful theatre company.

Impressed by her eagerness, Knopf immediately cast Kate in his current production, The Czarina (1922) by Melchior Lengyel and Lajos Biro, which starred Mary Boland in the title role. Her "little part" as a lady-in-waiting earned her "two very nice notices"; one of them was by the Printed Word, whose reviewer called her "arresting." That led to a part in the following week's show, George Kelly's The Torch-Bearers (1923), again with Boland. This time, Kate's performance was not very well received. "I knew that I was not very good in it," she recalled. "When I got nervous, my voice would shoot up into the top of my head. I didn't really know how to control this." She asked the advice of Kenneth MacKenna, another actor in the company, who suggested she leave Baltimore and go to New York City to take voice lessons with Frances Robinson-Duff.

Kate and Ludlow Ogden Smith
Meanwhile, the Knopf Stock Company selected Kate to be the understudy to the leading lady Lucile Nikolas in their New York production of The Big Pond (1928), a play by George Middleton and A. E. Thomas. A week into rehearsals, Nikolas was fired and replaced by Hepburn, in her first starring role. On opening night, however, she arrived late, "my voice went up. My tempo increased. And apparently [...] I became to difficult to undertstand. Too high... to fast." She was immediately fired, but producer Arthur Hopkins soon offered her the part of a schoolgirl in Katharine Clugston's These Days (1928), Kate's Broadway debut. Although Kate was praised, reviews were "withering" and the show closed within days.

In December 1928, after two weeks of serving as Hope Williams' undertstudy in Philip Barry's Holiday (1928), Kate decided to marry Ludlow "Luddy" Odgen Smith, a socialite-businessman from Philadelphia whom she had met during her senior year at Bryn Mawr. She planned to quit the theatre and dedicate herself to her husband, though in reality she never committed to being a "proper wife." Two weeks into their marriage, Kate went back to her job in Holiday, which she held for six months. For the next four years, Kate was cast in a series of prominent plays, but was ultimately released from almost all of them for one reason or the other. For instance, in Alberto Casella's Death Take a Holiday (1924), she was fired for interpreting her character as too much of a psychopath, while in Barry's The Animal Kingdom (1932), she was let go during rehearsals in November 1931 because the star, Leslie Howard, disliked her. "Now I may not have been able to keep a part," Kate wrote. "But I could get any part. I just had a sort of knack." 

With John Barrymore in A Bill of Divorcement
In late 1931, Kate was offered the lead role in The Warrior's Husband (1924), a Greek fable written by Julian Thompson. Opening at the Morosco Theatre in New York in March 1932, the play ran for three months and earned Kate glowing reviews. "In The Warrior's Husband, I began to feel for the first time like a real actress," she said. While appearing on the show, Kate was spotted by Miriam Howell, a talent scout who worked for the Hollywood agent and future film producer Leland Hayward. Howell asked her to test for the part of Sydney Fairfield in the upcoming RKO melodrama A Bill of Divorcement (1932), produced by David O. Selznick and directed by George Cukor. Although everyone else in the screening room thought she was terrible, Selznick and Cukor were pleased with the results and gave her the role.

Co-starring John Barrymore as her father, Billie Burke as her mother and David Manners as her love interest, A Bill of Divorcement was a huge critical and commerical success, making Kate an instant movie star. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times called her performance "exceptionally fine," while Variety declared that "she has a vital something that sets her apart from the picture galaxy." On the strenght of her work in the film, RKO signed the 25-year-old actress to a long-term contract. A Bill of Divorcement began a lifelong professional and personal association with Cukor, who went on to direct Kate in eight motion pictures and two televisions films.

With Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in Morning Glory
Kate's second Hollywood assignment was Dorothy Arzner's Christopher Strong (1933), a tale of illicit love among the English aristocracy. Although the picture failed at the box-office, it earned Kate positive critical reviews. After that, she played aspiring actress Eva Lovelace  "a wonderful part" in Lowell Sherman's drama Morning Glory (1933), with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Adolphe Menjou. The film was another big success for Kate, who received her first Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance. She chose not to attend the ceremony as she would not for the duration of her career but was thrilled with the win. "My first Academy Award," she wrote. "I couldn't believe it!"

Kate's biggest hit of the Pre-Code era was Cukor's Little Women (1933), based on the Louisa May Alcott best-seller of the same name. She played the lead role of Jo March opposite Frances Dee, Joan Bennett, Jean Parker, Spring Byington, Paul Lukas and Douglass Montgomery. Critically acclaimed upon its release, the film earned husband-and-wife screenwriters Sarah Y. Mason and Victor Heerman the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, garnering two additional nominations for Best Picture and Best Director. Little Women became one of Hepburn's personal favorites; "This picture was heaven to do," she recalled. "It was to me my youth!"

Publicity still for Sylvia Scarlett
In the mid-1930s, Kate's career inexplicably took a sharp dowturn, as she starred in a series of productions that were both critically and financially unsuccessful. First, there was the rural drama Spitfire (1934), widely considered one of her worst films. After shooting the film, she returned to Broadway to appear in The Lake (1933), a British play by Dorothy Massingham and Murray MacDonald, which was universally panned by critics. Kate wrote of this period: "[Spitfire] was a Southern sort of mountain spirit. Shame on you, Kathy. Then I went back to New York to do The Lake [...] And again shame on you, Kathy. No good." There followed The Little Minister (1934), based on a Victorian novel by James Barrie; the romantic drama Break of Hearts (1935), with Charles Boyer; Cukor's Sylvia Scarlett (1935), her first of four films with Cary Grant; the costume drama Mary of Scotland (1936), in which she played 16th-century ruler Mary Stuart; A Woman Rebels (1936), another Victorian drama; and Quality Street (1937), a romantic comedy set in 19th-century England.

Meanwhile, in 1934, Kate travelled to Yucatán, Mexico to get a divorce from Luddy; her move to Hollywood in July 1932 "turned out to be the beginning of the end of our marriage." She often expressed her gratitude toward Luddy for his financial and moral support during the early days of her career and was "horrified at an absolute pig I was" for exploiting his love. They remained very close friends until his death from cancer in 1979. In her autobiography, Kate wrote of her ex-husband: "Luddy could make anything work my life the car the furnace the this the that. Carpenter mechanic plumber. It was great. But mostly from the beginning he was what shall I say? he was there. Whatever. He was always there. As no one. Well, how can I describe to you my relationship with Luddy? He really was close to me. He was like Mother and Dad. He was there. He was like breathing. My friend. I could ask him anything. He would do anything. You just don't find people like that in life. Unconditional love."

With Cary Grant in Holiday
Kate did star in a critically and commercial acclaimed film during this period, George Stevens's Alice Adams (1935), based on the 1923 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Booth Tarkington. Co-starring Fred MacMurray, this was "a study of a desperate social climb by a girl without enough money or family position to make it to the top. She was in a race she couldn't win." Alice Adams, which became one of her personal favorites, received Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Actress, Kate's second.

Before the 1930s came to a close, Kate was cast in three more features all of them were positively reviewed, but failed to generate a profit at the box-office. First came Gregory La Cava's Stage Door (1937), with Ginger Rogers "and using all the good girls at RKO: Lucille Ball, Gail Patrick, Andrea Leeds, Eve Arden, Ann Miller." The film received four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Thereafter, she was cast in Howard Hawks' screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938), her second pairing with Grant. She then bought herself out of her contract with RKO and was subsequently signed by Columbia Pictures to appear with Grant in Holiday (1938), again directed by Cukor.

By this time, Kate was labeled "Box-Office Poison" by the Independent Theatre Owners of America. With her reputation at a low, she decided to take action to create her own comeback vehicle. She left Hollywood and headed to Broadway, commissioning Philip Barry to write something for her. The result was The Philadelphia Story, a three-act comedy centered on Tracy Lord, a snobbish socialite whose wedding plans are thwarted by the simultaneous arrival of her ex-husband and a tabloid magazine writer. Co-starring Joseph Cotten and Van Heflin, The Philadelphia Story opened at the Schubert Theatre in New York in March 1939 and became a massive success, both critically and financially, running for a total of 417 performances.

With Tracy in Woman of the Year
Sensing that the play could renew her Hollywood stardom, eccentric film tycoon Howard Hughes, Kate's partner at the time, bought her the screen rights to The Philadelphia Story before it even debuted on stage. Kate chose to sell the property to MGM on the condition that she play the lead, have George Cukor as her director and Cary Grant and James Stewart as her co-stars. The Philadelphia Story (1940) ended up being one of the biggest hits of the year, garnering six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress for Kate. "I understood Tracy Lord," she said. "I knew what made her tick. I gave her life and she gave me back my career."

Kate was also responsible for the development of her next film project, the romantic comedy-drama Woman of the Year (1942), about a political columnist and a sports writer whose relationship is challenged by her fierce independence and committment to her work. The outline of the story was developed by Kate's close friend Garson Kanin in 1941; she presented the finished product to MGM and they agreed not only to produce the picture, but also give her the director and co-star of her choice, George Stevens and Spencer Tracy. Woman of the Year was another huge success for the 35-year-old actress, who received a fourth Oscar nomination. During filming, Kate signed a long-term contract with Metro.

While working together on Woman of the Year, Kate began a romantic relationship with Spencer Tracy, who became her companion of 26 years, until his death from a heart attack in 1967. Besides the morale-boosting musical Stage Door Canteen (1943), in which she made only small cameo appearance as herself, the World War II drama Dragon Seed (1944), Vincente Minnelli's noir Undercurrent (1946), co-starring Robert Taylor and Robert Mitchum, and the period drama Song of Love (1947), Kate's films in the 1940s were all Tracy-Hepburn vehicles. There was Cukor's propagandist drama Keeper of the Flame (1943); the comedy Without Love (1945), based on a play by Barry; Elia Kazan's Western drama The Sea of Grass (1947), the most commercially succesful of their films together; Frank Capra's political drama State of the Union (1948); and the comedy Adam's Rib (1949), also directed by Cukor.

With Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen
In January 1950, Kate ventured into William Shakespare, playing Rosalind in a successful Broadway adaptation of As You Like It (1623). After that, she was cast by director John Huston in The African Queen (1951), her first Technicolor feature. Co-starring close friend Humphrey Bogart, the picture was shot on location in the Belgian Congo, where Kate became ill with dysentery. In 1987, she actually published an account about the experience; it was appropriately called The Making of 'The African Queen,' or: How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind. The African Queen opened to critical and commercial acclaim, giving Kate her fifth Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. In turn, Bogart won Best Actor.

Next, Kate made the sports comedy Pat and Mike (1952), written by Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon specifically as a Tracy-Hepburn vehicle. Designed to showcase Kate's expert athletic skills, the film was popular at the box-office and received positive reviews from critics; it became Kate's favorite of the nine pictures she made with Spencer. Pat and Mike was the last assignment in her MGM contract, meaning that she was now free to select her own projects. She spent two years resting and travelling, before committing to David Lean's romantic drama Summertime (1955), shot on location in Venice with Italian actor Rossano Brazzi as her leading man. Kate was thrilled to be working with Lean. "They called me and said that David Lean was going to direct it," she wrote. "Would I be... They didn't need to finish that sentence. I certainly would be interested in anything that David Lean was going to direct." Summertime was a great success and Kate's performance as a single, middle-aged elementary school secretary earned her a sixth Oscar nomination.

With Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker
In 1956, Kate spent six months touring Australia with the Old Vic theatre company, performing in three Shakespeare plays The Merchant of Venice (1596-97), The Taming of the Shrew (1591-92) and Measure for Measure (1604) to highly positive results. Upon her return to Hollywood, she co-starred alongside Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker (1956), which brought her another Academy Award nomination. Kate's character in the film was one of the popular "spinster" roles she played throughout the 1950s.

Before the decade ended, she appeared in The Iron Petticoat (1956) with Bob Hope, a critical and commercial failure (Kate considered it the worst film of her career); Desk Set (1957), the eighth Tracy-Hepburn pairing, which was also the first non-MGM film they made together and their first color and CinemaScope picture; and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), co-starring Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, for which she received an eighth Oscar nomination. In between, she enjoyed a successful summer at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, where she reprised her role in The Merchant of Venice, in addition to performing in Much Ado About Nothing (1598-99).

In the summer of 1960, Kate returned to Stratford for two other Shakespeare plays, Twelfth Night (1601-02) and Antony and Cleopatra (1607). Thereafter, she was cast in Sidney Lumet's Long Day's Journey in Night (1962), based on the Eugene O'Neill play about a dysfunctional family, in which Kate played a drug-addicted mother, a role that gave her yet another Oscar nomination. Meanwhile, Spencer's health declined and Kate decided to take a break in her career to care for him. She did not work again until Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), a comedy-drama directed by Stanley Kramer, focused on the controversial subject of interracial marriage. This was the ninth and final film she made with Spencer, who died 17 days after production wrapped. Co-starring Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton, Kate's niece, the picture was an overwhelming success, giving the 60-year-old star her second Academy Award for Best Actress. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner also won Best Original Screenplay and received eight additional nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Tracy.

With Peter O'Toole in The Lion in Winter
Devoting herself to her work as a way to ease her grief after losing Spencer, Kate agreed to play Eleanor of Acquitaine to Peter O'Toole's King Henry II in The Lion in Winter (1968), a part she thought was "fascinating." Critically and commercially acclaimed, the film was nominated in all the major categories at the Academy Awards, bringing Kate the Oscar for Best Actress for the second year in a row; she shared the honor with Barbra Streisand for Funny Girl (1968), the only time this has happened for actresses in Academy history. Her next screen project, The Madwoman of Chaillot (1968), was massive failure, but the ended the decade with a successful run on the Broadway musical Coco (1969), inspired by the life of French fashion designer Coco Chanel.

Although Kate stayed active throughout the 1970s, none of film projects was particularly well-received. There was The Trojan Women (1971), a period drama co-starring Vanessa Redgrave; A Delicate Balance (1973), based on Edward Albee's Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name; Rooster Cogburn (1975), a Western with John Wayne; and Olly, Olly, Oxen Free (1978), a family adventure. Venturing into television for the first time, Kate found success in ABC's The Glass Menagerie (1973), an adaptation of the Tennessee Williams, for which she received an Emmy Award nomination. Two years later, she appeared in Love Among the Ruins (1975), an Edwardian drama directed by George Cukor for ABC. Co-starring her good friend Laurence Olivier, the film was a ratings success and garnered positive reviews, eventually winning Kate her only Emmy. Cukor also directed her in the television The Corn is Green (1979), wherein she delivered another Emmy Award-nominated performance.

Kate's final triumph came when she starred alongside Henry and Jane Fonda in On Golden Pond (1981), which gave her a record fourth Academy Award. She continued to act for the next 30 years, making her last cinematic appearance playing Warren Beatty's aunt in Love Affair (1994). After that, her health began to deteriorate and was hospitalized with pneumonia in the winter of 1996. By 1997 she had become very weak, was speaking and eating very little, and it was feared she would die. She showed signs of dementia in her final years. In May 2003, an aggressive tumor was found in Hepburn's neck. The decision was made not to medically intervene, and she died on June 29, 2003, at the Hepburn family home in Fenwick, Connecticut. She was 96 years old

Me: Stories of My Life by Katharine Hepburn (1991) | The Encyclopedia of Hollywood by () |


  1. May I share this as part of my The Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon?


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