May 12, 1907 – Katharine Hepburn:
“If you obey all of the rules, you miss all of the fun.”
She was known for her headstrong independence and outspokenness, cultivating a screen image that matched this public persona, playing strong-willed, sophisticated women. She worked in many genres, especially gifted at screwball comedy to literary drama, and she received four Academy Awards for Best Actress (still a record). In 1999, Hepburn was named the greatest female movie star by the American Film Institute.
Raised in Connecticut by wealthy, progressive parents, Hepburn started acting in college at Bryn Mawr. The good reviews of her work on Broadway brought her to the attention of Hollywood. Her early years in film brought her international fame, including an Academy Award for her third film, Morning Glory (1933), followed by a string of box-office duds that culminating in the failure Bringing Up Baby (1938) to make money, and she was labeled box-office poison by the press. But she wasn’t having it and she masterminded her own comeback, buying out her contract with RKO Radio Pictures and acquiring the film rights to the hit The Philadelphia Story, a play written for her that was a triumph on Broadway, which she sold to MGM on the condition that she star. The comedy film was a box-office success and brought her a third Oscar nomination. MGM was skeptical about Hepburn’s appeal, so studio head Louis B. Mayer took an unusual precaution by engaging two A-list male stars, Cary Grant and James Stewart to support Hepburn.
In the 1940s, she was contracted to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where her career focused on an alliance with Spencer Tracy. The screen-partnership spanned 26 years, and produced nine movies.
Writer Gore Vidal vouched for his buddy, the late Scotty Bowers, who claims that he set Katharine Hepburn up on dates “with over 150 different women” in his dishy, juicy book Full Service: My Adventures In Hollywood And The Secret Sex Lives Of Stars, which I read in just two sittings in 2012. Vidal had flown in to LA to be part of Bowers’ book release event. He wanted to assure attendees that Bowers is totally telling the truth in his tell-all memoir. In a speech, he told party-goers he’s never caught Bowers in a lie in the 60+ years he had known him, noting that in Hollywood: “you can meet 1,000 liars a day”. I think there is a difference between never catching someone in a lie as opposed to someone who has never told a lie, so I am going to take Vidal and Bowers at their word: Hepburn was very sexually active with women. I have also been told by several people in showbiz that Hepburn really did dig the girls. I am certain this post will spark some outrage, but let’s go ahead and open-up her closet door a bit, shall we?
If you don’t wish to believe Bower’s version, try film historian and novelist William J. Mann’s highly readable Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn (2004). Mann claims that the famous romance between Hepburn and Spencer Tracy was a tale tended by Hepburn to hide both of their bisexuality. The two stars were, in fact, sexually complicated screen legends that had an enduring companionship, but they were only romantic for a brief moment and never lived together intimately.
Hepburn helped keep alive the story that she and Tracy could never marry because he was a devout Catholic committed to his wife of four decades and the mother of their deaf child. Mann used letters and interviews with people who wouldn’t dare talk while Hepburn was alive. Who can blame them? Who would want this formidable woman as an enemy?
Mann reports that Hepburn’s notorious relationship with American Express heiress Laura Harding wasn’t exactly “lesbian”, but it certainly was sexual. Mann:
Hepburn admitted as much to friends like James Prideaux, cutting him off with a shrill ‘Of course!’ when he asked about Harding … as if the subject of their love affair were simply too obvious and boring to belabor.
In the 1930s, Hepburn dared to challenge the male studio execs that controlled her career and she made it work for her. She became a businessperson, negotiating a better salary and better roles at a time when that sort of thing just wasn’t done.
In the second half of her long life, Hepburn turned to more stage productions. On film, she found her niche playing middle-aged spinsters, such as in The African Queen (1951), opposite Humphrey Bogart, and the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams‘ controversial play Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, a persona her public embraced. Hepburn won three more Oscars: Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner (1967), The Lion In Winter (1968), and On Golden Pond (1981). In the 1970s, she began doing television films, which later became her focus. She made her appearance in a television film One Christmas (1994), for which she received a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination, at 87 years old. Hepburn took her final bow in 2003 at 96.
Hepburn’s career spanned six decades. Her range was astounding, especially considering that the roles were always secondary to her own personality.
Hepburn shunned the Hollywood publicity machine and refused to conform to society’s expectations of women, wearing trousers before they were fashionable for women. She was briefly married as a young woman but after that, she lived an independent life. She was a true American original who could accomplish anything, and a role model for women. With her unconventional lifestyle and the self-sufficient characters she played, Hepburn epitomized the “modern woman” in 20th-century.