Katharine Hepburn: A Fierce Hollywood Original

Katharine Hepburn: A Fierce Hollywood Original

March 12, 2021 | by Shannon

Katharine Hepburn Paddles Her Own Canoe, Proves Her Resilience in Hollywood, Is as Elegant as Audrey and Grace, and May Just Walk Around the Set in Her Underpants.

Be sure to listen to my Classic Hollywood podcast, Vanguard of Hollywood.  Episode 45 is all about Katharine Hepburn.  Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you like to listen to podcasts.
Click to listen to my Classic Hollywood podcast, Vanguard of Hollywood!

Has there ever been a Hollywood figure more confident, inspiring, or fiercely original than Katharine Hepburn?

The answer is no.

“Cold sober, I find myself absolutely fascinating.”

Hepburn announced in 1973 on the Dick Cavett show.  Even now—almost two decades after her passing—the rest of the world still seems to agree with Kate’s succinct and honest assessment of herself.

Katharine Hepburn is absolutely fascinating.  The daughter of forward-thinking parents who encouraged Kate to “paddle her own canoe,” Hepburn was a dreamer with a boundless supply of confidence, and a zest for life that was nothing short of extraordinary.  Over the course of her sixty-plus year career, Kate did it all: movies, Shakespeare, Greek Tragedy, Broadway musicals.  In the process, she changed women’s fashion, prized her independence, and proved that if we just “keep a-going,” as Kate liked to say, we can quite literally accomplish anything.

Katharine Hepburn: An Inspiring Woman

From the time I read my first Hepburn biography in third grade, she’s been a great inspiration in my life.  I even wrote my Capstone paper at university on her.  Kate’s example has lifted me through hard times, and made me appreciate the good times even more. 

So I’m beyond excited to spotlight Kate this month.  I’m sure her remarkable life will prove as inspiring and fascinating for you as it is for me.  

So here are a few things about the indomitable Katharine Hepburn you didn’t know:

Katharine Hepburn Loved Her Parents

“The first thing you must know about me is that I am the product of two extraordinary people.”

This is how Katharine Hepburn chose to start off her charming 1993 documentary, All About Me.  And in her 96 years on this planet, I’m convinced Kate never said a negative word about her parents.  Hepburn was blessed with good ones.  She knew it, she appreciated it, and she let the world know.

And I love her for it.  

Kate credited her parents for all she accomplished:

“You know what I really am?  I’m my main gift from my parents…That bit of fiber which can be developed in all of us—there it is—waiting to be used…How did I make it work?  How did I have brains enough to survive…And how did I develop such a handy head of common sense?  That is what can really keep you afloat.  You can say, ‘You had money enough to swing it.’  Yes, I had.  But money alone doesn’t do it.  I wasn’t going to starve but I could have been defeated.”

It was Katharine Hepburn’s parents who taught her how to not be defeated.

As a Hollywood star, Kate often said that compared to her parents, she was dull.  She frequently expressed frustration when the press referred to Kit or Tom Hepburn as the “mother or father of Katharine Hepburn,” believing it should be the other way around:

“My parents are important.  I am not.”

Kate always insisted.

So if you’re going to get to know Katharine Hepburn with me this month, I’ve got to tell you a bit about these two extraordinary people who raised Classic Hollywood’s most unique, independent, confident, and perhaps greatest female star. 

Katharine Houghton
Kate's mother, Kit.

Katharine Hepburn's Mother: Katharine Martha Houghton

Katharine Martha Houghton, or Kit, as she was known, was born into social position, wealth, and privilege on February 2, 1878.  Her father’s family founded the Corning Glass Company.  So if you cook with any of that Corning classic white bakeware, use pyrex dishes, or even own an Apple Watch, iPhone, or iPad—which Corning now produces the Gorilla Glass for—you’ve got a little connection to Katharine Hepburn right in your own home.  

Kit was an orphan by the age of sixteen, left in charge of her two younger sisters.  Her mother Caroline’s dying wish for her three girls was that they each receive college educations, and be the masters of their own destinies.  It was up to the teenage Kit to make this a reality for all three of the Houghton girls.

Oh, and don’t forget this was 1894, a time when not too many women went to college, or had very many futures available to them outside of marriage.

Katharine Houghton
Kit and the six Hepburn children: Kate, Peg, Bob, Tom, Dick, and Marion.

Kit's Gift to Her Children

Somehow, Kit did it.  She graduated from Bryn Mawr, and ensured her sisters made it through as well.  There’s no doubt that Kit Hepburn’s admirable perseverance and appreciation of freedom were both passed along to her daughter, Katharine.  In her autobiography [aff. link], Kate shared that the greatest gift her mother gave all six of the Hepburn children was freedom, the encouragement to just go for it:

“The greatest gift she gave us was freedom to be noisy, to yell.  No nags.  Do it?  Yes, do it!  And tell me about it.”

Kit joined her younger sister Edith at Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1903, where she met the man she would marry.  Though it was a lengthy courtship, for Kit, it was also love at first sight.

Thomas Norval Hepburn
Kate's father, Dr. Thomas Norval Hepburn.

Katharine Hepburn's Father: Thomas Norval Hepburn

Unlike Kit, Thomas Norval Hepburn was born to near poverty and absolutely no social position on December 18, 1879.  The son of a country preacher, Tom knew what it was like to be poor.  And he didn’t like it.

So the handsome, athletic, motivated, and quick-minded young Tom decided his future would be different: he was going to medical school.  Thomas Hepburn would make his own luck.

And he did.  

Thomas Norval Hepburn
Young Dr. Hepburn.

Dr. Hepburn graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School, completing his internship and residency at Hartford Hospital, where he specialized in the then practically unheard of field of urology.  Dr. Hepburn remained a respected surgeon at Hartford Hospital for the next 50 years.

From her father, Katharine Hepburn no doubt inherited her amazing drive, competitive spirit, and zest for life.  As Kate said of her father, the man who was perhaps the greatest influence of her life:

“He wrote his own rules—and followed them to the smallest detail—‘Row your own boat.’  What wonderful examples our parents!  Oh—we were so lucky.”

Thomas Norval Hepburn and Katharine Houghton
Tom and Kit on their honeymoon, 1904.

A Perfect Match

The marriage of Tom and Kit Hepburn was one of romance and passion, but it was also a perfect pairing of intellect and spirt.  Kit was there for Tom as he worked hard to provide for his young family, and establish his medical practice in Hartford.  And Tom was there for Kit when she sought a career to complement the joys of motherhood: after the births of her first two children, Tom in 1905, followed by Kate on May 12, 1907, Kit found herself looking for a cause outside of the home to get excited about.  As Kate remembered,

“Well, thought Mother, here I am, these two adorable children, a handsome, brilliant husband looking forward to his brilliant career.  But me, what of me, what of me?  Is this all that I’m here for?  There must be something.  I have a Bachelor’s degree, I have a Master’s degree.

She went home [after a walk] sort of puzzled, and Daddy came rushing in and said, ‘Look here in the paper.  A woman named Emmeline Pankhurst is speaking about women and the vote tonight, let’s…’. They went.  Dad obviously had begun to realize that Mother was getting restless about her spot in the world.  He found the solution.  Mother became the head of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association.”

Thomas Norval Hepburn and Katharine Houghton
A family tea party: Dr. Hepburn sits with Kate, Kit, and Kate's older brother Tom.

Ahead of the Times

How cool is that?? 

Think about it. 

This was the early 1900s, and Hep—as Tom was known—realized that Kit was restless, and even helped her find the work that became her life’s passion.  He supported his wife, even when Kit’s revolutionary causes were harmful to his burgeoning medical practice in conservative Hartford.  In turn, Kit became a pioneering suffragist and birth control proponent.  But she’d always respect her husband’s wishes to keep their home and family at the center of her life.

Adorable young Kate and her brother Tom. All the Hepburn children were encouraged to "Listen to the Song of Life."

Listen to the Song of Life

Engraved on the fireplace mantle of Katharine Hepburn’s childhood home was the phrase “Listen to the Song of Life.”  These were certainly words the Hepburn family lived by.  No topic was off limits, be it suffrage or venereal disease.  The Hepburn children were encouraged to have goals, dreams, and think for themselves, to push themselves mentally and physically.  I think it’s telling of the tone of the Hepburn home that Kate chose to share these words by George Bernard Shaw in her autobiography when writing of her family life [aff. link]:

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

And then a little bit of classic Hepburn editorializing 😃:

“Don’t give in.  Fight for your future.  Independence is the only solution.  Women are as good as men.  Onward!  You don’t have much money but you do have independent spirits.  Knowledge!  Education!  Don’t give in!  Make your own trail.  Don’t moan.  Don’t complain.  Think positively.”

Thomas Norval Hepburn and Katharine Houghton
Kit and Hep, still in love!

"What Luck"

Is it any wonder that Kate—coming from a home with parents who promoted such uplifting and action-provoking thoughts—went on to accomplish such extraordinary things in her own life?  A final grateful word from Kate on her parents:

“It was heaven.  Always to have you two to turn to in despair, in joy.  There you were: strong—funny.  Two rocks.  What you did for me—wow!  What luck to be born out of love and to live in an atmosphere of warmth and interest.”

Katharine Hepburn was a natural athlete. Here she does a gorgeous dive in The Philadelphia Story (1940).

Katharine Hepburn Was a Natural Athlete

Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn may be some of the first names that come to mind when we think of Classic Hollywood’s most elegant women.

But have you ever stopped to appreciate just how beautifully Katharine Hepburn moves?

Watch her dash into the ocean in Sylvia Scarlett (1935), or dive into the pool in The Philadelphia Story (1940).  Watch her play golf, and chase Cary Grant around in Bringing Up Baby (1938).  Or float up the stairs as Spencer Tracy follows her in Woman of the Year (1942). 

Kate had a natural grace to her every movement.  And it’s because she was a natural athlete.

Just like so many of us girls who enjoyed sports and physical activities in childhood, young Kate was a tomboy.  And with an older brother she idolized, two younger brothers next closest to her age, and an athletic father she wanted to please, it’s not surprising that Kate found being a girl “a torment.”

“Jimmy was my name, if you want to know,”

Kate shared in her autobiography.  Climbing trees, doing somersaults off her dad’s shoulders, diving, swimming, golf, tennis, running, jumping…with the encouragement of her father, Katharine Hepburn learned to do it all.

She became particularly skilled at golf, taking daily lessons as a teen.  As Kate remembered,

“It looked as though I were going to develop into a pretty good player.  I could hit it [the golf ball] a mile.”

Wow, a good player indeed. 

At age fifteen, Kate took second place in the Connecticut Women’s Open.  And after her junior year at Bryn Mawr, she defeated players with nearly ten years more experience at another statewide golf championship.

Kate had a chance to show off her sporting prowess in Pat and Mike (1952).

Katharine Hepburn's Favorite Film

Other than little glimpses of Kate’s sporting prowess—again, think about that elegant golf swing we see in Bringing Up Baby (1938)—Hepburn fans weren’t privileged to a full-scale show of Kate’s hidden talents until her 1952 film, Pat and Mike.  Written by Kate’s good friend Garson Kanin, it was—in fact, watching Kate’s athletic skills that inspired Kanin to write the film:

“As I watched Kate playing tennis one day, it occurred to me that her audience was missing a treat.”

The chance to show what she could do on the tennis court, golf course, and track, was undoubtedly one of the reasons why Kate named Pat and Mike her personal favorite of all the films she made.

Kate at Bryn Mawr, 1928.

She Graduated From College

Like her mother Kit, Katharine Hepburn went to Bryn Mawr, graduating in 1928 with a degree in history and philosophy.  

But Kate’s time at Bryn Mawr wasn’t the college experience you’d expect of the spunky, fun-loving, highly vocal and opinionated Katharine Hepburn we’re all familiar with.

By the time Kate arrived at Bryn Mawr in 1924, she’d become a withdrawn, reclusive young woman.  The distinct personality change was brought on by a great family tragedy.

At age thirteen, while visiting family friends in New York, Kate discovered the body of her older brother Tom, hanging by a torn bedsheet wrapped around the rafters of the attic in their host’s home.  His feet touching the floor, it appeared Tom had strangled himself to death.  

It was difficult for Kate and the rest of the Hepburn family to accept Tom’s death as suicide, and Kate sought other explanations her whole life.  But despite some far-fetched theories claimed by Hepburn biographers over the years, Tom’s death seems a textbook example of the simplest explanation being the accurate one.

Kate as Pandora in her final Bryn Mawr graduation production, 1928.

Coming Out of Her Shell

Her brother’s death arguably shaped Kate’s teenage and young adult years more than any other event.  Following Tom’s suicide, Kate withdrew from public school, unable to deal with the questions of her classmates, or even just the everyday social situations of academia.  She homeschooled until leaving for Bryn Mawr in 1924.  As Kate remembered in her autobiography [aff. link],

“I tried school but it was—well, I should say I was—I felt isolated.  I knew something that the [other] girls did not know: tragedy.  They were curious and I would not, did not, want to talk or to discuss it.”

Kate’s reclusive behavior continued during her first years at Bryn Mawr.  It was excitement over the school’s dramatics program that finally pulled Kate out of her shell.  Her grades improved, she earned roles in school productions, and made friends.  

Indicative of Hepburn’s intrinsic loyalty, many of these Bryn Mawr friendships—such as that with Alice Palache, the friend Kate toured Europe with before her junior year, and the friend who Kate later trusted to take care of her finances during the second half of her film career—would last a lifetime.

Katharine Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn Was A Dreamer

Katharine Hepburn graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1928 with a dream that seemed almost impossible: to be not just a working actress, but a star.  Kate always knew she wanted to be famous, and no matter how unlikely the odds, she was a dreamer who believed it would happen. As Kate later described her lifelong mentality on the importance of dreaming big:

“Oh hell.  We read fairy tales for years, don’t we?  Are they throwing all of that out?  If you don’t dream up your parents…your friends, and the person that you love—if you can’t dream them up, if you just see them in total four-letter-word reality, then God help you.  You’ve got to dream up everything.  I believe in miracles.”

On the way home from her graduation ceremonies at Bryn Mawr, Kate announced her acting ambitions to her parents.  She even had her first job lined up—a bit role on stage with the Edward Knopf Stock Company in Baltimore—a fact Kate hoped would help soften the shock of her chosen career path.  Kate had her mother’s full support.  But her father almost went through the roof, threatening to pull the car over and take a train home by himself.  As Kate remembered in her autobiography, 

Katharine Hepburn

“My mother was all for it.  Anything I wanted just so I didn’t settle for the old routine of nursemaid to the rising generation.  She thought women should give life a whirl.  See if they could swing it so that they could be more independent of the male sex.  Dad was for this too.  He just didn’t care for the road I’d chosen.”

In Dr. Hepburn’s view, being an actress was just a few steps above being a streetwalker…

Winning Her Dad's Support

But Kate moved forward with her dream.  And despite his protestations, Dr. Hepburn regularly sent his daughter money that he won at bridge or golf, for in Hep’s mind, gambling money wasn’t real money.  It was his way of supporting Kate until she “recovered from this madness” without betraying his own principals.  Eventually however, Kate earned her father’s full support.  

In fact, it was frequently the letters of Dr. Hepburn that pulled Kate through the lows of her early career, and kept her dreaming when that famous Hepburn confidence alone wasn’t enough to keep her going.

Kate and her father.

I love this excerpt from a letter Hep sent his daughter with some sage advice on Kate’s twenty-first birthday:

Dear Kath,

…don’t take life or its happenings too seriously.  Lift up the corners of that mouth that I gave you one moonlight night.  Second, try to do one thing well—utilizing the experience of all preceding life and your own wit.  Third, never let yourself hate any person.  It is the most devastating weapon of one’s enemies.

Fourth, always remember that your Dad is liable to call you all sorts of names when he disapproves of your behavior, but don’t take him too seriously, and always come to him—whatever your difficulty—he may be able to help you.  Impossibly, he may not be as stupid as he looks.  Fifth, forget all the above and remember only that I would love to kiss you 21 times and give you a million dollars.

—Your hopeless Dad

What an incredibly sweet, charming, and inspiring letter. 

Between support like that and Kate’s own amazing confidence in herself, it’s no wonder that Katharine Hepburn was a dreamer who accomplished what she set out to achieve.

Katharine Hepburn
Kate with her husband, Ludlow Ogden Smith.

Katharine Hepburn Was Married

Katharine Hepburn is known for her independent spirit, for her joy in a life lived on her own terms.  Not even her passion for Spencer Tracy, the love of her life with whom Hepburn enjoyed a 26 year relationship, resulted in marriage.  (Tracy insisted that Kate never pushed him to divorce his wife, and that both Kate and his wife liked everything “just the way it was.”)

But Katharine Hepburn actually did get married once…

Twenty-one-year-old Kate, not long graduated from Bryn Mawr, married her best friend, Ludlow Ogden Smith, on December 12, 1928.  Though Kate loved Luddy, as she always called her new husband, the groom was clearly more crazy about the bride than vice versa. 

Just as Kate talked in exclusively glowing terms of her family, so too did she have only positive things to say about Luddy, who had complete faith in Kate’s talents, and supported her acting ambitions from the start.  Luddy accepted the fact that his untraditional wife couldn’t be kept at home, satisfied with a prestigious name on the Philadelphia social register.  Especially not when there were stage productions and Broadway roles in New York to make hers.

Katharine Hepburn
Kate and Luddy.

"ME ME ME"

As Kate’s ambition grew, so too did her time away from Luddy.  Looking back at her treatment of her sweet husband, Kate felt immense guilt.  As she wrote in her autobiography [aff. link],

“Luddy—all he wanted was me, and of course all I wanted was to be a great big hit star in the movies.  Now as I write this, I am horrified at what an absolute pig I was…

Can you see how responsible he was for my beginning?  Absolute generosity—no strings—give give give.  Dear Luddy, thank you…I don’t think that it was all as cold-blooded as it sounds.  I hope not.  But the truth has to be that I was a terrible pig.  My aim was ME ME ME.”

In Kate’s defense, Luddy obviously loved her enough to put up with her “ME ME ME” attitude, and she did have the heart to divorce him so he could find happiness in another marriage.  Kate also attempted to make up for her earlier selfish behavior by caring for the widowed Luddy in his final years.

Remember how I mentioned Kate was a loyal friend?

Katharine Hepburn
Kate brought good friend Laura Harding with her to Hollywood in 1932. The two lived together and were inseparable, leading some to speculate about the nature of their relationship.

An Important Note and Clarification

I must take a moment to address certain speculations that have arisen around Katharine Hepburn’s sexuality.  

With her penchant for pants, and decision to live with her friend Laura Harding at the start of her Hollywood career, it’s been rumored that Katharine Hepburn was a lesbian.  And with the publication of William J. Mann’s Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn in 2006, many have come to view those speculations as fact.

In his book, published three years after Hepburn’s death, Mann asserts that several of Kate’s friendships with women throughout her life were actually more intimate than that.  According to Mann, Kate’s relationship with Spencer Tracy was largely fabricated, a convenient way to hide a sexual preference she was uncomfortable with.

Katharine Hepburn
Kate with her niece and confidant, Katharine Houghton.

Though I welcome the possibility that Kate was not strictly heterosexual, actual facts will need to be presented before I can personally believe that Katharine Hepburn’s relationships with women went beyond friendship, or that her relationship with Spencer Tracy was not the great romantic passion of her life.

For anyone seeking to understand Kate or learn more about her life, it’s important to make clear that all of Mann’s claims about Kate’s sexual attractions and practices are nothing more than that—claims and theories carefully phrased to suggest the possibility of same sex romance in her life.

In the absence of actual facts, and considering that most of those who could confirm or refute Mann’s claims are dead, I turn to Kate’s niece and confidant, Katharine Houghton, as the final say on her aunt’s sexuality.  In response to Mann’s claims, Kate’s niece shared that,

“I’ve never discovered any evidence whatsoever that she was a lesbian.”

Katharine Hepburn
Kate wearing a pair of her famous slacks.

She Preferred Pants

From her 1932 arrival in Hollywood, Katharine Hepburn created pandemonium with her penchant for trousers.  At a time when women were expected to wear skirts and dresses exclusively, Kate’s insistence on wearing pants was shocking, even revolutionary.  Trousers, overalls, jodhpurs, you name it—and as long as it wasn’t a skirt— Kate probably wore it.  

And she’d challenge any man who said he preferred a woman in a skirt to 

“Try it, try wearing a skirt.”

Kate later insisted it was her deplorance for stockings that influenced her preference for pants.  But it probably had just as much to do with her love of being unique.  When asked by the press at the start of her film career why she wore pants, Kate’s response was:

“[Because] they are comfortable and convenient.  And…because it seems to amaze people.  I like to do unusual things.”

That she certainly did.  

Katharine Hepburn
Kate's blue jeans were a scandal on the RKO lot!

My Favorite Katharine Hepburn Pants Story

My favorite Katharine Hepburn pants story took place on her very first film, 1932’s A Bill of Divorcement.  Kate’s habit of wearing old blue jeans was deemed unacceptable by her studio, RKO.  So some studio big wig threatened to steal her blue jeans if Kate didn’t throw them out.

But Kate just said whatev, and went right on wearing them.

That is, until one day she returned to her dressing room to find the old pants were gone…

Now it was Kate’s turn to make a threat: if the jeans were not promptly returned, she said, she’d walk around the RKO lot without any bottoms on, pants or otherwise.

RKO clearly didn’t yet know their new star well enough to believe that Kate would make good on her threat, for the pants were not returned.

Katharine Hepburn

So what did Kate do?

“I did it.  Of course I did it.  I walked through the lot in my underpants.”

Needless to say, Katharine Hepburn was then given back her pants.

Over the years, Kate’s insistence on wearing pants meant she’d have to use the service entrance at such ritzy Hotels as London’s Claridge’s, where it was deemed unacceptable for a woman to walk through the lobby in trousers.  But eventually, the times caught up with Katharine Hepburn, and pants became an acceptable ladies’ garment.  In 1986, the Council of Fashion Designers of America even presented her with a lifetime achievement award, in recognition of her pioneering role in women’s fashion.

Katharine Hepburn
Kate in her first film, A Bill of Divorcement (1932).

She Failed. Again and Again. But She Always Rebounded.

Katharine Hepburn was a leading lady in her very first film, 1932’s A Bill of Divorcement.  But that didn’t mean it was an easy ride getting there. 

Four weeks into her stage career, Kate found herself with a leading role on Broadway in the Knopf Stock Company’s production of The Big Pond, after the actress initially cast in the play was fired.  As Kate recalled of this freak opportunity,

“I didn’t of course know what I was doing but I did it with great style.  I took this change in my status as a matter of course–I was the leading lady, I had been in the theatre for about four weeks.  This was happening just as I had imagined it would…it should.  I was arriving.”

Katharine Hepburn

On opening night, Kate brought down the house with masterful delivery of her first line.  Rapturous applause followed.

“Well…that’s that.  I’m a star,”

Kate thought.  She didn’t realize that for the rest of the show, her performance, well, sucked.

“[Once] the play was over, I noticed that no one particularly bothered to come in and tell me I was remarkable.  But as I’d never really been a big star of an opening night, I didn’t know what to expect.  So I thought they must have problems.  It never occurred to me that I was the problem.”

Kate was fired the next day. 

Katharine Hepburn
Kate behind the scenes of the Broadway production of The Philadelphia Story. After the play was a hit, Kate was able to negotiate her way back to the top in Hollywood.

Swimming Upstream

In fact, Katharine Hepburn was fired, or “given the opportunity to resign”, from a handful of plays, each of which she thought was sure to be her big break, before finally hitting her stride on Broadway with 1932’s The Warrior’s Husband.  It was the stage role that led to her contract with RKO, and stardom in Hollywood.

But even after becoming a movie star, Kate routinely experienced setbacks, failures, and difficulties.

Whether it was the press turning on Kate for her refusal to cooperate, and play the typical publicity game, or finding herself labeled “box office poison,” and so unpopular in Hollywood that she had to escape back to Broadway—only returning to California once she had a hit play on her hands, Katharine Hepburn had to fight to retain her stardom.  As Kate put it, she was frequently “swimming up stream, but [at least] she was swimming.”  

Somehow, Hepburn always bounced back.  It’s one of the things I most admire about her, and it’s undoubtedly one of the reasons why Kate was arguably the first female movie star to maintain her stardom even into old age.  

Katharine Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn Challenged Herself

And speaking of career longevity, it wasn’t just her resiliency after setbacks that kept Katharine Hepburn a fascinating figure in the public eye for seventy years.  It was her desire to constantly challenge herself.  As set designer Ed Willis once said about Kate: 

“People always said to me, ‘She’s trying to do everything.’  And my reply was, ‘The thing I’m afraid of and you should be afraid of, is that she can do everything.’”

It would have been so easy for Kate to rest on the romantic leading lady roles of her younger years, and then discreetly fade away once she came of a certain age, and those roles were no longer offered.

But this is Katharine Hepburn we’re talking about.  

Katharine Hepburn
Kate with Humphrey Bogart in one of her most iconic films, The African Queen (1951).

Though much of her early film work is remarkable, Kate’s greatest artistry, the majority of her films that became the classics we know and love, didn’t come until after she turned forty.

For example:

Adam’s Rib (1949), The African Queen (1951), Summertime (1955), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962) Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), On Golden Pond (1981), all were made when Kate was well past the traditional prime of movie queens.

Katharine Hepburn
Kate as Rosalind in Shakespeare's As You Like It (1950). Among her Hollywood peers, no other actress challenged herself as Kate did.

Shakespeare, Musicals, and Greek Tragedy

As if that weren’t admirable enough, throughout the 1950s and early 1960s—when Kate was in her forties and fifties—she challenged herself with Shakespeare, performing such classics as As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, and Twelfth Night to sold out houses.  Hepburn was nominated for a Tony Award in 1970 for tackling the Broadway Musical Coco, and nominated for yet another Tony at age 75 for 1982’s The West Side Waltz.  Kate even brought a little Greek Tragedy into her filmography with The Trojan Women in 1971.

Of her commendable twelve Oscar nominations, eight came after Kate turned forty.  And of her record breaking four Best Actress Oscar wins, she earned three of them after the age of sixty.

Katharine Hepburn
Kate with Spencer Tracy in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967).

Now that’s pretty awesome.

Kate said in her autobiography:

“[What] a tremendous opportunity it is just to be alive.  The potential.  If you can keep a-goin’—you actually can do it.  So just keep a-goin’—you can win.  It’s when you stop that you’re done.”

Clearly, these were words that Katharine Hepburn lived by.  And it’s utterly inspiring.

Kate with her good friend, director George Cukor. Cukor was always amazed at her brownie consumption, and ability to stay thin!

Katharine Hepburn was the Brownie Expert of Hollywood

Katharine Hepburn’s brownie recipe was famous within the Hollywood community of her time.  And according to friends like George Cukor, almost as impressive as Kate’s delicious brownie recipe was her ability to eat a pan of those brownies by herself in a single sitting.  Without losing her trim figure, no less!

Kate kept the legendary recipe pretty much under wraps until 1983, when a grocery store buddy she made over the years asked Kate to give his daughter, Heather, some words of advice.  It seems Heather, a student at Bryn Mawr, had lost all scholastic motivation, and planned to drop out before earning her degree.

Katharine Hepburn

No doubt, this reminded Kate of her own difficult time at the university.

So what did Kate do?  Why, she called Heather up!  As Heather remembered,

“At 7:30 the next morning, the phone woke me up.  I answered it and heard that famous voice, crackling with command.  ‘Is this the young woman who wants to quit Bryn Mawr?’  I said it was.  ‘What a damn stupid thing to do!’ she snapped.  She went on to give me a lively lecture, the gist of which was that I had to finish my studies and get my degree, and after that I could do what I wanted to do.  There was no arguing with her imperiousness.  Then she said she wanted to meet us for tea.”

Gorgeous as ever! If this lovely face told me my brownies had too much flour, I'd listen.

Tea Party Inspiration

On the day of the tea party, further conversation with Kate proved the inspiration Heather needed, and she did graduate. Heather and her father were even invited for subsequent visits to Kate’s home.  On one of those visits, Heather’s father brought Kate some of his homemade brownies.

“’Too much flour!’ Kate declared.  She then rattled off her own recipe, which he hastily wrote down.  ‘And don’t over-bake them!  They should be moist, not cakey!’”

Sage brownie advice from Katharine Hepburn, the Brownie Expert of Hollywood, herself.

Be sure to check out my delicious spin on Kate’s famous brownie recipe here.

Katharine Hepburn

More Katharine Hepburn Next Time!

And that’s it for my introduction to the fiercely original Katharine Hepburn.  

Join me next time as I cover Kate’s fascinating early years in Hollywood, and my very favorite Hepburn film from the 1930s.  It’s all about Kate, Cary Grant, and 1938’s Bringing Up Baby.

I’m Shannon, thanks for visiting!  When I’m not on an adventure with my little girl, I’m developing plant-based recipes or watching a Classic Film!

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