Katharine Houghton Hepburn (May 12, 1907 – June 29, 2003) was an iconic star of American film and stage, widely recognized for her sharp wit, New England gentility and fierce independence. A screen legend, Hepburn holds the record for the most Oscars for best actress won at four. She was nominated for twelve Best Actress Academy Awards, the record for nominations until 2003, when Meryl Streep earned her 13th nomination for Adaptation. Hepburn won an Emmy in 1975 for her lead role in Love Among the Ruins, and was nominated for four other Emmys during the course of her acting career. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Hepburn the greatest actress of all time.
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Hepburn's early years
Hepburn was born in Hartford, Connecticut to a successful urologist, Thomas Norval Hepburn, and a suffragette, Katharine Houghton Hepburn. Hepburn's father was a staunch proponent of publicizing the dangers of venereal disease in a time when such things were not discussed, and her mother advocated birth control and equal rights for women. "We were snubbed by everyone, but we grew quite to enjoy that," Hepburn later said of her unabashedly liberal family, who she credited with giving her a sense of adventure and independence.
Her father insisted that his children be athletic, and encouraged swimming, riding, golf and tennis — a characteristic for which Hepburn would later become recognized. Hepburn excelled at physicality, fearlessly performing 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 Bryn Mawr College, receiving a degree in history and philosophy in 1928, the same year she debuted on Broadway after landing a bit part in Night Hostess. A banner year for Hepburn, 1928 also marked her nuptuals to socialite businessman Ludlow Ogden Smith, whom she had met at Bryn Mawr. Hepburn and Smith's marriage was rocky from the start—she insisted that he change his name to S. Ludlow Ogden, so she would not be called the "too ordinary" name of "Mrs. Smith". Succumbing to the pressures created by Hepburn's burgeoning film career, the couple divorced in 1934.
Hepburn's film career begins
Hepburn continued to work in theater, suffering her fair share of bad reviews. Her acting in The Lake resulted in Dorothy Parkers famous remark that Hepburn "ran the gamut of emotions from A to B." Her big splash on Broadway came with the 1932 play The Warriors Husband (an update of Lysistrata) in which she played an Amazon princess. She 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 feat that he offered her a film contract.
But in true Hepburn fashion, she demanded an outlandish $1,500 per week for film work (at the time she was earning $80 per week). After seeing her screen test for A Bill of Divorcement (1932), RKO agreed to her demands and cast her, launching her film career aside legendary actor John Barrymore and director George Cukor, who would become a lifetime friend.
RKO, was delighted by audience reactions to A Bill of Divorcement and signed Hepburn to a new contract. But her non-conformist, anti-Hollywood behavior, which would make her one of the silver screen's most beloved stars and a feminist icon, made studio executives fret that she would never become a superstar. Off-set, Hepburn, who had begun to attract press attention, would wear overalls and ratty tennis shoes instead of glamorous clothing, prompting RKO executives to confiscate her overalls.
When RKO refused to return her clothing, Hepburn followed through with a threat to walk across the studio lot in her underwear in full view of several cameras. The RKO executives confiscated all the photographs and gave her back her overalls.
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. That same year, Hepburn played Jo in the screen adaptation of Little Women, which broke box-office records. 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 film Bringing Up Baby was well-received both critically and at the box office. But it was not enough to rescue her from an earlier series of flops such as The Little Minister (1934), Spitfire (1934) and Break of Hearts (1935), and her career began to decline.
Box office poison
Some of what has made Hepburn greatly beloved—her unconventional, straightforward, anti-Hollywood attitude—also began to turn audiences sour. Outspoken and intellectual, she defied the era's "blonde bombshell" stereotypes, often choosing to wear pants suits and no makeup. She also had a famously difficult relationship with the press, turning down many interviews. Hepburn's aversion to media attention did not thaw until 1973, when she appeared on The Dick Cavett Show.
She could also be prickly with fans—though she relented as she aged, in her early career Hepburn often denied requests for autographs. She was saddled with the label "difficult to work with", an attitude that earned her the nickname "Katharine of Arrogance" among directors and crew. Soon audiences began staying away from her movies.
In 1939, Hepburn's career came to what was perhaps its lowest point when she lost out on the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. It was around this time that a publication branded her "box office poison". Hepburn's retort was quick and telling: "Not everyone is lucky enough to understand how delicious it is to suffer."
Smarting, Hepburn returned to her roots on Broadway, appearing in The Philadelphia Story, a play which Philip Barry, the screenwriter for an earlier Hepburn film Holiday, wrote especially for her. She played spoiled socialite Tracy Lord to rave reviews. On the advice of millionaire Howard Hughes, who at the time was her lover, she purchased the rights to the play and turned it into a hit movie, which she appeared in with Cary Grant and James Stewart and was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. Her career was revived.
Hepburn and Spencer Tracy
Hepburn in all filmed nine movies with Tracy, including Adam's Rib and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, for which Hepburn won her third Best Actress Oscar. They are one of Hollywood's most recognizable screen pairs, and have in large part become the standard by which other screen romances are judged. Hepburn, with her sharp wit and New England brogue, complemented Tracy's easy working-class machismo, and he seemed to be the only one Hepburn would allow to tame her. When Joseph Mankiewicz introduced them, Hepburn said "I'm afraid I'm too tall for you, Mr. Tracy." Mankiewicz retorted: "Don't worry, he'll soon cut you down to size."
As The London Telegraph observed in Hepburn's obituary, "Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were at their most seductive when their verbal fencing was sharpest: it was hard to say whether they delighted more in the battle or in each other."
The pair were openly in love with one another but never married, though Tracy lived with Hepburn. Tracy, a devout Catholic, had been married to another woman since 1928 and remained so until his death. Hepburn, out of respect for his family, did not attend Tracy's funeral.
Before Tracy, Hepburn had relationships with Leland Hayward and Howard Hughes. Hepburn figures in Martin Scorsese's 2004 biopic of Hughes, The Aviator, portrayed by actress Cate Blanchett, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the role. Blanchett, who thanked Hepburn during her acceptance speech, had carried one of Hepburn's silk gloves in her purse during the Oscars for luck.
The African Queen
Hepburn is perhaps best-remembered for her role in The African Queen (1951), for which she received her fifth Best Actress nomination, although she did not win (losing to Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire. 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 on location in Africa, most of the cast and crew suffered from malaria and diarrhea — except director John Huston and Bogart, neither of whom ever drank any water. The trip and the movie made such an impact on her that she wrote a book about that portion of her life: The Making of The African Queen: Or, How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind, which made her a best-selling author at the age of 77.
Later Film Career
Following The African Queen Hepburn often played spinsters, most notably in her Oscar nominated performances for Summertime (1955) and The Rainmaker (1956). She also received nominations for her performances in films adapted from stage dramas, namely as Mrs. Venable in Tennessee Williams's 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 what was essentianlly a pedestrian role in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and always declared her belief the Academy was honoring Spencer Tracy, who died shortly after filming on the movie was completed. The following year she won a record breaking third Oscar for her role as Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter, an award shared with Barbra Streisand for her performance in Funny Girl.
Hepburn continued to do filmed stage dramas, including The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969), The Trojan Women (1971) by Euripides, and Edward Albee's A Declicate Balance (1973). In 1973 she first appeared in an original television production of Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie. Two years later Hepburn received an Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Special Program – Drama or Comedy for Love Among the Ruins, which co-starred Laurence Olivier and was directed by George Cukor. Hepburn also appeared opposite John Wayne in Rooster Cogburn (a.k.a. Rooster Cogburn and the Lady), which was basically The African Queen done as a Western. Hepburn won her fourth Oscar for On Golden Pond (1981) opposite Henry Fonda. Her final movie role was as Ginny in the 1994 remake of Love Affair and that same year she gave her final performance in One Christmas based on a short story by Truman Capote.
Hepburn died on June 29, 2003 at 2:50 p.m., at Fenwick, the Hepburn family home, in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. She was 96. In honor of her extensive theater work, the bright lights of Broadway were dimmed for an hour.
Her autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life, was published in 1991. The book Kate Remembered, by A. Scott Berg, was published a mere 13 days after her death; it documents the friendship between the actress and biographer.
Hepburn's professional legacy is today carried on within her family. Hepburn's niece is actress Katharine Houghton, who appeared with her in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). Hepburn's grand-niece is actress Schuyler Grant.
In 2004, in accordance with Hepburn's wishes, her personal effects were put up for auction with Sotheby's in New York. Hepburn had meticulously collected an extraordinary amount of material relating to her career and place in Hollywood over the years. The auction netted several million dollars, which Hepburn willed mostly to her family and close friends.
- Night Hostess (1928)
- These Days (1928)
- Art and Mrs. Bottle (1930)
- The Warrior's Husband (1932)
- The Lake (1933)
- Jane Eyre (1937)
- The Philadelphia Story (1939)
- Without Love (1942)
- As You Like It (1950)
- The Millionairess (1952)
- The Merchant of Venice, Measure for Measure, and The Taming of the Shrew (1955)—On tour in Australia with the Old Vic
- The Merchant of Venice and Much Ado About Nothing (1957)—Stratford, Connecticut Shakespeare Theatre
- Antony and Cleopatra and Twelfth Night (1960)—Stratford, Connecticut Shakespeare Theatre
- Coco (1969)
- A Matter of Gravity (1976)
- The West Side Waltz (1981)
- A Bill of Divorcement (1932)
- Christopher Strong (1933)
- Morning Glory (1933)—Academy Award for Best Actress
- Little Women (1933)
- Spitfire (1934)
- The Little Minister (1934)
- Break of Hearts (1935)
- Alice Adams (1935)—Best Actress nomination
- Sylvia Scarlett (1936)
- Mary of Scotland (1936)
- A Woman Rebels (1936)
- Quality Street (1937)
- Stage Door (1937)
- Bringing Up Baby (1938)
- Holiday (1938)
- The Philadelphia Story (1940)—Best Actress nomination
- Woman of the Year (1942)—Best Actress nomination
- Keeper of the Flame (1942)
- Stage Door Canteen (1943)
- Dragon Seed (1944)
- Without Love (1945)
- Undercurrent (1946)
- The Sea of Grass (1947)
- Song of Love (1947)
- State of the Union (1948)
- Adam's Rib (1949)
- The African Queen (1951)—Best Actress nomination
- Pat and Mike (1952)
- Summertime (1955)—Best Actress nomination
- The Rainmaker (1956)—Best Actress nomination
- The Iron Petticoat (1956)
- Desk Set (1957)
- Suddenly Last Summer (1959)—Best Actress nomination
- Long Day's Journey into Night (1962)—Best Actress nomination
- Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)—Academy Award for Best Actress
- The Lion in Winter (1968)—Academy Award for Best Actress
- The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969)
- The Trojan Women (1971)
- The Glass Menagerie (1973)
- A Delicate Balance (1974)
- Rooster Cogburn (1975)
- Love Among the Ruins (1975)
- Olly Olly Oxen Free (1978)
- The Corn is Green (1979)
- On Golden Pond (1981)—Academy Award for Best Actress
- George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey (1984)
- The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley (1985)
- Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry (1986)
- Laura Lansing Slept Here (also known as Penthouse Paradise) (1988)
- Me, Stories of My Life, Katharine Hepburn, Knopf, 1991
- The Making of the African Queen Katharine Hepburn, Knopf, 1987
- Kate Remembered, A. Scott Berg, Putnam, 2003