Today is the fourteenth anniversary of Katharine Hepburn’s death, who passed away on June 29, 2003. Although she is
most well-known for her Oscar-winning turns in films such as Morning Glory and Bringing Up Baby, the not-so-straight icon actually got her start
in acting by chopping off all her hair with fingernail scissors and becoming “an
engaging boy, roguish and merry” for the play The Truth About Blayds.
One of the most famous actresses in American history, Katharine Hepburn was known to be deeply involved in the process of filmmaking, having had opinions on everything from costumes to camerawork (x).
Katharine was born on May 29, 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut
as the sixth child of a very progressive family; her father was a urologist
and her mother was a feminist activist who campaigned enthusiastically for
women’s suffrage and the right to birth control. As a child, Katharine was a
tomboy who liked to keep her hair cut short, put on shows for the neighborhood
children, and play golf – at one point she even made it all the way to the
semi-final of the Connecticut Young Women’s Golf Championship. Her idyllic
childhood was interrupted when she discovered the dead body of her brother Tom, who
had hanged himself in the attic of a family friend’s home. The trauma Katharine
suffered from that experience resulted in her dropping out of school, only
returning in 1924 when she was accepted in to Bryn Mawr College. At Bryn Mawr,
Katharine was able to find some semblance of her old self back when she
discovered a passion for acting. In her first stage play, The Truth About Blayds, she played the role of a man named Oliver and received astounding reviews. After graduating with degrees in
history and philosophy in 1928, Katharine began a career in theater.
Famously unglamorous, Katharine preferred pants and suits to the usual dresses Hollywood starlets were known for. In a 1981 interview, she recalled, “I put on pants 50 years ago and declared a sort of middle road. I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man. I’ve just done what I damn well wanted” (x).
After several years making a name for herself on Broadway, Hollywood agent Leland Hayward eventually scooped her out of her breakout
role in The Warrior’s Husband and set
out to make Katharine Hepburn a household name. When Katharine starred in the
film A Bill of Divorcement with heavy
hitter John Barrymore, Leland achieved just that. Just two years later in 1934 she would receive her first Oscar nomination and win for the film Morning Glory; throughout her career, Katharine
would receive twelve Oscar nominations and four wins. The 1930s and
early 1940s would prove to be Katharine’s heyday, but her career also saw a revival
in the 1960s and 1970s and she worked steadily in film, television, and theater
throughout her lifetime.
Katharine (right) sits in her a car with one of her many lady loves from throughout the years, Laura Harding (x).
Nicknamed “Katharine of Arrogance” and notorious for her
reluctance to welcome the public into her personal life, Katharine Hepburn was
a disliked and moody figure in the press. This reluctance could possibly be
linked to the fact that she had multiple relationships with women. Although she was briefly married to the socialite Ludlow Ogden
Smith, by the time her Hollywood career took off they were divorced and she was
free to romp around with the likes of Laura Harding, Nancy Hamilton, Frances Rich, and Phyllis Wilbourn. Phyllis
was perhaps her greatest love, having stayed together with Katharine for nearly
thirty years and being described by Katharine as “my Alice B. Toklas,” who was a lesbian icon and lifelong wife of Gertrude Stein! Katharine also had a twenty-year-long
relationship with the actor Spencer Tracy, but the validity of that relationship
has come into question in recent years, with even gay icon and AIDS activist
Larry Kramer proclaiming in 2015 that “Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were both gay…they
were publicly paired together by the studio. Everyone in Hollywood knows this
epitomizes the Lesbian Grandma aesthetic by holding a bouquet of flowers and standing next to ‘Please Go Away’ and ‘Keep Out’ signs at her home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut (x).
Katharine lived an incredibly long and fruitful life. She eventually passed away at the age of 95 at her family home in Fenwick,
Connecticut. Although she had requested that there be no memorial service, the
nation mourned the loss of a stage and screen icon. Upon her passing, the White
House issued a statement which said Katharine “will be remembered as one of the
nation’s artistic treasures.“