Katherine Houghton Hepburn (1907-2003)
Date of Birth: May 12, 1907, Hartford, Connecticut, USA
Date of Death: June 29, 2003, Old Saybrook, Connecticut, USA (natural causes)
First Lady of Cinema
The Great Kate
Katharine Hepburn, the actress whose independent life and strong-willed movie characters
made her a role model for generations of women and a beloved heroine to filmgoers for more than 60 years, died at her home in
the Fenwick section of Old Saybrook, Conn. She was 96 and also had a home in Manhattan.
Her physical presence was distinctive, her often-imitated voice filled with the vowels of a well-bred New Englander, and her
sharp-planed face defined by remarkably high cheekbones. In her youth she did not have classical leading-lady looks, but a
handsome beauty. In old age she was a familiar figure with her hair, gradually changing from auburn to gray, always in a topknot
and her boyish figure always in the trousers that she helped to make fashionable.
She played sharp-witted, sophisticated women with an ease that suggested that there was a thin line between the movie role and
the off-screen personality. The romantic comedy "The Philadelphia Story" and the screwball classic "Bringing Up Baby" were
among her best, most typical roles. But through 43 films and dozens of stage and television appearances, she played comic and
dramatic parts as varied as Jo in "Little Women," the reborn spinster Rosie in "The African Queen" and Eleanor of Aquitaine in
"The Lion in Winter."
Her life and career were dominated by her love affair with Spencer Tracy, which created one of the great romantic legends and
brilliant movie pairings of their day. Tracy was unhappily married and the father of two when they met, and he remained married
until the end of his life. He and Miss Hepburn lived together for 27 years, until his death in 1967, and made nine films together.
"Woman of the Year," "Adam's Rib" and "Pat and Mike" are typically bright and biting Tracy-Hepburn collaborations. She is
wickedly smart, slightly aloof and emotionally vulnerable. He is commonsensical, down-to-earth and deeply decent. He manages to
bring her down a peg; she never minds.
Hepburn and Tracy, Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times, "so beautifully complemented each other" that their relationship
"never seemed to be a matter of capitulation." Rather, he added, it was "a matter of understanding and acknowledging each
The frisson of their off-screen romance, always hinted at but never acknowledged during his lifetime, followed them on screen and
became especially poignant when they played a married couple in their last movie together, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."
Tracy died just 17 days after they had finished filming it.
Through most of her career, Miss Hepburn had a reputation for being private and elusive with the press. In fact, she frequently
granted interviews, although she was reticent about her personal life. But after the death of Tracy's wife, Louise, in 1983, Miss
Hepburn felt free to discuss the love affair.
In later years she spoke openly about her life and career, especially in her 1991 autobiography, "Me: Stories of My Life" (Alfred A.
Knopf). Although admittedly sketchy rather than a comprehensive memoir, the book captured the qualities that endeared Miss
Hepburn to audiences: a conversational tone, a no-nonsense attitude and disarming candor. The autobiography became a best
seller, a tribute to her enduring appeal across generational lines.
In 1993 she appeared in an autobiographical television documentary, "Katharine Hepburn: All About Me," made for the TNT cable
network. She began: "So this is about Katharine Hepburn, public, private. Can you tell which is which?" She added, laughing,
"Sometimes I wonder myself."
Longing to Be a Boy
Katharine Houghton Hepburn was born into a close family whose comfortable social
status and unconventional opinions fostered self-confidence and independence. Her
father, Dr. Thomas Norval Hepburn, was a Hartford surgeon and a pioneer in fighting
venereal disease. Her mother, Katharine Houghton, was a suffragist and a strong
advocate of birth control.
In "Me," Miss Hepburn finally revealed her age. "I was born May 12, 1907," she wrote, "despite
everything I may have said to the contrary." For years she had said she was two years younger and
had given her birthday as Nov. 8. That was the birthday of her older brother, Tom, who died at 16.
Miss Hepburn, then 14, found his body hanging from the rafters of a house the family was visiting in
New York City. The Hepburns said they never knew whether he had committed suicide and left
open the possibility that he had been practicing a magic trick.
Although the family always called her Kathy or Kath, one summer Miss Hepburn so hated being a
little girl that she cut her hair and called herself Jimmy. "I thought being a girl was really the bunk,"
she said in an interview. "But there's no bunk about Jimmy."
After graduating from Bryn Mawr College in 1928, she had small parts in stock theater companies.
She was dismissed from more than one play when she was starting out, but she retained supreme
self-confidence. Late in life, she laughingly said of her younger self, "I am terribly afraid I just
assumed I'd be famous."
FILM DEBUT--1932 A Bill of Divorcement (Cukor) (as Sydney Fairfield)
1933 Christopher Strong (Arzner) (as Lady Cynthia Darrington)
1933 Morning Glory (Sherman) (as Ada Love/"Eva Lovelace")
1933 Little Women (Cukor) (as Jo)
1934 Spitfire (Cromwell) (as Trigger Hicks)
1934 The Little Minister (Wallace) (as Lady Babbie)
1935 Break of Hearts (Moeller) (as Constance Dane)
1935 Alice Adams (Stevens) (title role)
1936 Sylvia Scarlett (Cukor) (title role)
1936 Mary of Scotland (Ford) (title role)
1936 A Woman Rebels (Sandrich) (as Pamela Thistlewaite)
1937 Quality Street (Stevens) (as Phoebe Throssel)
1937 Stage Door (La Cava) (as Terry Randall)
1938 Bringing Up Baby (Hawks) (as Susan Vance)
1938 Holiday (Cukor) (as Linda Seton)
1940 The Philadelphia Story (Cukor) (as Tracy Lord)
1942 Woman of the Year (Stevens) (as Tess Harding)
1943 Keeper of the Flame (Cukor) (as Christine Forrest)
1943 Stage Door Canteen (Borzage) (as herself)
1944 Dragon Seed (Bucquet) (as Jade)
1945 Without Love (Bucquet) (as Jamie Rowan)
1946 Undercurrent (Minnelli) (as Ann Hamilton)
1947 The Sea of Grass (Kazan) (as Lutie Cameron)
1947 Song of Love (Brown) (as Clara Schumann)
1948 State of the Union (Capra) (as Mary Matthews)
1949 Adam's Rib (Cukor) (as Amanda Bonner)
1951 The African Queen (Huston) (as Rose Sayer)
1952 Pat and Mike (Cukor) (as Pat Pemberton)
1955 Summertime (Lean) (as Jane Hudson)
1956 The Rainmaker (Anthony) (as Lizzie)
1957 The Iron Petticoat (Thomas) (as Vinka Kovelenko)
1957 Desk Set (Walter Lang) (as Bunny Watson)
1959 Suddenly, Last Summer (Mankiewicz) (as Mrs. Violet Venable)
1962 Long Day's Journey into Night (Lumet) (as Mary Tyrone)
1967 Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (Kramer) (as Christina Drayton)
1968 The Lion in Winter (Anthony Harvey) (as Eleanor of Aquitaine)
1969 The Madwoman of Chaillot (Forbes) (as Countess Aurelia)
1971 The Trojan Women (Cacoyannis) (as Hecuba)
1973 A Delicate Balance (Richardson) (as Agnes)
1973 The Glass Menagerie (Anthony Harvey) (as Amanda Wingfield)
1975 Rooster Cogburn (Millar) (as Eula Goodnight)
1975 Love among the Ruins (Cukor) (as Jessica Medlicott)
1977 Olly, Olly, Oxen Free (The Great Balloon Adventure) (as Miss Pudd)
1978 The Corn Is Green (Cukor) (as Lilly C. Moffat)
1981 On Golden Pond (Rydell) (as Ethel Thayer)
1983 The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley (Grace Quigley)
1984 George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey (Stevens, Jr.)
1986 Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry (Schaefer) (title role)
1986 Spencer Tracy Legacy: A Tribute by Katharine Hepburn
1988 Laura Lansing Slept Here (Schaefer) (title role)
1993 The Man Upstairs (Schaefer) (as Victoria Brown)
1994 Love Affair (Caron) (as Ginny)
1994 This Can't Be Love (Anthony Harvey) (as Marion Bennett)
1994 One Christmas (Tony Bill) (as Cornelia Beaumont)
She was first noticed professionally in her role as Antiope in the play "The Warrior's Husband," a Greek fable in
which she entered by descending a narrow staircase, carrying a stag over her shoulder.
That role led to a Hollywood screen test and her first film role, as John Barrymore's daughter in "A Bill of
Divorcement" (1932). It was directed by George Cukor, who become one of her dearest friends (she and Tracy
lived for years in the guest house on Cukor's Hollywood estate) and the director of many of her films, including
"Little Women." He once recalled of her screen test: "She was unlike anybody I'd ever seen or heard. I was rather
moved by the test, although the performance wasn't that good. But I thought, `That girl is rather interesting.' "
Fast Rise to Stardom
Miss Hepburn became a movie star quickly. She won an Academy Award for her role as Eva Lovelace, the naïve
aspiring actress who learns a tough lesson about survival, in the 1933 film "Morning Glory," only her third movie.
Over the years she was nominated for a dozen Oscars, more than any other actress, a record unbeaten until
Meryl Streep received her 13th this year. Miss Hepburn won three more, for "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner,"
"The Lion in Winter" and "On Golden Pond," but never showed up to collect any of them.
When she was 84, she looked back at those early days and, with her trademark tough-mindedness, said: "In the
beginning I had money; I wasn't a poor little thing. I don't know what I would have done if I'd had to come to New
York and get a job as a waiter or something like that. I think I'm a success, but I had every advantage; I should
She also credited her husband with helping her get started in her career. For most of her life, the public thought
she had never married. In fact, in 1928 she married Ludlow Ogden Smith, a member of a wealthy Pennsylvania
family. She immediately made him change his name to S. Ogden Ludlow, partly because she didn't want to be
known as Kate Smith.
They led separate lives long before their divorce in 1934, but they remained friendly. The town house they bought
together in the Turtle Bay section of Manhattan was Miss Hepburn's home until the end of her life (along with the
family home on the Connecticut River, to which she returned often).
In later years she expressed regret at the way she had treated her husband. In an interview that echoed what she
wrote in "Me," she assumed a self-chastising, no-nonsense tone and said she had been "an absolute pig with
Luddy, absolute pig." She continued: "He was an angel. I thought of myself first, and that's a pig, isn't it?"
inducted into the Delta films Hall of Fame - Actor
Walk of Fame - Star on the Walk of Fame Motion Picture
At 6288 Hollywood Blvd.
American Comedy Awards, USA - Lifetime Achievement Award in Comedy
Montréal World Film Festival - Won Special Prize of the Jury for: Grace Quigley
For her interpretation in the film and for her exceptional achievements in cinema.
BAFTA Awards - BAFTA Film Award - Best Actress for: On Golden Pond
People's Choice Awards, USA - People's Choice Award Favorite Motion Picture Actress
Academy Awards, USA - Oscar Best Actress in a Leading Role for: On Golden Pond
American Movie Awards - Marquee Best Actress for: On Golden Pond
Golden Apple Awards - Golden Apple - Female Star of the Year
Screen Actors Guild Awards - Life Achievement Award
People's Choice Awards, USA - People's Choice Award - Favorite Motion Picture Actress
Emmy Awards - Emmy Outstanding Lead Actress in a Special Program - Drama or Comedy
for: Love Among the Ruins
Golden Apple Awards - Golden Apple - Female Star of the Year
Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards - Best Actress for: The Trojan Women
Laurel Awards - Golden Laurel Star, Female
Laurel Awards - Golden Laurel Female Dramatic Performance for: The Lion in Winter
Laurel Awards - Golden Laurel Female Star
Academy Awards, USA - Oscar Best Actress in a Leading Role for: The Lion in Winter
BAFTA Awards - BAFTA Film Award Best Actress for: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
BAFTA Awards - BAFTA Film Award Best Actress for: The Lion in Winter
Academy Awards, USA - Oscar Best Actress in a Leading Role
for: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
Cannes Film Festival - Best Actress for: Long Day's Journey Into Night
Hasty Pudding Theatricals, USA - Woman of the Year
New York Film Critics Circle Awards - Best Actress for: The Philadelphia Story
Academy Awards, USA - Oscar Best Actress in a Leading Role for: Morning Glory
Venice Film Festival - Golden Medal Best Actress for: Little Women
"I would have been terrified alone in New York City," she said. "We bought this house in '31, and then the minute
I won the Academy Award, I got rid of Luddy." Many years later, not long before he died, "I tried to make up to him
for the horror I had caused him," she added. "He was so generous-spirited that I don't think he considered it horror. He just considered it a kid who was wildly ambitious or
Trousers as a Trademark
Despite her early success, reviewers in those days sometimes found her strident and mannered. In 1933 she returned to Broadway in a spectacular failure, "The Lake," which
inspired Dorothy Parker to write her famous aphorism, "She ran the gamut of emotion from A to B." Of those early years, she said: "I strike people as peculiar in some way,
although I don't quite understand why. Of course, I have an angular face, an angular body and, I suppose, an angular personality, which jabs into people."
Over time her screen presence softened and became more likable; meanwhile, society was catching up to her willful, independent style. She had been wearing pants, then
considered quite unladylike, since the 1930's. In her 1993 television autobiography, she recalled: "I realized long ago that skirts are hopeless. Anytime I hear a man say he prefers
a woman in a skirt, I say: `Try one. Try a skirt.' " Although her choice was based on comfort, her trademark trousered look became so influential that the Council of Fashion
Designers of America gave her a lifetime achievement award in 1986.
Many of her early films are now regarded as classics. Playing a tough, determined actress in "Stage Door" (1937), she read a line from a play — "The calla lilies are in bloom
again" — that became the all-time favorite of Hepburn impersonators. Life magazine said that "Stage Door" proved that she was "potentially, the screen's greatest actress." She
played a free-spirited heiress in "Bringing Up Baby" (1938), opposite Cary Grant and a leopard. But the film, now treasured, was a box-office flop, and by then her career was in
decline. In 1938 she appeared on a list of actors labeled "box-office poison" in a poll of movie exhibitors.
Rather than appear in a film called "Mother Carey's Chickens," she bought out her contract with R.K.O. She made "Holiday," another classic romantic comedy with Grant, in which
she was another high-spirited socialite. Then Miss Hepburn took charge of her career in a way few women dared in those days of the studio system. Philip Barry wrote the play
"The Philadelphia Story" for her, modeling his heroine, Tracy Lord, on Miss Hepburn. Tracy Lord is a beautiful, high-spirited rich woman, about to marry her second husband,
when her first husband and a reporter who is covering the wedding arrive to create an unexpected romantic tangle. The play was a hit, and Miss Hepburn owned the rights to it
because Howard Hughes, a sometime beau, had bought them for her. She went to Louis B. Mayer, the head of the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio, and sold him the property on the
condition that she play the lead. She chose her friend George Cukor to direct. And she asked for Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable as her co-stars. She got Cary Grant as her
former husband, James Stewart as the reporter, and a hit movie. She never lost control of her career again.
Soon she went back to Mayer with another script, "Woman of the Year," the story of the unlikely romance between a hotshot political columnist and a sportswriter. She asked for
Tracy, whom she had never met, to play the sportswriter. This time she got him.
A Loving Partnership
The success of "Woman of the Year" (1942) and the stars' off-screen relationship led to other Tracy and Hepburn films that
followed a similar pattern. In "Adam's Rib" (1949), they are married, opposing lawyers, both nicknamed Pinky. In "Pat and Mike"
(1952), she is a champion athlete, and he is her rough-hewn manager, with whom she falls in love.
The film was devised to show off Miss Hepburn's well-cultivated athletic ability. Almost to the end of her life she played tennis
and swam, and in earlier years she golfed. It was in "Pat and Mike" that Tracy spoke the often-quoted line about Miss Hepburn's
figure, "Not much meat on her, but what's there is `cherce.' "
Miss Hepburn often said Tracy was the best actor she had ever known and compared him in complimentary terms to a baked
potato: solid, substantial stuff. "He's meat and potatoes, meat and potatoes," she would say. "I'm more like a fancy French
dessert, I'm a little bit fancy, aren't I? But I wish I were meat and potatoes." Her other films with Tracy included the political
dramas "Keeper of the Flame" (1942) and "State of the Union" (1948).
One of her most enduring films without Tracy was "The African Queen" (1952), in which she played the straitlaced Rosie
opposite Humphrey Bogart for the director John Huston.
She wrote about it in her first book, published in 1987, whose title captures the direct, colloquial style of her writing: "The Making
of the African Queen: Or, How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind" (Knopf).
Later she achieved one of her great artistic triumphs in an unlikely role, as the 12th-century Eleanor of Aquitaine in "The Lion in
Winter" (1968). There was still something of the typical Hepburn persona in the steely manipulation and breaking heart of the
aging, dismissed queen, but none of the actress's contemporary mannerisms.
Her versatility lasted well into her career. She played the distraught, drug-addicted Mary Tyrone in the 1962 film of Eugene O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night." She was a
fair match in toughness for John Wayne in the western "Rooster Cogburn" (1975). And in "On Golden Pond" (1981) she starred opposite Henry Fonda as a feisty older woman
coping with her husband's failing memory and insisting that they should go on and live life to the fullest. In that role, the on-screen and off-screen Hepburn seemed to meld as
easily as they had in her youth.
Her final screen appearance, in 1994, was a minor but tremendously emotional role in "Love Affair." Playing Warren Beatty's wise old aunt, she gave advice to the woman he
loved, played by Annette Bening. Miss Hepburn's age gave the role the trappings of a farewell to movies, but if she moved more slowly than before, in demeanor she was as game
and modern as she had ever been, even venturing an unprintable line about ducks.
Throughout her career, she returned to the stage periodically. She appeared in "The Millionairess," by George Bernard Shaw, on Broadway in 1952. In the late 1950's she also
appeared in several Shakespeare plays in Stratford, Conn. And in 1969, when she was 62, she made her singing debut on Broadway in the Alan Jay Lerner musical "Coco,"
based on the life of the fashion designer Coco Chanel. She also appeared on Broadway in 1976 in "A Matter of Gravity," by Enid Bagnold, and in 1981 in "The West Side Waltz,"
by Ernest Thompson, who had written "On Golden Pond." Her performances in all three of these plays were received with dazzling praise; the works themselves were treated more
harshly. Walter Kerr of The New York Times wrote about her performance in "The West Side Waltz" in terms that reflected the general critical opinion: "One mysterious thing she
has learned to do is breathe unchallengeable life into lifeless lines."
A Beloved Aunt on TV
In the 1970's she acted in television movies, including the Edwardian romantic drama "Love Among the Ruins" (1975), with Laurence Olivier, and "The Corn Is Green" (1979),
both directed by Cukor. And in later years she kept busy with minor television movies. She played a fictional version of the typically feisty Kate Hepburn character in "Mrs.
Delafield Wants to Marry" (1986), "Laura Lansing Slept Here" (1988) and "The Man Upstairs" (1992).
In 1994 she appeared in a few scenes in the television movie "One Christmas," as yet another wise old aunt. Her tailor-made Hepburn lines included these: "I've always lived my
life exactly as I wanted. I wouldn't change a single thing. No regrets."
As she aged, she had some physical problems from which she recovered well. She had hip-replacement surgery and operations on both her shoulders, but she remained spry.
Although her head shook visibly in television interviews from the 1980's on, she vehemently denied the rumor that she had Parkinson's disease, saying she had inherited her
shaking head from her grandfather Hepburn.
Her most striking television appearance was not in a dramatic role, but in a 1986 tribute to Spencer Tracy. Speaking openly about their relationship at last, she read a letter she
had written to him, which she later included in her autobiography. She recalled their last years together, when he was ill and had trouble sleeping, and she would sit on the floor by
his side and talk. She wondered why he drank. "What was it, Spense?" she asked. It was an eloquent and sentimental performance that distilled the way her public and private
At the conclusion of "All About Me," her own television biography, she said: "In some ways I've lived my life as a man, made my own decisions. I've been as terrified as the next
person, but you've got to keep a-going; you've got to dream." In typical Katharine Hepburn style, she faced the camera and, at the age of 85, tacitly acknowledged how close she
had to be to the end.
"I have no fear of death," she said. "Must be wonderful, like a long sleep. But let's face it: it's how you live that really counts."