In The Warrior’s Husband, the play that would provide her lucky break, Katharine Hepburn arrived on stage carrying a dead stag over her shoulders. As Antiope, the commander of the Amazonian army, she captivated audiences with her daring beauty and athleticism. The role led to an invitation to come to Hollywood and take a screen test.
From outward appearances, Katharine, like the mythological character she played, always seemed capable, self-assured and in control of her own destiny, but she insisted that it didn’t happen overnight. “I was always in a state of terror,” said the actress, who over six decades was nominated for a dozen Oscars and won four times. “I think I’m a success, but I had every advantage; I should have been,” she said several years before her 2003 death.
Even a child born into privilege, as Katharine was, has trials to overcome, and the silver screen legend was no exception. She lost her adored older brother, Tom, early. Katharine also bore witness to her parents’ heated, sometimes violent, interactions. “There was the story of Dr. and Mrs. Hepburn ice skating. He got mad, came over and gave her a shove. She flipped backward on the ice and hit her head. It sounded like a coconut breaking on ice,” Katharine’s nephew, artist Mundy Hepburn, tells Closer exclusively.
Although not an unfeeling man, Dr. Thomas Hepburn, a urologist who fought to educate the public about sexually transmitted diseases, could be harsh. “Granddaddy was intensely loyal, but he would not hesitate to be very critical and say exactly what he thought,” says Mundy. The brunt of his criticism was often his wife, an early feminist and also named Katharine, or his oldest son, Tom. “I was told Tom was a sensitive child,” Mundy says.
Tom and Katharine, the two eldest, were especially close. “They were both good at athletics, boating, sailing and tree climbing. They both enjoyed theater and were interested in silent movies,” says William J. Mann, author of Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn.
Little Katharine, who was a decade older than her sisters, realized one day that boys had more fun. So, at 9, she cut off her hair and told her family to call her Jimmy. “I think it was rooted in her mother’s experience of being abused and disrespected,” says Mundy. “Kate took one look and thought, ‘They don’t treat my brothers the way they treat me, so I’ll be Jimmy.’ ”
On an Easter week visit to her aunt’s home in New York City, Katharine, then 13, went to wake her brother Tom and found him dead. He had hanged himself using a length of a torn bed sheet.
In the years that followed, Tom was rarely mentioned within the family. “They came from the era of ‘just deal with it,’ ” explains Mundy, who notes that his father, playwright Richard Hepburn, witnessed Dr. Hepburn’s private grief only once. “He told me, ‘I remember seeing my father with his head in his hands, crumpled up and saying, ‘Why? Why?’ ”
Tom’s death hit Katharine hard too. She assumed her brother’s November 8, 1905, birthday as her own — only revealing her true birth date in her 1991 memoir Me: Stories of My Life. “I think that she began living for Tom,” says Mann. “Much of her rebellion might have come from Tom being denied a chance to live the way he wanted. So, she did it for both of them.”
Katharine earned a degree in philosophy and history from Bryn Mawr College and wed Ludlow Ogden Smith, a Philadelphia businessman from an upper-crust family, at 21 — but those were her last concessions to what was expected of her. Although her father, Dr. Hepburn, bristled at her determination to become an actress, her mind was made up. “Her father said, ‘Well, you’re a whore.’ She said, ‘No, I’m not!’ ” says Mundy.
It wasn’t long before Katharine realized that marriage and motherhood were also not compatible with her outsized ambitions. “The minute I won the Academy Award, I got rid of Luddy,” she confessed of her husband, who remarried, had children and remained Katharine’s dearest friend for the rest of their lives.
Likewise, she also put thoughts about becoming a mother behind her. “I just wanted to be myself, and if you want to be yourself, you should not try to be the mother of four and the companion of a fascinating man,” Katharine said. “You cannot have it all.”
Yet she achieved a lot. Katharine’s screen career lasted nearly 70 years and included such classics as The Philadelphia Story, The African Queen and The Lion in Winter. Like both her parents, she became a booster for women’s rights, although she downplayed her influence. “They were real reformers,” she said. “I’ve just fought for Planned Parenthood, abortion and how to laugh at life if you can.”
She also enjoyed a great love with her costar Spencer Tracy, with whom she shared a little bungalow for 27 years despite his marriage to another. Katharine even became his caretaker in the time leading up to his death in 1967. “She had problems just like us. She struggled,” says Mundy. “But she was a good person. She meant well.”
Overall, it was a life she could be proud of. “Regrets? Of course, I’ve had regrets,” Katharine said. “[But] in the final analysis, you have got not to forget to laugh.”