American Legends: The Life of Katharine Hepburn
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She was "bold, brainy, beautiful, and an independent individual and empowered woman at a time when neither of those things was particularly in fashion, and combined in one person were probably intolerable. Hepburn was born in Hartford, Connecticut , to Dr. Her father insisted that his children be athletic, and encouraged swimming, horse riding, golf , and tennis. Hepburn, eager to please her father, emerged as a fine athlete in her late teens. Hepburn especially enjoyed swimming, and regularly took dips in the frigid waters that fronted her bayfront Connecticut home, generally believing that "the bitterer the medicine, the better it was for you.
Hepburn would come to be recognized for her athletic physicality—she fearlessly performed 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 the Kingswood-Oxford School before going on to attend Bryn Mawr College, receiving a degree in history and philosophy in , the same year she had her debut on Broadway after landing a bit part in Night Hostess. Hepburn married socialite businessman Ludlow "Luddy" Ogden Smith in , whom she had met while attending Bryn Mawr and married after a short engagement.
They were divorced in Mexico in Fearing that the Mexican divorce was not legal, Ludlow got a second divorce in the United States in and a few days later he remarried. Although their marriage was a failure, Katharine Hepburn often expressed her gratitude toward Ludlow for his financial and moral support in the early days of her career. Hepburn began acting in plays at Bryn Mawr and later in revues staged by stock companies. During her last years at Bryn Mawr, Hepburn had met a young producer with a stock company in Baltimore, Maryland , who cast her in several small roles, including a production of The Czarina and The Cradle Snatchers.
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The producer had fired the play's original leading lady at the last minute, and asked Hepburn to assume the role. Terror-stricken at the unexpected change, Hepburn arrived late and, once on stage, flubbed her lines, tripped over her feet, and spoke so rapidly that she was almost incomprehensible. She was fired from the play, but continued to work in small stock company roles and as an understudy.
Later, Hepburn was cast in a speaking part in the Broadway play Art and Mrs. After another summer of stock companies, Hepburn landed the role of Antiope, the Amazon princess in The Warrior's Husband, in , which debuted to excellent reviews. Hepburn became the talk of New York City , and began getting noticed by Hollywood.
RKO was delighted by audience reaction to A Bill of Divorcement and signed Hepburn to a new contract after it wrapped. Though she was headstrong, her work ethic and talent were undeniable, and the following year , Hepburn won her first Oscar for best actress in Morning Glory. Hepburn felt it was time to make her return to the theater after Morning Glory.
She chose The Lake, but was unable to obtain a release from RKO and instead went back to Hollywood to film the forgettable movie Spitfire in Having satisfied RKO, Hepburn went immediately back to Manhattan to begin the play, in which she played an English girl unhappy with her overbearing mother and wimpy father. In , in the title role of the film Alice Adams, Hepburn earned her second Oscar nomination. By , Hepburn was a bona fide star, and her foray into comedy with the films Bringing Up Baby and Stage Door was well received critically.
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But audience response to the two films was tepid and Hepburn's movie career began to decline. Some of what has made Hepburn greatly beloved today—her unconventional, straightforward, anti-Hollywood attitude—at the time began to turn audiences sour.
Katharine Hepburn - New World Encyclopedia
Outspoken and intellectual with an acerbic tongue, she defied the era's "blonde bombshell" stereotypes , preferring to wear pantsuits and disdaining makeup. She could also be prickly with fans—though she relented as she aged.
Early in her career, Hepburn often denied requests for autographs, feeling it an invasion of her privacy. Even so, her refusal to sign autographs and answer personal questions earned her the nickname "Katharine of Arrogance" an allusion to Catherine of Aragon. Soon, audiences began staying away from her movies.
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Yearning for a comeback on the stage, Hepburn returned to her roots on Broadway, appearing in The Philadelphia Story, a play written especially for her by Philip Barry. She purchased the film rights to the play and sold the rights to MGM, which adapted the play into one of the biggest hits of She enhanced Stewart's performance, and in turn he received an Oscar. Her career was revived almost overnight. Behind the scenes the pair fell in love, beginning what would become one of the silver screen's most famous romances, despite Tracy's marriage to another woman.
They became one of Hollywood 's most recognizable pairs both on-screen and off. Hepburn, with her agile mind and distinctive New England accent, complemented Tracy's easy, working-class machismo. Indeed, her stylish career women — so popular during the war years — were never as independent as we like to remember them, and she usually submitted to some kind of onscreen drubbing from her male co-star.
Those memorable battles of the sexes with Spencer Tracy? Hepburn always ends up on the losing side. She seemed to understand that her culture extracted certain forms of payback from the independent females whom it occasionally celebrated Hepburn became an American Rorschach test, mirroring the ways we wanted to see ourselves. Each generation redefined her, rubbing out and adding to her myth.
View all New York Times newsletters. By the time of her death, Katharine Hepburn had come to stand for Yankee common sense, Emersonian self-reliance and an all-American ethic of hard work.
But there was so much more. The limited fictions used to elevate and sell the lives of public figures often form a cloudy chiaroscuro that covers their true humanity. Like many men and women of her time and every other, she had to deal with being different. She was forced to invent a role for the kind of woman she was — her own kind. Labels — sexual, political, artistic — hold little meaning when talking about her. Sex, love and marriage were only the beginnings of the things she had to learn, re-make and often reject. Hepburn was human, a fact we sometimes forget about the very famous.
Born for the Part
Only the whole truth can do credit to what our heroes did with the actual challenges they faced. People who live worthy lives can stand up to scrutiny. Happy birthday, you old troublemaker. Tell us what you think. Please upgrade your browser. See next articles. Newsletter Sign Up Continue reading the main story Please verify you're not a robot by clicking the box. Invalid email address. Please re-enter.