OBITUARY: Katharine Hepburn

Long before the end of her rich and irrepressible life, Katharine Hepburn,

who has died aged 96, had gone beyond the level of mere movie star, and won

a public affection granted to few people. She would sometimes marvel at the

warmth with which strangers wrote to her, and she could discuss the

phenomenon of herself in ways that left no doubt about her steely, serene

ego, but which never jeopardised her charm.

Though “charm” is not quite

the word. She had an authority, a natural eccentricity and the spunky good

sense of a magnificent aunt. So many who never met her must feel her loss

in those terms.

From start to finish, Hepburn was a family person. The years of fame and

Hollywood never matched her loyalty to Fenwick, the family property at Old

Saybrook, on the Connecticut coast, where she was raised.

She was not just

a fond daughter; she was deeply influenced by the life and work of her

parents – the father a doctor, the mother a leader in the drive for women’s

suffrage and family planning. She took

it for granted that one grew up striving for “character”, shouldering

responsibility and finding strength in family ties and good work.

Kate Hepburn was very New England. She swam in the cold Atlantic ocean;

she was a fanatic for exercise; and she enjoyed the long, severe winters

and short, stunning summers, to say nothing of muddy spring and flaming

fall. The US constitution came from her corner of the country, along with

granite humour and equal respect for morality and privacy.

So she was vigorous and independent in thought and action, while part of

an informed and opinionated family that talked about everything except

feelings. With that, there was a pervasive mystery. There was some history

of mental illness in her family, and suicide. At the age of 13, it was

Hepburn who found the body of her older brother, who had hanged himself.

This left her tomboyish, feisty, scornful of fuss, yet always curious about

emotions and their secrecy.

Her character and her intelligence were never simple or superficial, and

that prickly edge kept her from being a popular favourite for many years.

Indeed, in the late 1930s – her finest years – she was sometimes called

box-office poison, a wounding badge that she wore with defiance.

If acting had not worked out, Hepburn would never have moped. She would

have played golf and tennis, travelled, driven and flown, perhaps; and she

would have devoted herself to feminist causes long before they

became fashionable. She would have had enduring friendships with women, and

a string of bantering relationships with strong, tough men of the world.

Of course, she did most of those things anyway, while making some 50

films that got her 12 Oscar nominations and four of the statuettes – both

records. She acted on the stage, too, but without either the assurance or

the vulnerability she had on screen. She wrote a couple of books, including

an enormously successful, blithely selective, autobiography, which she

titled – simply, boldly, yet reasonably – Me (1991). Who else?

Hepburn was educated at the elite women’s college Bryn Mawr, in

Pennsylvania, and graduated with a major in history and philosophy. She

went straight into the theatre, where she earned a reputation for being

headstrong and undirectable. She was smart, and she mixed profound

reticence with abrupt surges of outspokenness. Fighting her own reserve

made her impulsive and perilous. She seemed mannered sometimes, but rather

more in a social than a theatrical sense.

It was in line with her kind of American classiness that, in 1928, she

married Ludlow “Luddy” Ogden Smith, a Philadelphia stockbroker. The union

did not last (they divorced in 1934), but she never lost her fondness for

him. But she would not marry again; she had learned that she was too much

“me” for that.

By the time she went to Hollywood in 1932, Hepburn was regarded as

difficult and lofty. Her first employer, David O Selznick, was horrified:

she wasn’t beautiful, she wasn’t sexy, she talked back, she didn’t flatter

fools. How could she survive?

Years later, Selznick denied her one role she longed for – that of Scarlett

in Gone With The Wind. But in her first film, A Bill Of Divorcement (1932),

she had George Cukor as her director and John Barrymore playing her father

– and she was extraordinary.

Cukor saw a young woman anxious to seem

sophisticated, yet often making a fool of herself, and then recovering. She

was like a heroine from Jane Austen: she had a moral being, a mind and a

conscience, and she was trying – in the words of The Philadelphia Story


behave naturally”, with grace.

She was perfectly cast as Jo in Cukor’s Little Women (1933), and she won

her first Oscar as the young actor in Morning Glory (1933). But she was not

an established figure in the 1930s. She made several flops; she went for

adventurous but misbegotten roles; she was under contract to a small

studio, RKO; and she never let herself be cute or adorable. She played an

aviatrix in Dorothy Arzner’s Christopher Strong (1933) – so often she wore

slacks. She was a strange tomboy in Spitfire (1934), and not too credible

at genteel romance in The Little Minister (1934), Break Of Hearts (1936) or

Quality Street (1937). She

was an early feminist in A Woman Rebels (1936).

None of those films did well, and Hepburn sometimes seemed stilted or

querulous. But beginning with the pretentious show-off who learns better

sense in Alice Adams (1935), she had an extraordinary run. She was dressed

as a boy in parts of Cukor’s risky Sylvia Scarlett (1936). For John Ford,

she gave perhaps her most romantic performance, as Mary Of Scotland (1936).

In Stage Door (1937), she had wonderful battles of repartee with Ginger

Rogers. Then she did three films with Cary Grant – as the spirit of

liberating disruption in Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby (1938); as the

rebellious rich girl who wants a more decent life in Cukor’s Holiday

(1938); and as Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story (1940), in which

emotional pride and coldness give way to a deeper understanding.

That last film was of her own choosing. Aware that she was not easily

cast, Hepburn encouraged the playwright Philip Barry to write the play for

her (Howard Hughes loaned her money to buy the rights). She played it on

Broadway, and then sold it – and herself – to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. If she

had only ever made The Philadelphia Story, Holiday and Bringing Up Baby,

her place in the comedy of manners and feeling would have been secure. The

wary, very clever and teasing Grant was the greatest screen partner she

ever had – more stimulating and testing than Spencer Tracy to come.

Hepburn met Tracy on the set of Woman Of The Year (1942), a very

effective comedy until its end, when the woman meekly adopts the man’s

demeaning rules. On screen and off, she deferred to Tracy. Still, it was

the beginning of a partnership that made her a sentimental favourite.

Though she revered health, in life Hepburn accommodated herself to all

of Tracy’s neuroses – he was an alcoholic and depressive, unhappily

married, guilt-ridden over a son’s deafness, and not in her class as a mind

or a talker. But tough, bitter men gave her a thrill. There had been a

romance with Howard Hughes, and a near marriage to her agent Leland

Hayward. According to Barbara Leaming’s 1995 biography (though this was

disputed by family members), John Ford had been the love of her life.

At the same time, there were rumours – and evidence – that Hepburn

preferred the company of women, especially Irene Mayer Selznick and the

American Express heiress Laura Harding, her friend for more than 60 years.

The truth may be that she always enjoyed friendship more than sex; she

never quite lived with anyone, though she was a heartfelt care-giver to so


The Tracy films were often very good, even if they were not as piercing

as the late 30s movies – Keeper Of The Flame (1942), Frank Capra’s State Of

The Union (1948), the excellent Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat And Mike (1952)

were the best, and three were by George Cukor.

But if one film was the pivot of Hepburn’s popularity, it was The

African Queen (1951), where she and Humphrey Bogart made a salty, romantic

coupling, like kids let out to play. On that dangerous African location,

she won the love and admiration of director John Huston, by hunting with

him and generally roughing it. In return, years later, in her book about

the film, she described him as a pagan god.

There were also bad and inane films – playing Chinese in Dragon Seed

(1944); helpless in Without Love (1945) and The Sea Of Grass (1947), both

with Tracy; trying to be Clara Schumann in Song Of Love (1947); and in

Vincente Minnelli’s neurotic Undercurrent (1946).

As she neared 50, and

stayed resolute about acting her age, Hepburn was the schoolteacher plunged

into late love in Venice, in David Lean’s Summer Madness (1955), a spinster

refreshed by Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker (1956), and a very creepy

monster mother in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959).

She did not overwork in those years, and when one considers the number

of poor films she accumulated, her stature is all the more remarkable. It

owed something to the 1971 publication of Tracy And Hepburn, by Garson

Kanin (the scriptwriter on so many of their films). That book romanced the

Tracy relationship and sweetened up its tough spots (including the moods

and affairs of Tracy, and Hepburn’s dogged independence) enough to be a

bestseller. But she spent a lot of time looking after the ailing Tracy,

even on screen in the woeful Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? (1967), for

which she won her second Oscar.

That statuette should have melted like wax next to the exposed pain of

Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962) – her best late film by far, and a

rare but complete adoption of tragedy. There was another Oscar for The Lion

In Winter (1968), and by then she was playing old ladies – sometimes in

abject ventures – from The Madwoman Of Chaillot (1969) through a fourth

Oscar in On Golden Pond (1981) all the way to her aunt in Love Affair

(1994), smiling on Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, and trying to restrain

her palsy.

It is a life we may never plumb – just because she did not intend us to

find out everything. Her own book, and Barbara Leaming’s, leave so much

out, and so much that we do know does not fit our image of a movie star. It

surely helped her reputation as much as her life that she was brave,

robust, loyal, edgy, and a survivor. She had been Hollywood in her time –

and she was one of the few stars who liked Louis B Mayer,

her boss at MGM – but she never went Hollywood, or gave up New England


To the end, her bright eyes and her large mind were filled with thoughts

of other things to do besides having her picture taken. Maybe that is why,

in enough movies, she looks like a newborn creature and one of the great

American ladies. On The African Queen, John Huston had a brainwave – “Do

it like Eleanor Roosevelt,” he said. And she grinned and advanced. There

was always a lot more there than just Me.

The mere wondering about who could take her place is enough to establish

her rarity, and our final removal from the golden age of Hollywood. Golly,

is she really gone? — Â

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

The last picture show: A sequel

Not so long ago, Francis Ford Coppola used to make predictions about the future of cinema. It was going to be "electronic", he promised.

Oscar loves the Brits

<i>Slumdog Millionaire</i> and <i>The Reader</i>'s Academy Awards expose a long-standing love affair, writes David Thomson.

A surge in lunacy

You can measure the hallucinatory experience of living in the United States according to a range of decisions that don't matter, writes David Thomson.

Making movies

By the mid-1960s, John Boorman was a young prospect being watched in the new British film industry. Boorman didn't go to university, or was ever apprenticed in the theatre. But his work in television had shown an ability to transform routine magazine programmes with the fresh air of real, awkward lives, writes David Thomson.

Subscribers only

The shame of 40 000 missing education certificates

Graduates are being left in the lurch by a higher education department that is simply unable to deliver the crucial certificates proving their qualifications - in some cases dating back to 1992

The living nightmare of environmental activists who protest mine expansion

Last week Fikile Ntshangase was gunned down as activists fight mining company Tendele’s expansions. Community members tell the M&G about the ‘kill lists’ and the dread they live with every day

More top stories

Fifteen witnesses for vice-chancellor probe

Sefako Makgatho University vice-chancellor Professor Peter Mbati had interdicted parliament last month from continuing with the inquiry

Constitutional Court ruling on restructuring dispute is good for employers

A judgment from the apex court empowers employers to change their workers’ contracts — without consultation

Audi Q8: Perfectly cool

The Audi Q8 is designed to be the king in the elite SUV class. But is it a victim of its own success?

KZN officials cash in on ‘danger pay for Covid-19’

Leadership failures at Umdoni local municipality in KwaZulu-Natal have caused a ‘very unhappy’ ANC PEC to fire the mayor and chief whip

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday