Katharine Houghton Hepburn (May 12, 1907 – June 29, 2003) was an iconic four-time Academy Award-winning American star of film, television, and stage, widely recognized for her sharp wit, New England gentility, and fierce independence.
A screen legend, Hepburn holds the record for the most Best Actress Oscar nominations with 12 and the record for wins in that category with four. Hepburn won an Emmy Award in 1975 for her lead role in Love Among the Ruins, and was nominated for four other Emmys and two Tony Awards during the course of her more than 70- year acting career. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Hepburn as the number one female star in their Greatest American Screen Legends list. Hepburn had a famous and longtime romance with Spencer Tracy, both on- and off-screen. She worked hard at her craft but was also very modest, suggesting that acting couldn't be so hard to master if Shirley Temple could do so at only four years of age. She was able, however, to bring something distinctive to each role she played and to resist being typecast.
As a woman, she was a determined and independent person who defied convention by continuing to act and to earn critical acclaim over six decades, unusual for a female star at that time. It has been said that she helped to place women on the same footing as men within the movie industry, proving the absurdity of assumptions about gender that took it as read that only young, attractive women could star in major films. She was "bold, brainy, beautiful, and an independent individual and empowered woman at a time when neither of those things was particularly in fashion, and combined in one person were probably intolerable." She once said of herself, "I was fortunate to be born with a set of characteristics that were in public vogue." At the age of 77, she became a best-selling author with her book about the making of The African Queen.
Hepburn was born in Hartford, Connecticut, to Dr. Thomas Norval Hepburn, a successful urologist from Virginia, and Katharine Martha Houghton, a suffragette. Her father insisted that his children be athletic, and encouraged swimming, horse riding, golf, and tennis. Hepburn, eager to please her father, emerged as a fine athlete in her late teens. Hepburn especially enjoyed swimming, and regularly took dips in the frigid waters that fronted her bayfront Connecticut home, generally believing that "the bitterer the medicine, the better it was for you." She continued her brisk swims well into her 80s. Hepburn would come to be recognized for her athletic physicality—she fearlessly performed her own pratfalls in films such as Bringing Up Baby, which is now held up as an exemplar of screwball comedy.
She was educated at the Kingswood-Oxford School before going on to attend Bryn Mawr College, receiving a degree in history and philosophy in 1928, the same year she had her debut on Broadway after landing a bit part in Night Hostess.
Hepburn married socialite businessman Ludlow ("Luddy") Ogden Smith in 1928, whom she had met while attending Bryn Mawr and married after a short engagement. They were divorced in Mexico in 1934. Fearing that the Mexican divorce was not legal, Ludlow got a second divorce in the United States in 1942 and a few days later he remarried. Although their marriage was a failure, Katharine Hepburn often expressed her gratitude toward Ludlow for his financial and moral support in the early days of her career. "Luddy" continued to be a lifelong friend to Katharine and the Hepburn family.
Hepburn began acting in plays at Bryn Mawr and later in revues staged by stock companies. During her last years at Bryn Mawr, Hepburn had met a young producer with a stock company in Baltimore, Maryland, who cast her in several small roles, including a production of The Czarina and The Cradle Snatchers.
Hepburn's first leading role was in a production of The Big Pond, which opened in Great Neck, New York. The producer had fired the play's original leading lady at the last minute, and asked Hepburn to assume the role. Terror-stricken at the unexpected change, Hepburn arrived late and, once on stage, flubbed her lines, tripped over her feet, and spoke so rapidly that she was almost incomprehensible. She was fired from the play, but continued to work in small stock company roles and as an understudy.
Later, Hepburn was cast in a speaking part in the Broadway play Art and Mrs. Bottle. After another summer of stock companies, Hepburn landed the role of Antiope, the Amazon princess in The Warrior's Husband, in 1932, which debuted to excellent reviews. Hepburn became the talk of New York City, and began getting noticed by Hollywood.
In the play The Warrior’s Husband, Hepburn entered the stage by leaping down a flight of steps while carrying a large stag on her shoulders—an RKO scout was so impressed by this display of physicality that he asked her to do a screen test for the studio's next vehicle, A Bill of Divorcement, which starred John Barrymore and Billie Burke.
RKO was delighted by audience reaction to A Bill of Divorcement and signed Hepburn to a new contract after it wrapped. Though she was headstrong, her work ethic and talent were undeniable, and the following year (1933), Hepburn won her first Oscar for best actress in Morning Glory.
Hepburn felt it was time to make her return to the theater after Morning Glory. She chose The Lake, but was unable to obtain a release from RKO and instead went back to Hollywood to film the forgettable movie Spitfire in 1933. Having satisfied RKO, Hepburn went immediately back to Manhattan to begin the play, in which she played an English girl unhappy with her overbearing mother and wimpy father. In 1935, in the title role of the film Alice Adams, Hepburn earned her second Oscar nomination. By 1938, Hepburn was a bona fide star, and her foray into comedy with the films Bringing Up Baby and Stage Door was well received critically. But audience response to the two films was tepid and Hepburn's movie career began to decline.
Some of what has made Hepburn greatly beloved today—her unconventional, straightforward, anti-Hollywood attitude—at the time began to turn audiences sour. Outspoken and intellectual with an acerbic tongue, she defied the era's "blonde bombshell" stereotypes, preferring to wear pantsuits and disdaining makeup.
She could also be prickly with fans—though she relented as she aged. Early in her career, Hepburn often denied requests for autographs, feeling it an invasion of her privacy. Even so, her refusal to sign autographs and answer personal questions earned her the nickname "Katharine of Arrogance" (an allusion to Catherine of Aragon). Soon, audiences began staying away from her movies.
Yearning for a comeback on the stage, Hepburn returned to her roots on Broadway, appearing in The Philadelphia Story, a play written especially for her by Philip Barry. She purchased the film rights to the play and sold the rights to MGM, which adapted the play into one of the biggest hits of 1940. As part of her deal with MGM, Hepburn got to choose the director—George Cukor—and her costars—Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her work opposite Grant and Stewart. She enhanced Stewart's performance, and in turn he received an Oscar. Her career was revived almost overnight.
Hepburn made her first appearance opposite Spencer Tracy in Woman of the Year (1942), directed by George Stevens. Behind the scenes the pair fell in love, beginning what would become one of the silver screen's most famous romances, despite Tracy's marriage to another woman. They became one of Hollywood's most recognizable pairs both on-screen and off. Hepburn, with her agile mind and distinctive New England accent, complemented Tracy's easy, working-class machismo.
Most of their films together stress the sparks that can fly when a couple tries to find an equable balance of power. They appeared in a total of nine movies together, including Adam's Rib (1949), Pat and Mike (1952), and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), for which Hepburn won her second Academy Award for Best Actress.
Hepburn and Tracy were undeniably a couple for decades, but did not live together regularly until the last few years of Tracy's life. Even then, they maintained separate homes to keep up appearances. Tracy, a Roman Catholic, had been married to the former Louise Treadwell since 1923, and remained so until his death. Tracy's decision not to divorce was not based on his adherence to Roman Catholic Church law. His wife Louise was not Catholic, and they were not married in the Catholic Church, making divorce and remarriage possible for Tracy without violation of Church canon laws.
Hepburn took five years off from her film career after Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962) to care for Tracy while he was in failing health. Out of consideration for Tracy's family, Hepburn did not attend his funeral. She described herself as too heartbroken to ever watch Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, the last movie they made together, saying it evoked memories of Tracy that were too painful.
Hepburn is perhaps best remembered for her role in The African Queen (1951), for which she received her fifth Best Actress nomination. She played a prim spinster missionary in Africa who convinces Humphrey Bogart's character, a hard-drinking riverboat captain, to use his boat to attack a German ship. Filmed mostly on location in Africa, almost all the cast and crew suffered from malaria and dysentery—except director John Huston and Bogart, neither of whom ever drank any water.
Following The African Queen, Hepburn often played spinsters, most notably in her Oscar-nominated performances for Summertime (1955) and The Rainmaker (1956), although at 49, some considered her too old for the roles. She also received nominations for her performances in films adapted from stage dramas, namely as Mrs. Venable in Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer (1959) and as Mary Tyrone in the 1962 version of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night.
Hepburn received her second Best Actress Oscar for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. She always said she believed the award was meant to honor Spencer Tracy, who died shortly after filming was completed. The following year, she won a record-breaking third Oscar for her role as Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter.
Hepburn won her fourth Oscar for On Golden Pond (1981), opposite Henry Fonda. In 1994, Hepburn gave her final three movie performances—One Christmas, based on a short story by Truman Capote; the remake of Love Affair, as Ginny; and This Can't Be Love, directed by one of her close friends, Anthony Harvey.
On June 29, 2003, Hepburn died of natural causes at Fenwick, the Hepburn family home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. She was 96 years old. She was buried in the family plot in Cedar Hill Cemetery, 453 Fairfield Avenue, Hartford, Connecticut. In honor of her extensive theater work, the lights of Broadway were dimmed for an hour.
In 2004, in accordance with Hepburn's wishes, her personal effects were put up for auction with Sotheby's in New York City. Hepburn had meticulously collected an extraordinary amount of material relating to her career and place in Hollywood over the years, as well as personal items such as a bust of Spencer Tracy she sculpted herself and her own oil paintings. The auction netted several million dollars, which Hepburn willed mostly to her family and close friends, including television journalist Cynthia McFadden.
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