Independent, outspoken and spirited, Katharine Hepburn was a screen legend whose career spanned 60 years. The American Film Institute rated her as number one female star in 1999. She characteristically never attended any award events and died in 2003 with four Academy Awards to her name, in an all-time record.
Katharine Hepburn was Non-Negotiable
Katharine Hepburn is not related to Audrey Hepburn at all. Early in her career Hollywood asked her to change her name because of the coincidence, but being the spirited woman she was, Katharine refused. Her name was her name, enough said.
This went against the trend to reinvent oneself to please Hollywood. Archie Leach changed his name to Cary Grant and Margarita Carmen Cansino became Rita Hayworth and Norma Jean Baker became Marilyn Monroe. Katharine was non-negotiable on the matter of names, as she was on many matters.
Born into Wealth and Privilege
Unlike Audrey Hepburn, Katharine enjoyed a privileged childhood in scenic Connecticut. Her father was a doctor and her mother a feminist and campaigner for birth control, maybe because she had six children. Katharine the second born.
Young Katharine was a tomboy. She said this herself and insisted she be referred to as Jimmy. One similarity to Audrey Hepburn is that her adored older brother also committed suicide and cast a shadow over her teen years. Unlike Audrey however, Katharine forged her own career. Success did not just happen, even though Katharine eventually became one of the most successful of all screen legends of the twentieth century.
Box Office Poison
Katharine endured a number of flops before she succeeded. She was fired numerous times from screen sets for lateness, her shrill voice, insubordination and ‘looking a fright.’ Her voice, looks and manner were unconventional. In the late 1930s, agents labelled her ‘box office poison.’ George Cukor, the director, described her as ‘an odd creature’ but went on to make ten films with her.
Katharine used her wealth to buy out her RKO contract and make a comeback after her several film flops. She engineered a film with popular Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. It was a 1940 comedy called Philadelphia Story. Katharine cast herself as ditsy and comic, to gain sympathy and audience attention. It worked. She won the New York Film Critics Award for Best Actress and Jimmy Stewart won his only Academy Award.
A Comeback and Lasting Love
This comeback heralded a run of successes for which Hepburn is famous and well-remembered. She starred with Spencer Tracy in ‘Woman of the Year‘ and this was another milestone in her career. The two started a lifelong love affair that lasted until Tracy’s death in 1967. They never married, as Tracy was married to Louise Tracy, who refused a divorce. Tracy and his wife lived separately.
But surprisingly for Katharine who was very independent, nursed him through many a bout of alcoholism and supported him dutifully at risk to her own career in the 1940s. They lived together in a cottage owned by a director friend, though they kept separate addresses on paper.
Shakepeare for a Time
In the 1950s, Katharine turned to the stage and Shakespeare for a time. But she also starred in the iconic African Queen with Humphrey Bogart as a spinster who finds love late in life.
In fact, most of Katharine’s roles were of this nature: weary spinsters in need of love. She was never cast as the conventional beautiful, romantic lead apart from in the comic Philadelphia Story and Bringing Up Baby, another film with Cary Grant.
Guess who’s Coming to Dinner? was her last film completed with Tracy. He died 17 days later from a heart attack at their cottage. Hepburn called the wife who she had never met. It is reported the wife said, “I thought you were only a rumor.” Hepburn didn’t attend the funeral, as she felt it wouldn’t have been appropriate. She never watched the film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
Later Years, a Place in the Sun
In later years she starred with Peter O’Toole in The Lion in Winter as Eleanor of Aquitaine in history and with Jane Fonda and father, Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond. In this film Katharine’s tendency to nod her head and tremor is visible, the start of the less well-known condition of Essential Tremor. It gave her a quavering voice that was very distinct.
Katharine herself was distinct. She was direct, confident, determined in nature. This determination led to her success. She wanted to act from college days. Physically, she was angular, boyish and unusually attractive. Like Coco Chanel, she preferred to wear trousers and enjoyed sport.
Katharine was an outspoken proponent of liberated women’s fashions and was known to ruffle feathers with her preference to wear pants at a time when it was considered taboo for a woman to do so. She did play Coco in the Broadway musical Coco (1970) although she was never a singer.
Katharine, a Distinct Identity
The world remembers Katharine as a stand apart woman, undeterred by criticism and failure. She had her own distinct voice and seldom listened to others. She was her own person with her own name. No one was going to reinvent or model her into another image. She stayed strong through life and gives us an example to follow.
Value yourself for who you are. Don’t be upset by other’s opinions of you. Value and use your voice for good.
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Joni Scott is an Australian author with two published novels: Whispers through Time and The Last Hotel. She co-hosts an edifying Women’s blog with author, Wendy Tendys called Whisperingencouragement.com.