May 12, 1907– Katharine Hepburn:
“I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man. I’ve just done what I damn well wanted to, and I’ve made enough money to support myself, and ain’t afraid of being alone.”
Writer Gore Vidal vouched for his buddy 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’s 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 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. Let’s open-up her closet door, 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 43 years and the mother of their deaf child. Mann used letters and interviews with people who wouldn’t 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 excatly “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. She was a true American original who could accomplish anything, and a role model for women.
Hepburn’s career spanned six decades. Her range was astounding, especially considering that the roles were always secondary to her own personality.
Was there ever a gayer film than Stage Door (1937) where Hepburn as an ingénue utters the famous line: “The calla lilies are in bloom again”? Cast alongside Gay Icons Eve Arden, Lucille Ball, Ann Miller and Ginger Rogers, Hepburn played it broadly and autobiographically, as the daughter of a wealthy businessman who wants a career in the theater with no prior training. It remains one of my favorite Hepburn performances.
Hepburn was terrific in screwball comedies like Bringing Up Baby (1938) with Cary Grant who utters the famous line: “I’ve turned gay all of a sudden!” Hepburn inadvertently developed an androgynous image in such roles as the cross-dressing Sylvia Scarlet (1935).
In the late 1930s, after being badmouthed by studio brass and being branded “box office poison” by the press, Hepburn refused to be ignored. She returned to the stage, starring on Broadway in Philip Barry‘s The Philadelphia Story (1939). Barry wrote the play specifically for Hepburn, who not only starred, but also financed it, giving up her salary in return for a percentage of the play’s profits. It was a great success. Hoping to create a perfect film vehicle for herself which would erase the nasty label, Hepburn accepted the film rights to the play as a gift from Howard Hughes. She then convinced MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer to buy them from her for only $250,000 in return for Hepburn having her choice of producer, director, screenwriter and casting. She chose her gay BFF George Cukor to direct. He knew how to use her and brought out her best qualities. More than any other female star of that era, Hepburn controlled her own career.
In the 1940s and 1950s, Hepburn launched a classical stage and screen career, transitioning perfectly at a point in her career when other actors might retreat to predictable projects that would showcase them. She took on Shakespeare roles onstage in her 50s, at the same time becoming the First Lady Of American Film. She was eventually nominated for 12 Academy Awards, winning four times, at the time a record (Meryl Streep has had 19 nominations, but only three wins).
In the 1950s, risking guilt by association, Hepburn bravely stood by her good friends Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall during the trials of the Hollywood 10: screenwriters, actors and directors called before Senator Joseph McCarthy‘s House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in protest of the unconstitutional Senate investigations into Communists in Hollywood. Together, Hepburn and Bogart made The African Queen (1951), which is not a bio-flick about RuPaul.
She had a career that lasted 66 years. Hepburn appeared in 44 films, eight made for television movies, along with 33 plays. Her film career included a wide range of genres: Screwball Comedies, Period Dramas, and adaptations of works by the greatest playwrights.
Hepburn is also most certainly a Fashion Icon also. She pioneered the wearing of trousers at a time when it was radical for women to do so. She received a lifetime achievement award from the Council Of Fashion Designers Of America in 1986 in recognition of her influence in women’s fashion.
Hepburn is a true Gay Icon. She was a tough-minded, authority bunking, liberal thinker. Gay men and women love her equally, if for very different reasons. Even if she didn’t acknowledge her own gayness, it is impossible to ignore Hepburn’s impact on gay culture and gay hearts. Hepburn was fierce.
“If you obey all of the rules, you miss all of the fun.”
I only saw her live once, in LA circa 1971, playing famed fashion designer Coco Chanel in a mess of a musical, Coco, with a book and lyrics by Alan J. Lerner and music by Andre Previn, with sets by gay Cecil Beaton, choreographed by gay Michael Bennett. To prepare for the role, Hepburn received singing coaching from MGM’s gay musical producer Roger Edens. She was simply brilliant and breathtaking in the role. I loved her in the show and ran out to purchase the cast album immediately. I do a terrific imitation of Hepburn singing the title song. Ask me to do it sometime.
In Martin Scorsese‘s Howard Hughes bio-pic, The Aviator (2004), Hepburn was portrayed by another great actor, Cate Blanchett, who won the Academy Award for her uncanny performance. As far as my research can find, this is the only time a film portrayal of an Oscar winning actor became an Oscar winning role.
My favorite Hepburn role is in Love Among The Ruins (1975) opposite Laurence Olivier, although I have studied every moment of The Philadelphia Story (1940). The Husband’s choice is The Lion In Winter (1968). What is your favorite Katharine Hepburn performance?