Katharine Hepburn: Independent to a Virtue

I’ve always felt a personal connection to Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003), because where I lived when I was growing up she was local. The Hepburn family beach house, where the star spent a lot of her time throughout her life, was in the small community of Fenwick in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, a half hour west of where I was born. The 1938 hurricane, which devastated my home state of Rhode Island, turned Hepburn’s original Fenwick house into toothpicks. We also share some mutual ancestors, many generations back, and there are aspects of her character (ice-cold baths, swimming and rowing in Long Island Sound even into old age) depicted so vividly in the 1993 documentary All About Me, that I just adore. We also shared a birthday for many years — until we didn’t. For decades Hepburn gave November 8 as her date of birth (which also happens to be my birthday) but she later revealed that that was actually the birthday of her older brother Tom, who committed suicide when they were both teenagers. Hepburn discovered the body hanging, a traumatic event, to be sure. She honored his memory by taking his birthday. The truth came out in 1991 with the publication of her best-selling autobiography Me: Stories of My Life. 

The real Hepburn is oddly more complex and interesting than any role she ever played. There is her famously liberal, unconventional upbringing. Her mother (also named Katharine) was a Houghton, of the Corning Glass family, and was an important suffragette and co-founder of Planned Parenthood. Her father, Dr. Thomas Hepburn, a urologist, was a founder of the New England Social Hygiene Association, which sought to combat sexually transmitted disease through a campaign of information. Freethinkers and leftists, they raised their children to be the same. Hepburn remained heedless of convention throughout her life. I find this an especially admirable trait especially in light of how herd-like Hollywood was during the studio years.

While I love Spencer Tracy, I find myself completely uninterested in either their romance or most of the films the pair made together: Woman of the Year (1942), Keeper of the Flame (1943), Without Love (1945), The Sea of Grass (1947), State of the Union (1948), Adam’s Rib (1949), Pat and Mike (1952), Desk Set (1957), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967). I have a soft spot for the last one, which I essentially grew up on, as it was shown on TV frequently when I was a kid. And I enjoy State of the Union, as it is essentially Frank Capra’s last good film. And The Sea of Grass gets extra credit for being a western, thus an unusual choice for her. But I find the others to be talky, self-indulgent bores. I find myself much more invigorated by many of her other major team-ups, e.g., Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen (1951), Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker (1956), Bob Hope (for real!) in The Iron Petticoat (1956), Peter O’Toole in The Lion in Winter (1968), Laurence Olivier in Love Among the Ruins (1975), John Wayne (again, for real!) in Rooster Cogburn (1975), Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond (1981) and Anthony Quinn in This Can’t Be Love (1994). Many of these occurred late in her career, almost as though she said to herself, “You know? I never worked with X yet. I guess I’d better do it while I still can!”

Bringing Up Baby (1938) and The Philadelphia Story (1940) have sort of been spoiled for me by over-mention and over-praise. But there’s so much else to talk about! Her very first film A Bill of Divorcement (1932) co-starred her with John Barrymore! Can you imagine? Her part as the title character in Alice Adams (1935) is perhaps my favorite of all her her performances, funny, mortifying, vulnerable. Also interesting and notable from this period are Little Women (1933), Mary of Scotland (1936, though she is miscast), Quality Street (1937), Stage Door (1937), and Holiday (1938). Weird stuff from the period includes Spitfire (1934) in which she plays a singularly unconvincing hillbilly girl; Sylvia Scarlet (1935) in which she dons male drag; and Dragon Seed (1944) in which she and the rest of the all-white cast wear yellow-face as Asian characters.

Hepburn may have worked with more A list screen directors than any other actor in history: George Cukor (10 times), George Stevens, Frank Capra, John Ford, Howard Hawks, John Huston, Vincent Minnelli, Elia Kazan, David Lean, Stanley Kramer, Tony Richardson, et al! In the ’50s she worked hard to get backing for a screen version of her recent Broadway hit (Shaw’s The Millionairess) that would have been directed by Preston Sturges but sadly it never came to pass.

Since childhood Hepburn had always been a creature of the theatre, from living room productions during her girlhood (not unlike the ones depicted in Little Women), to school plays and pageants, to summer stock to Broadway. When she reached middle age and Hollywood lost interest in her as a leading lady, she toured in Shakespeare and did several productions at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut right in her own backyard (sadly, this theatre burned down a few months ago). She began doing the work of serious modern playwrights on film and television, such as Tennessee Williams’ Suddenly Last Summer (1959) and The Glass Menagerie (1973), Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962), and Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (1973). She was also in a 1971 screen adaptation of Trojan Women by Euripides. 

There is a special magic to her last cinematic turn, the third screen version of the old warhorse Love Affair (1994), starring Warren Beatty and Annette Benning though not exactly to the film itself. One more performance followed, a TV holiday special called One Christmas (1994), based on the Truman Capote story. She was 87 years old at this point, and had been a professional actress for 66 years. Which argues convincingly I think for the health-giving effectiveness of cold showers.