Katharine Hepburn: The Woman Behind the Legend

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Hepburn and Paul Henreid in Song of Love

by Lawrence J. Quirk
[Lawrence J. Quirk, one of the foremost film historians in the country, is the author of many film books and biographies.]

Bogart and Hepburn in The African Queen
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Tracy and Hepburn
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Tom Hepburn, Katharine's Older Brother
Kate was emotionally haunted by him her whole life


                        by Lawrence J. Quirk

     Katharine Hepburn died on June 29th, 2003 at the age of 96.
     Katharine Hepburn was one of a number of major stars on whom I began collecting notes, interviews and assorted memorabilia over a 50-year period, with an eye toward doing either a biography or extended career study of her. I first met her in 1947 on the set of one of her films, and thereafter met and/or interviewed her a number of times since. In 1990 I updated and reworked a previously-published book on Katharine Hepburn's films (The Films of Katharine Hepburn), after the original author's death, and published articles on her over the years.
     Katharine Hepburn is one of the most idolized -- and "Icon-ized"   -- actresses in the world. A film star for many decades -- since her initial stint opposite John Barrymore in the 1932 A Bill of Divorcement -- she also conquered the stage and television media, and even at age 87 was starring with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening in the most recent film remake of Love Affair. She was winner of an unmatched four Academy Awards (for the poignant 1933 Morning Glory, in which she touchingly portrayed an aspiring young Broadway actress; Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967) in which she was wife to Spencer Tracy in their 9th film in 25 years; The Lion in Winter (1968) as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine to Peter O'Toole's King Henry II; and On Golden Pond (1981), in which, with on-screen husband Henry Fonda, she faced with valor the inevitabilities of old age.
  Her more famous screen portrayals include the touching small-town
girl hoping to rise above her station in Alice Adams (1935); the queen with too much heart for reigning ruthlessly in Mary of Scotland (1936); the knockabout comic heiress in Bringing Up Baby (1938); the heiress of quite another stripe in The Philadelphia Story (1940), based on her hit play of the same name; the pianist Clara Schumann, wife of the famed composer Robert Schumann, in Song of Love (1947); the missionary who goes adventuring down an African river with alcoholic roustabout Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen (1951), the tormented mother of a predatory son devoured by his “prey” in Suddenly Last Summer (1959); and the tragic Mary Tyrone of Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962). And then there were those nine films with her co-star, and off-screen lover, Spencer Tracy, beginning with their hit, Woman of the Year (1942) and continuing with such hits as Without Love and Pat and Mike (1952.)
     On the stage she has played everything from Shakespeare to Philip Barry and on television essayed a variety of roles through the years, all the while carving out one of the more enduring legends of cinema.
Always an unabashed and totally honest individualist, she forced respect and acceptance, from the beginning, for her odd, angular looks, distinctive New England accent, eccentrically colorful mannerisms and unorthodox life-style. She and Marlene Dietrich were the first to make the wearing of men's clothes fashionable and attention-getting in the early 1930's. Her close association with such women as Laura Harding gave rise to numerous lesbian rumors. Her unconventional buddy-buddy relationship with Howard Hughes; her involvement with the married Spencer Tracy for 25 years until his death in 1967; her forthright, iconoclastic pronouncements on politics, birth control, and all manner of issues, made her a highly controversial public figure. When the public tired of, then turned away from, her ever-more-mannered and eccentric film performances and she found herself labeled one of the "box office poison Stars" of 1938, she walked out of films and onto the stage and came back strong with one of her greatest theatrical hits, “The Philadelphia Story” in 1939 and went on to make a hit film of it for MGM in 1942 -- after buying the film rights and assuring a major profit for herself when MGM bought it from her. Always practical about money, she let her father, Dr. Thomas Hepburn, a Hartford, Connecticut urologist, handle her affairs.
     Scornful of the institution of marriage, she was married for six years (1928-34) to socialite Ludlow Ogden Smith ("Luddy") who, she was later to admit, waited on her hand and foot and spoiled her rotten. "I was totally selfish, totally spoiled, hated marriage," she later said. She did not want children. “Children and a career conflict,” she remembered. “I wanted the career. Children would have taken a back seat, so since I couldn't give them the attention I needed to give to myself, I decided not to have any. I'd have made a terrible mother anyway." (Given how the children of both Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and others wrote about them in such savage terms no doubt Hepburn was grateful she'd made this decision and never even adopted children!) She did do some substitute-mothering, however, of her younger siblings, Bob and Dick and Marion and Peggy, and was always loyal to, and protective of, them throughout the years. Although for sixty years she lived in a townhouse on East 49th Street, New York, she eventually moved to her house in Fenwick, Connecticut, which was filled always with siblings, nieces and nephews.
     But what is beneath all of this? Where is the real woman to be found? What are the wellsprings and the driving motivations that took this spoiled, protected daughter of Hartford privilege and social status to the top of her profession and kept her there? One of the most
shattering revelations of the Hepburn Legend which I am privy to is her incestuous, passionate, no-holds-barred relationship with her older brother, Tom Hepburn, whose suicide by hanging in a New York townhouse on April 3,1921 -- he was only l5 -- was to haunt and bedevil her for the rest of her life. There was a year and a half's difference in their ages -- he was born November 8, 1905 and she on May 12, 1907.  Her first sexual and romantic experiences were with her beloved Tom, who found the guilt of the incestuous relationship too much to bear and killed himself. She carried a burden of guilt and sorrow and overcompensation for that death throughout her life. In her autobiography, Me, she all but gives the game away, recalling that Tom told her she was the only girl in the world for him. George Cukor, Spencer Tracy and other intimates all knew of the ancient tragedy that bedeviled her throughout life. Cukor told  me that he felt her only true love had been Tom Hepburn, that his death had changed her forever, set her on a new course, deepened her insights, but kept her essentially self-protective and self-involved.
     Never, ever, would she love any man truly and totally, ever again. Her farcical marriage to Ludlow Ogden Smith (whom she got to change his name to Ogden Ludlow so she wouldn't be a second "Kate Smith," rivaling the hefty singer of that name) was a totally self-centered, parasitical relationship with him doing all the giving and she doing all the taking, and this by her own admission, verbally and in print, when she reminisced. The relationship with tormented, hearing-impaired Howard Hughes was more that of two male buddies than a man-woman romance. Her alleged lesbian involvements with Laura Harding and others represented, at times, a complete flight from the male. And even Tracy she subconsciously kept at a distance -- his Catholic religion and his refusal to divorce his wife, Louise, by whom he had a deaf son, John, and a daughter, Susie, rendering him unattainable to her as a husband. Many intimates felt that she and Tracy were more friends than lovers. His gruff, domineering, at times insulting ways, gratified her masochistic guilts that dated back to the lost Tom -- and with Tracy alone did this self-involved, self-protective, free-wheeling woman attempt a form of feminine self-immolation and protectiveness that had always been alien to her in the past. So fixated throughout her life was she on Tom Hepburn that she even took his November 8, 1905 birthday as her own, variously claiming it as November 8th, 1907 and November 8th, 1909 -- when in actuality the May 12, 1907 birthday was her true one, as she was finally to admit in old age.
     There is a sad story that she had a driver take her, in 1992, age 85, down from her West 49th Street brownstone to the site of the townhouse at 24 Charlton Street in Greenwich Village where, on that long-gone April 3, 1921, age 13, she had found Tom's body hanging in the attic. That house is long-gone, having been replaced by an apartment house, but several neighboring houses are identical to it; when the car pulled up in front of the site, Hepburn burst into uncontrollable, hysterical tears and had to be taken home immediately. And that occasion had been some 71 years after the fact.
     The death of her brother and lover -- that Great Love of her Life -- changed 13-year-old Kate forever. She had been brought up in a family of free spirits and individualists, her mother being a birth-control advocate at a time when such stances were radical in the extreme. Tom's death filled Kate with guilt; her love for him she would always hold proudly in her heart; that their violation of incest conventions had left her happy and fulfilled but left him so bedeviled by guilt and depression that he killed himself, left her feeling responsible, sorrowful, guilt-ridden.
     From the death of the Beloved One can be traced all of the individualistic Hepburn traits, professionally and personally, that made her, over the decades one of the Great Originals of her century:
Her scorn of Marriage and its rituals, for which husband Ludlow Smith paid heavily; her secret desire for essential independence, which kept her happy enough in a loose relationship with Spencer Tracy that was more one of loving friendship than passionate sensuality (and his inability to marry her kept it going for 25 years, for with him, this ingrown, independent soul could have it both ways); her lesbian flings with a number of women, beginning with Laura Harding, which resulted in rival Margaret Sullavan's scornful remarks about "Krazy Kate and Her Giddy Girlfriends;" her imperfect, often tempestuous relationships with such eccentric men as producer Jed Harris (who liked to greet business associates in the nude) and agent Leland Hayward (who never seemed to find happiness with any one woman though a veteran of multiple marriages). When Margaret Sullavan married him in 1936, Hepburn, who had been involved with him also, affected great grief, but was secretly relieved. Then there was her buddy-buddy pal-ship with tormented Howard Hughes, who steered a bisexual course, alternating between screen lovelies like Jean Peters and handsome airline mechanics. Wearing pants and dressed up "butch", Kate would take long hikes with Howard, arguing politics over campfires, even wrestle with him. But a romantic relationship -- as that term is generally accepted -- it was not.
     Forthright and individualistic and feisty and power-driven, she enjoyed testing the mettle of other powerful tycoons like Louis B. Mayer, who liked her despite her hard-driving deals (she had not only sold The Philadelphia Story to him in 1940 on terms highly favorable to herself but landed another story with him in 1941, her first hit with Tracy, Woman of the Year.) "Her hard Yankee mind understood Mayer," an associate later said, "and Mayer enjoyed talking and maneuvering with her man-to-man." As for Tracy, he aroused her masochistic, contrary, testing-to-see-how-far-she-could-go self,and she took a perverse joy in being put down by a man, for once in her life, when she took a crack at his height by saying: "On-screen I am afraid I'll be too tall for you, Mr. Tracy," and got a lift out of his snappy reply: "Don't worry, Miss Hepburn, I'll cut you down to size."
     Full of contradictions and assorted forms of denial, she always claimed she knew nothing of homosexuality and its manners-and-mores while all the time conducting intensely intimate relationships with a series of women, fraternizing and camping-it-up with the many gay actors she worked with through the years, and enjoying a close friendship with her director on many films, the flamboyant George Cukor, whose gay affairs and promiscuous life style were the talk of Hollywood insiders.
     Approaching age 96, she spoke of Death with serenity and, oddly, a kind of anticipation. "It will "be just like going to sleep," she  said. "A nice, long sleep -- think of how wonderful it will be -- no more pain, no more bodily aches and discomforts, no more tensions -- just a nice, blissful sleep." She was buried, by her express wish, in Hartford with her parents -- and with Tom. Those who know her well and intimately are sure that if she were conscious at the point of eternity, her last word was undoubtedly: TOM. "She has loved him for so long, missed him for so long -- this boy, her first lover," George Cukor has said. "I, for one, hope he is there for her, holding out his arms, ready to bring her the peace and rest she has never really known...."
     For this long life, these years of acclaim and travel and friendships and "romantic" involvements and awards and major success on several continents, all the sturm und drang of one of the most successful acting careers ever, have been, after all, at once a compensatory flight from the memory of Tom and, oddly, a journey toward him. Now they are together, side by side, in a Hartford, Connecticut, cemetery.  And, to paraphrase the closing phrase of Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, will they be "unquiet sleepers in that quiet earth?"
                            HEPBURN'S LIFE
                         THE BRIGHT BEGINNINGS
Katharine Hepburn was born on May 12, 1907 to an upper class family of Scottish-English heritage, tracing her lineage to Mary Queen of Scots' James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. Her father, Dr. Thomas Norval Hepburn, was a urologist and also pioneered many social reforms. Her mother, Katharine Houghton Hepburn, also a free spirit ahead of her time like her husband, was a suffragette and an early, and highly militant, advocate of birth control. She had an older brother, Tom, a year and a half her senior, with whom she spent many close and intimate days and nights until age 13, when he committed suicide (he was 15.) Later on, much later, in fact, were to come siblings Dick, Bob, Marian and Peggy. For many years, as she later put it, "My Tom and I were all alone in the world together... " Hard work, self-discipline, an absence of sentiment and wasted feelings and motions, characterized the family life. As she recalled it, cold showers were de rigueur every morning, for all. Everyone was expected to do his-her share, and no crying or complaining was tolerated. In 1967 Hepburn told an interviewer, "Father put up with no nonsense. He had no patience for self-pity. When any of us would start mooning about, bidding for attention with "I'm not feeling very well, he'd say, 'Take an aspirin, go up to your room, and lie down. Don't inflict the way you feel on the rest of us."
     Seeking to get as close to Tom as she could, Kate adopted many tomboyish ways, so as not to separate herself from him in any way. 
Tom was brilliant but shy. Though a handsome, masculine boy, he had a slight speech defect, and did not match Kate's social skills. They were so close in childhood they even slept together -- "we were like buddies," as Hepburn put it. But with the onset of adolescence for both, pal-ship turned to passionate love. For Kate it meant liberation, fulfillment; for Tom, guilt- a guilt so powerful and pervasive in time that despite the fact he fully reciprocated Kate's love, he hanged himself while they were visiting New York, in a relative's town house at 24 Charlton Street in the Village. Tom had been under other pressures, also. His father had planned to send him to Yale, make a doctor of him. Tom was not sure what he wanted to do with his life. After the suicide (Kate had found him) the life of the Hepburns -- and Kate's -- was never again the same.
                          “WHEN LOVE IS DONE”
    For Kate, after Tom's death, "the light of the whole world dies when love is done,” to quote Francis Bourdillon. Theirs had been so total, so intimate, so loving and close a relationship that she felt completely alone. The aloneness became so profound and pervasive that her parents took her out of school and placed her with a private tutor. For the next two years she led a relatively solitary life. Guilt played no role in her crushing sense of loss --- guilt had been his portion. Over and over she had asked herself "Why did he do it?" They had truly loved each other, and in Kate's view, even at 13, expression of their love had been natural and right -- for them. Why hadn't he seen it that way? Hadn't their parents taught them the life of the individualist? Hadn't they, often enough, quoted to Tom and her Thoreau's injunction about courageously and unashamedly stepping to the tune of a different drummer?
      After a year the depression began to lift. So she was to go it alone, without her Love. Her parents always refused to visit the cemetery -- there had been so much newspaper publicity about the suicide, and their approach was one of grieving stoicism -- but Kate went twice a week, and when she felt there was no one around, she would throw herself upon the grave. They had cremated her Tom, and that she resented. How much better it would be to feel that he was corporeally there, just six feet below her ... Gradually she resumed her outward life, but inwardly, alone now, her individualism, that courageous, let-chips-fall-where-they-might individualism that her Tom had (fatally) hesitated to share with her, became her guiding star.
     She finished her courses with tutors and at the Hartford School for Girls,and in 1924, three years after Tom's death, she entered Bryn Mawr college at 17. At first she had thought of emulating her father and pursuing a career in medicine, the career he had wanted for Tom, but it seemed so clinical, so prosaic, and besides, her grades in subjects like physics and chemistry were poor. But under the stoicism, the tough outer defiance, lay a tortured soul driven into the dark reaches of introspection, and in time, knowing that these deep feelings of loss and aloneness needed an outlet sufficiently purgative and cathartic - she decided to become an actress.

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Hepburn chats with Ginger Rogers during a break

     She had had few friends at Bryn Mawr, had kept essentially to herself. Her "friends" were her younger siblings, whom she considered her own children. Her father and mother, stoical yet supportive, were sterling standbys. She would help raise Bob and Dick, Marian and Peggy -- those children who had come so long after her and Tom's pristine childhood of aloneness -- the way Tom would have wanted them raised. She had two albums of Tom's pictures –- from babyhood to 15. She looked at them often. Bryn Mawr's drama teachers had told her she had promise. So the life-Voyage would begin there, she decided -- and on her terms. Walt Whitman's "untold want by life nor land ne'er granted" would express itself in her performances -- they would prove a release for those pent-up feelings, that agonized loss. She who had started out the most consummate of individualists, loving unashamedly a brother who fully returned her love, would show them what she was made of. She was an Individual, and they could all like it or lump it. Tomboyish still, defiant, hiding her deeper hurts under a brittle, playful, often cynical exterior, Kate took her B.A. degree in 1928 and, at 21, struck out immediately for summer stock. Her parents expressed some initial demurrals - acting didn't seem terribly practical to them - but she shut them up by playing back to them their often-expressed tenets of individualism. "You always said, 'be yourself," she told them. "And by golly, that's what I'll be, always -- myself."
     Her performances in summer stock were often awkward and unorthodox. An associate remembers, "Her talent, yes at 20, was obvious, but she was egoistic, strong-minded -- hated taking direction, wanted things her own way." This caused her difficulties with directors of such stock plays as "The Czarina" (Baltimore) and The "Big Pond” in Great Neck, New York.
   The year she graduated from college she entered marriage with socialite Ludlow Ogden Smith. When she met him he was a direction-less young aristocrat. In love with her inordinately, young Smith failed to see their areas of incompatibility. Later Hepburn was to say that she married "Luddy", as she called him, because she felt he was easily managed, because marital status protected her from male "wolves," and because his ready supportiveness and devotion offered her protection in a brutal, competitive, sexually-predatory show business environment. "It was still a man's world in those days," she said years later. "I took what protective measures I could.” In old age, racked with remorse over her essentially cold treatment of her one and only husband, she said, "I was a pig. He gave. I took. Unconditional love. That's what he offered." George Cukor many years later was asked how much Kate had loved Luddy, Tracy, Hughes, Leland Hayward and the rest. "She was good buddies with them, had a kind of affection for them, felt true devotion for Tracy -- but Love? The only guy she ever loved, in my view -- ever really, truly loved -- and for all her life -- was that kid in the Hepburn cemetery lot in Hartford."
     Among Kate's performances in the 1928-1932 period were those in “Night Hostess” (a forgettable Broadway debut in a nothing role; it ran only 15 performances). Later came a more substantial role in “These Days” and an understudy stint with Hope Williams in “Holiday.” (She was to play the Linda Seton role in the film 10 years later.) In 1929 she found herself touring as Grazia in “Death Takes a Holiday” -- one of her favorite roles in what was understandably her favorite play of the time (later a 1934 film with Fredric March.) The plot? A handsome young man comes to an aristocratic house party in Italy for a few days. He is Death, come to see why mortals fear him so. In her role of Grazia to which she so lovingly addressed herself, she is the girl who longs for Death as the Ultimate Peace and Ecstasy -- and recognizing her longing and need, Death takes her off with him.....
     The year 1930 (she was 23 by then) saw her playing Katia in “A Month in the Country” and Judy Bottle in the Jane Cowl starrer, “Art and Mrs. Bottle.” Often she would get fired -- her headstrong, individualistic stances were a trial to directors and producers -- but
her talent was evident and it eventually paid big dividends. In 1932, age 25, she finally made a big success on Broadway in “The Warrior's Husband,” in which she excelled in a role tailored to her exact measure, Antiope, the Amazon warrior who lives by her own rules and not only meets male warriors on their own terms but keeps them in their place. All the compensatory, individualistic, forthright aspects of her personality shone forth from this role and brought her major acclaim. This led her directly to Hollywood.
                             A HOLLYWOOD OUTSIDER
     Hollywood didn't know what to make of Hepburn. Producer David 0. Selznick and director George Cukor had originally wanted Jill Esmond, (first wife of Laurence Olivier) for the role of a girl who realizes she has inherited insanity from an unstable father (A Bill of Divorcement), played touchingly by John Barrymore. But as Cukor later recalled, "As soon as I tested her, I knew she was unusual, distinctive -- no one like her, no one at all!" She was cast in the role and made a critical sensation, even upstaging the great Barrymore at times. Again the role was right for her -- an individualist who meets life head-on, and sacrifices her true love (David Manners) to care for her father.
     Off to a flying start, Hepburn in 1933-34 specialized in roles tailored by prescient RKO directors and writers to her measure: Christopher Strong,in which she played an aviatrix; Morning Glory, in which she played an aspiring young actress (she won the 1933 Oscar for this, her first of four); and Little Women, in which she won much critical praise as Louisa May Alcott's Jo March, forthright and individualistic, who wants to be a writer. Spitfire (1934) showcased her as a fiery mountain girl, and in The Little Minister she was a Scottish aristocrat posing as a gypsy. Critics commented on her freshness, vitality, force of personality and strong individualism.  Kate showed she could be as romantic as Shearer or Crawford or Garbo in Break of Hearts (1935) in which she was a concert pianist in love with conductor Charles Boyer. She garnered a second academy award nomination for Alice Adams, in which she was touching and true as a small-town girl seeking to rise socially, and in Sylvia Scarlett, she sashayed about in male attire in an offbeat film that has always been admired in some circles but that failed commercially in its day (it is now a cult film).
     By the time she did Mary of Scotland and A Woman Rebels in 1936, Hepburn was regarded by some in Hollywood as a brazen eccentric and by others as a courageous individualist. She lived in rented houses, alternated "romances" with Hughes and Hayward with close involvements with a succession of women, strode about in pants and other varieties of male attire, and gave interviews to the fan mags that were so strong they often went unprinted. She never hesitated to tell off Hollywood for its phoniness and unreality, and went back east to her family in Connecticut whenever her stints were completed, with her father, Dr. Hepburn, paying the bills from her earnings. "I have no money sense," she often said, "and he saves my neck." In 1933 she rented a townhouse on East 49th Street in New York's Turtle Bay section, which she later bought outright (and lived in for 63 years).
     She did come acropper with occasional returns to the stage; in one, “The Lake,” produced by the eccentric Jed Harris, one of her reputed "loves," she gave a performance so awkward and self-conscious (she and Harris quarreled over the interpretation) that it elicited Dorothy Parker's famous comment: "[Hepburn] in 'The Lake' ran the gamut of emotions from A to B." Later she tried out “Jane Eyre,” but it never reached Broadway. "Jane was too simpering and man-dependent for me," she later said, "The Broadway critics would have called it miscasting. I don't know why I ever did it." Circa 1937, age 30, Hepburn's films were palling with a public that found her a shade too individualistic and strange up against the Crawfords, Garbos and Shearers. Refusing to accept roles she felt were wrong for her, she was castigated by RKO executives as an opinionated, pig-headed snob. The press opined that she treated reporters and interviewers as Enemies. She was to tell a reporter years later about that period: “Everyone thought I was bold and fearless and even arrogant, but inside I was always quaking. But I don't care how afraid I may be inside -- I do what I think I should."
     Though she proved her comedic skills eminently in Bringing Up Baby with Cary Grant and had done creditably at Columbia with Holiday in a role she had understudied ten years before, Hepburn bought out her contract with RKO in 1938 and left Hollywood. Her films were losing money,the press had recoiled from her individualistic stances and posturings, and she was regarded at 31 as a Hollywood Hasbeen. In 1938 she was listed, among a number of once-top-drawing stars, as "Box office Poison."
     By 1940 Hepburn was back in Hollywood with a hit picture under a new MGM deal, the film version of her successful 1939 play The Philadelphia Story. She had two top stars with her, James Stewart and Cary Grant, and she was scintillating as a spoiled Philadelphia heiress whose estranged bohemian father accuses her of lacking "an understanding heart." She had shrewdly taken over rights to the play while appearing in it,and sold them to MGM at a big profit. This she also did with her next for MGM, Woman of the Year, pocketing picture profits in addition to her salary. Woman of the Year was to be her first of nine pictures with Spencer Tracy over the 25-year-period 1942-1967. They were to become one of the Great Screen Teams of All Time. In Woman of the Year she is an ace reporter humanized and brought down to earth by Tracy.
     There have been many conjectures about just what kept Hepburn and Tracy an off-screen as well as on-screen team for the next quarter-century. Her masochism certainly played a part in it.  Tracy drank, he was a grouch, and often ignored and ridiculed her; but he felt an affection for her tinged with sympathy. She in turn liked him, even felt deep affection for him, because she sensed his tortured nature, his Catholic guilt, his loneliness, his hurt over a failed marriage to a woman he never divorced, his torment over his deaf son, for whose condition he somehow (Catholic guilt transferral again) felt responsible. But for all this, Tracy as life companion was tailor-made for Hepburn. His marital status gave her the freedom she wanted. She could be motherly, feminine, concerned if she felt like it; off on her own when she felt like that; a buddy and good companion (but never drinking companion) when that was in order. Somehow it all worked for her with Tracy -- love that was more affection than sex; freedom (for wasn't he married, after all?); friendship. How much she really loved Tracy is conjectural. George Cukor put it succinctly, if possibly unfairly, when he said of their pairing: "It was a perfect example of love me little, love me long.” And it went on for 25 years, till his death.
     Hepburn's films at MGM after the first two hits were a varied lot, not always successful either with critics or the public. Keeper of the Flame (1942) turned out to be a shade too heavy-handed and political for fans; Dragon Seed (1944) showcased Hepburn inappropriately as a Chinese woman ("She'll be opening a damned laundry next!" Tracy sneered at this effort). Without Love, based on a play Hepburn had done in 1942, failed to go over that well with 1945 audiences. Sea of Grass and State of the Union, both with Tracy, were popular on the strength of their pairing, and in Song Of Love, as Clara Schumann, Hepburn demonstrated, for those who had forgotten, that she could be as tender, wise, womanly, and compassionate as any feminine star as the pianist wife of tormented composer Robert Schumann. There had been Undercurrent in 1946, a rather turgid melodrama with Robert Taylor, but in 1949 she and Tracy had a hit with the broad but trenchant comedy farce, Adam's Rib.

Tracy and Hepburn
Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn
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     The 1950s were a mixed bag professionally for Hepburn. She made The African Queen with Humphrey Bogart, about a missionary sailing down an African river with a roustabout, but Bogart got most of the praise, and an Academy Award to boot. Pat and Mike (1952), described as "a laugh riot about a wholesome, mannish female athlete and her Runyonesque big-city promoter (Tracy}" won the observation from the New York Herald-Tribune critic that "once again Miss Hepburn circles nervously and with high-pitched charm around a tolerant Spencer Tracy...a familiar tale about the high-strung thoroughbred and the steady workhorse...” -- which was as good a capsule definition of the Tracy-Hepburn typical on-screen chemistry as was ever written. But Hepburn admittedly could shine with other male co-stars. The Variety critic noted of the Hepburn-Bogart juxtaposition in The African Queen that Bogart had never had "a more knowing,talented film partner than Miss Hepburn."
     By the time of The African Queen Hepburn had been nominated five times for an Oscar (she had won once, in 1933). Hepburn was absent for three years from the screen in 1952-55 and did some stage work. Tracy was drinking more heavily, and Hepburn became ever more watchful about him. At the same time she knew when to leave him alone. She and Tracy's one and only wife, Louise, who had started a clinic for the deaf in her son's name, tolerated each other while giving each other a wide berth. (After Tracy's death, Hepburn was to express surprise when Louise Tracy told her she thought she had been "just a rumor." "Just a rumor? After 25 years?" Hepburn exclaimed.) But the unconventional nature of their relationship "high on 'buddy-stuff,' low on romance" as Taylor pal Frank McHugh once put it, would have probably lent some credence to Louise's eventual verdict on it. Tracy took a little house on George Cukor's estate which Hepburn also used on occasion. They were careful never to appear in public together, and ostensibly maintained separate domiciles. The press respected their relationship, chiefly because it was so unconventional in its defiance of the "romance” norms so common in Hollywood.
     As noted before, Hepburn had been performing assiduously on the stage, playing Rosalind in “As you Like It” on Broadway in 1950 and appearing in Shaw's "The Millionairess" in London in 1952. Seeking to expand her range, she played Shakespeare in 1955 with the Old Vic company, touring Australia, and at the American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut in 1957 and 1960. In the 1955-57 period, Hepburn was touching as a spinster seeking romance in Italy in Summertime (1955), played another late-blooming spinster in The Rainmaker in 1956, and essayed a sort of takeoff on Garbo's Ninotchka character in The Iron Petticoat with an unlikely co-star, Bob Hope, with whom she did not get along, and who rewrote the script, to her annoyance, to suit his comedy shtick.
     By 1957 she was back with Tracy in their eighth picture, Desk Set, in which she is a hotshot reference librarian for a network and he is the inventor of a computer that threatens to render her job obsolete. By this time she was 50 and Tracy was 57, but they were still sparking. The New York World-Telegram & Sun critic wrote, "When these two stars are on hand, ordinary words and deeds magically become funny, touching and thoroughly engaging." In 1959 she was to garner yet another Academy Award nomination with her role of the smother-mother who pimps for her sybaritic homosexual son in Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer
                              LOSS AND RENEWAL
     The 1960's saw one of Hepburn's greatest artistic triumphs on screen, the role of the pitiful, drug-addicted mother in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night. Hepburn had accepted the part for a pittance because she believed in it and felt she could do it justice. The critics were unanimous in acclaiming her work in this, with Bosley Crowther of The New York Times praising her "eloquent representation of a lovely woman brought to feeble, helpless ruin." Journey brought Hepburn the best-actress award at the Cannes Film Festival.
     Tracy's health began to worsen about this time and Hepburn was off-screen for five years caring for him. In a 1963 interview she gave one of her rare for-print insights into this famous relationship, telling William Carter of Women's Wear Daily, "I have had twenty years of perfect companionship with a man among men. He is a rock and a protection. I have never regretted it." Tracy in 1967 was to do his last film with Hepburn, dying soon after its completion. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? was about wealthy, liberal parents who face their moment of truth when their daughter announces that she is to marry a black man, played by Sidney Poitier. Katharine Houghton, Hepburn's niece, played the daughter. Hepburn got her second Oscar for this film, although she always regarded it as a posthumous tribute to co-star Tracy. Critics and public liked the film enormously.

Katharine Hepburn with Lord Laurence Olivier
click on photo for larger size

     After Tracy's death on June 10, 1967, Hepburn want on a short vacation "for renewal" as she put it, then threw herself into work, doing The Lion in Winter, in which she played Eleanor of Aquitaine and won a third Oscar, and The Madwoman of Chaillot about a grande dame out to rid the world of evil. Then she returned to the stage as “Coco,” a musical biography of Coco Chanel, the Parisian couturier, and though some observers thought her essentially miscast, she made a great hit in the part. In the 1970's, Hepburn did The Trojan Women (1971), a critical failure; A Delicate Balance (1973) from Edward Albee's play ("Albee and Hepburn do not seem made for each other" one critic opined); Rooster Cogburn with John Wayne ("Sentimental and winning but unsuitable miscasting of Wayne and Hepburn" was the verdict on that); Olly Olly Oxen Free, about an old lady who takes two kids on a balloon spree ("Forgettable;” "Inappropriate for her" were two critical verdicts on that); and did somewhat better with a TV movie of “The Corn is Green,” though the head-shakings that she called an inherited factor and others called palsy blurred her performance regrettably, as it indeed was to do from then on.
     In 1981 she won an unprecedented fourth award from the Academy for her understanding wife in On Golden Pond, her first pairing with Henry Fonda, who also won an Oscar as a man facing the end of his life. "Two great stars so touching and true in their poignant but accurate delineations," one critic called their stint in this.
                          THE TWILIGHT YEARS
     In 1982 Hepburn was 75 years old. The chronic shakings of her head were ever more noticeable, and she showed some signs of slowing down. Feisty and opinionated as always, she was seen with Nick Nolte in 1985 in Grace Quigley, in which she extolled the virtues of euthanasia for old people who no longer found life any fun. This met with outraged comments from some reviewers, while others praised her attempts at unsentimentalized truth. The Village Voice said, "Social conscience with a smile. Well, t'ain't funny, McGee!" Unfazed, Hepburn told interviewers she was striking a blow for "honest truth."
     In the 1970's and 1980's Hepburn had performed creditably in such TV movies as “Love Among the Ruins” with Laurence Olivier; “The Glass Menagerie” with Michael Moriarty, and in the later 1980's “Mrs. Delafield Wants to Marry” and “Laura Lansing Slept Here.” As late as 1992 she was acting in a TV drama, “The Man Upstairs” with Ryan O'Neal who, she told interviewers, reminded her somewhat of Spencer Tracy. Reviewers were, for the most part, kind to these later efforts, though the increased blurring of her performances because of the chronic, incessant head-shaking and ever-more-obvious physical enfeeblement forced them to make allowances. 1994 brought her what was essentially a "cameo" part in the Warren Beatty-Annette Bening Love Affair, though she was technically a co-star in the not-too-well-received film.
     In her final years she spent all of her time in Fenwick, surrounded by loving family members. One visitor was touched to find her poring over pictures of long-lost Tom, and muttering that she wanted to have some of them enlarged. Reportedly, a picture of him -- his last --was in a gold frame by her bedside. "I think it was the last thing she looked at just before she put out the light," the friend said....

Tracy and Hepburn in Pat and Mike
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Entire contents copyrighted 2004 - 2005 by William Schoell and Lawrence J. Quirk, except for items written by other authors, in which case said authors retain the copyright of their work . Opinions expressed by individual authors and reviewers are not necessarily the opinions of High and Low NY.