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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,069

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This is the grave of Katharine Hepburn.

Born in 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut, Hepburn grew up in a wealthy reformist family. Her father was a prominent doctor and her mother (also buried here) was one of the state’s leading suffragists and birth control activists, quite an amazing woman. Hepburn would imbibe these values and bring them to her astounding career. Her father was a Muscular Christianity kind of guy and encouraged his children to be athletes at a time when it wasn’t very common to teach girls to be athletes. This also would influence Hepburn’s career given her proficiency at pratfalls. She had a happy childhood until her older brother killed himself and she discovered the body. This sent her into an understandable deep depression and she dropped out of her fancy school to be tutored privately.

By the time Hepburn started at Bryn Mawr in 1924, she was brilliant and independent but undisciplined. She was suspended for smoking in her dorm room (My. God!) and wanted to act but couldn’t get parts because her grades were terrible. She finally realized that working hard would lead to other good things, became a history major, and then acted in all the plays she wanted.

The day after she graduated in 1928, she visited a theater producer to start her career. She struggled early on, having stumbled into a leading role she wasn’t ready for. But she had no shortage of courage and pluck, as her career would demonstrate. It definitely took a few years, as she worked in New York and then in companies during the summer in the Berkshires. In 1932, she had a breakthrough with a play called The Warrior’s Husband, which combined what she brought to the table–an athletic woman and a ton of physical and emotional energy. The reviews were good and a Hollywood scout saw it.

Very soon Hollywood came calling and she energetically chose film over the stage, at least at first. At first, Hollywood liked her. She brought a new and strange energy to the films. First, she was tall and rangy, very different from the small actresses that tended to become stars. Second, she had very little conventional sex appeal according to contemporary Hollywood standards, which really very much made her a different beast. The irony of this is that she had no issues attracting powerful men in her personal life, but whatever, it was Hollywood image making Third, she was so obviously and openly upper class, which could have an alienating effect and often did in the 1930s, but it also made her perfect for a lot of roles no one else could fit in the same ways.

Hepburn’s mentor in Hollywood was George Cukor. One of her first films was called A Bill of Divorcement and here was this 25 year old novice having to go to face to face with the legendary John Barrymore. Hepburn more than held her own in that matchup, the film got good reviews, and a partnership was born. In fact, Cukor would direct her in ten films. But the early years were an extremely mixed bag. For one, she still wanted to prove herself on Broadway and so wasn’t committed to Hollywood in the way that some actresses were. Second, she quickly got a reputation for difficulty with the press. I don’t blame her, the Hollywood press was and remains the worst. They would ask dumb questions and she would give snarky answers. She hated autographs and dealing with the public. This was a patrician woman after all. She took risky roles that the public didn’t like. That included in Cukor’s Sylvia Scarlett, which she plays mostly in drag with very short hair; even when the story is revealed, she still dressed as a boy. This made people wonder if she was a lesbian (these rumors have persisted to the present though there’s no hard evidence to the point). The public just flat out didn’t like her at this time. Bringing Up Baby is a total classic comedy, with Cary Grant and Hepburn in the finest possible form. Great, great film. It was a bust at the box office at the time and that, the studio believed, was because everyone hated watching Hepburn. The critics loved her, so why didn’t the public?

So while Hepburn was already a very skilled actress, by the late 30s, it seemed as her career might be dying. She desperately wanted to play Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind. But she did not get the role because David O. Selznick said he would not offer the role to a woman with no sex appeal. Why would Clark Gable chase after this weirdo for twelve years? I for one am glad she did not get that horrible role, as great as it might have seemed at the time. We’d remember her for it today and not fondly.

Hepburn was frustrated. But she was plucky, no doubt about that. So she decided to reboot her career by developing her own project, an idea that was seemingly impossible at the time. That project was The Philadelphia Story. It didn’t hurt that Hepburn was in a serious relationship with Howard Hughes during these years and so had the major financial backing that meant. She first starred in the theatrical version, perfected the role, and then brought it to Hollywood. This was Hepburn’s baby to the point that she held the rights and the studio had to buy them from her. She sold it to MGM on the condition that she star and Cukor direct and Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart star with her. To say the least, it worked. One of the great classics of Hollywood history, it made Hepburn a huge star and she would remain in that position the rest of her career. Really, it’s a remarkable story how she saved her own career this way in 1940.

Hepburn did not slow down after that. Her next film, Woman of the Year, was also her project. It was on set for this film where she fell in love with her co-star Spencer Tracy and they remained an unmarried open couple until his death over 25 years later. Hepburn did marry once, in college, to a husband she completely ignored and they divorced after she got to Hollywood. They remained friends but she knew she treated him like garbage during the marriage, as she stated later. This was not a woman interested in traditional notions of marriage, had zero desire to have children, and demanded her freedom at all times. This led to what was already her fourth Academy Award nomination, as even her earlier unpopular films were recognized by the Academy to be brilliant even if the public didn’t see it.

Well, we hardly have to delineate every great Hepburn film. She did take some time off to help Tracy’s health so the later 40s were not her peak period. She did a bunch of theater work in these years as well. After all, she really could do whatever she wanted by now. She also started to suffer some for her staunch liberalism during the anti-communist era. But by the late 40s, she was doing great films again, including Adam’s Rib, another legendary comedy with Tracy. Then came The African Queen in 1951, her epic battle with Humphrey Bogart that was also epic for filming in the Congo where everyone but John Huston got extremely sick with dysentery and whatever else. Kind of surprised this was filmed on set since it’s not that hard to find rivers elsewhere. But it’s hard to imagine a more perfect role for Hepburn. She also started taking the most plumb theatrical roles possible–lots of Shakespeare, doing Shaw plays on the London stage, etc. When she decided to do Summertime with David Lean in 1955, she continued her athletic pratfalls to a cost–demanding that she personally take a fall into the canals of Venice, she developed a nasty eye infection from that polluted water. Do not swim in Venice. She could certainly still be difficult to work with. She notoriously spit on Joseph Mankiewicz during the filming of Suddenly, Last Summer, but that also earned her an 8th Academy Award nomination so she may have hated him but he could direct her. She was astounding in Sidney Lumet’s A Long Day’s Journey into Night, another Oscar nominated role.

By the mid-60s, Tracy was pretty sick and Hepburn put her career on hold to take care of him. This led to one last role for him, 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Much about this film is dated and a bit cringe-worthy today, but at the time it was an expression of the promise and limits of white liberalism, as this couple who were in real life as liberal as they were in the film, had to confront the reality of this when their daughter brings a Black man home. She finally won her second Oscar for this role, though Tracy was dead by this time. At the very least, it’s a critically important film in Hollywood history with great performances from three legends, including Poitier obviously.

With Tracy gone, Hepburn just continued to work, including an excellent role in The Lion in Winter opposite Peter O’Toole. She won a third Oscar for that. Her later work wasn’t always that great, but she did keep working her entire life and how many actresses can we say that about? Not many. Her later roles included the somewhat odd casting opposite John Wayne in Rooster Cogburn, though I guess it works OK. She even did TV, just work to keep busy. Her health began slowly failing around 1980, when she developed a noticeable tremor and became increasingly frail. Did this stop her from working? No it did not. On Golden Pond, Henry Fonda’s last role, was another critical success for her. She won her 4th Oscar for that one. She wrote an autobiography that came out in 1991 and was a best-seller. Her last movie role was in 1994’s Love Affair with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. She was 87 years old at this time.

After this, some dementia started setting in and Hepburn went into a long, slow decline. It was cancer that finally killed her in 2003. She was 96 years old.

Katharine Hepburn is buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery, Hartford, Connecticut.

If you would like this series to visit some of the many greats that Hepburn worked with, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Spencer Tracy is in Glendale, California and John Wayne is in Corona del Mar, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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