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
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