106 Appleton St, Cambridge, MA 02138
Bryn Mawr College, 101 N Merion Ave, Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
Alice Helen Palache (April 12, 1907 - June 12, 1989) was a college friend of Katharine Hepburn, to whom the actress has been romantically linked.
Alice Helen Palache was the daughter of Charles Palache (1869–1954) and Helen Harrington Markham (born 1869).
If Katharine Hepburn was the archetype of the campus loner, sullen and withdrawn, Palache (as she was always known) was the gregarious overachiever, smart as a whip and involved in many extracurricular activities, from the glee club to the hockey team (of which she was the captain). “Everybody is so nice to you here that you don’t feel like a freshman at all,” Palache wrote to her father. “Everybody speaks to you whether they’ve met you or not. The campus itself is so lovely that it is a pleasure just to be here anyway.” (This was written at the same time Hepburn was hiding out in her room.) Other classmates were:
Alita Davis, the niece of Dwight Davis (former governor-general of the
Philippines). Alita topped them all by being presented at Buckingham Palace,
ironically by Hepburn’s grandaunt Mrs. Alanson B. Houghton.
Hope Yandell, introduced at the Colony Club in 1925.
Ali Barbour, short for Alice, a doe-eyed beauty whose father, Colonel Lucius Barbour, served as commander of the governor’s foot guard. The Barbour family, like most of Hartford’s elite, owned a house at Fenwick, not far from the Hepburns’. Cheered on by her friend (Ali “had nerve to burn,” Hepburn would remember), Hepburn concocted a game of sneaking into the empty summer homes. The girls snooped around, pulling open drawers, lolling about on the divans.
Palache was Ali Barbour’s roommate in Merion Hall, where freshmen were sometimes placed two to a room. Her letters home reveal how devoted Palache was to her classmates. When Ali (or Alita or Hope) didn’t stay on campus for weekends, Palache found herself “desolate.” A plain girl, she lived for her friends’ tales of amour with boys from other schools. “Ali Barbour has just returned from a weekend at Princeton and consequently is not yet coherent,” Palache gushed to her mother in late 1924 or early 1925. “So I shall soon go to bed and hope at least for a somewhat organized account of her exploits tomorrow.” Palache kept tabs on everyone. She knew, for example, that Ali’s Princeton beau had eloped with another girl even before Ali did. “She was somewhat worried,” Palache wrote, “as he hadn’t written her in two weeks, exactly the time he eloped.” It was “altogether quite horrible,” Palache said, to have to keep the truth from her friend.
It would be through the spunky, devoted Alice Palache that Hepburn discovered not only the formula for succeeding at college but also the relationship dynamics that would define the rest of her life. Her better grades can also be attributed to her deepening friendship with the industrious Alice Palache, for whom Hepburn replaced the much-lamented Ali Barbour. “Kath really is a wonderful girl,” Palache wrote home. “She makes me feel quite gay, and when I’m not with her, I wish I were.” The two girls had much in common. They were both nineteen and had never had a beau to call their own.
Like Hepburn, Alice Palache came from a comfortable upper-middle-class background. Her father was Charles Palache, a professor of mineralogy at Harvard; her mother, Helen Markham, a founder of the Buckingham School for Girls in Cambridge. Palache’s dark features and unusual name—pronounced “pa-LAH-chee”—led some to presume she was Italian, but her father was descended from Sephardic Jews. Like the Hepburns, the Palaches stood a little apart from the community. But Dr. Palache, like Hepburn's father, had distinguished himself professionally as president of the Mineralogy Society of America. Meanwhile, his articulate wife, like Hepburn's mother, championed opportunities for women. That some considered his three accomplished daughters (Alice, Mary, and Jeannette) a bit offbeat seems not to have disturbed Charles Palache. His granddaughter Jude Gregory would remember him teaching her to value eccentricity and difference in a single phrase borrowed from the poet Robert Owen: “All the world is queer save thee and me, and even thou art a little queer.” Alice, in other words, seems to have grown up in an environment that prized original thinking every bit as highly as did the Hepburns. One significant difference became obvious the first time Hepburn took Palache home to Hartford. “I never in my whole life saw my father naked, never,” Palache said—but there was Hepburn's father, coming out of his bath, not bothering to cover up and talking a blue streak as he reached out to shake the blushing girl’s hand. It was all Palache could do to keep her eyes on his face. And it didn’t end with Dad. “We’d all sit around,” Palache said, “boys and girls together, without many clothes on, and nobody paid much attention one way or another, which was brand new to me.”
Although Hepburn now had a roommate—her socialite friend Hope Yandell—most of her time was spent with Palache in the Thomas library. One can walk up that curved teakwood stairwell today, emerging into the gargantuan reading room with its vaulted ceiling and hung with the fragrance of old books, to imagine Hepburn hunched over one of the tall partitioned desks, Palache standing beside her. Quizzing her friend in whispered tones, Palache would shake her head at incorrect answers and clap Kath on the back when she got it right. When Hepburn grew tired or frustrated, which was often, Palache would refuse to let her quit, holding her down by the shoulders if need be. “She was plenty smart, but she was badly trained,” Palache said of Hepburn. “She used to memorize practically everything, and it nearly got her down with philosophy because you really couldn’t [employ memorization in philosophy]. I used to help her with it, although I didn’t know much about philosophy.” For Palache, studying just came so much easier than it did for Hepburn. “I could hear her brains going around,” Hepburn would remember, “and I’d die of jealousy.” Alice Palache was one of those girls who thrived on college life, effortlessly juggling everything. In her letters home, she was forever using the word hectic to describe her days. After classes, she’d sew costumes for the glee club, then race across campus to meet with President Marion Edwards Park as a student representative. In the winter there was hockey; in spring there was baseball, “the new fad on campus,” for which Palache signed on as pitcher. “I am so swamped in things I have to do,” she wrote to her mother. “I really get more and more appalled at what one has to accomplish in any given time in this place. I can’t wait for a period period of real leisure to arrive.” Yet she wasn’t really so appalled; her letters weren’t complaints.
Palache adored her time at Bryn Mawr, so much so that she never really left: in her postgraduate life, she’d sit on the college’s board of directors. For Hepburn, Palache’s tutoring paid off. For the rest of her life, she’d insist that Bryn Mawr owed Palache two diplomas, one for herself and one for Hepburn. Indeed, by the end of the first semester of her junior year, Hepburn’s marks showed such improvement that Palache encouraged her to try out for the spring production of A. A. Milne’s The Truth About Blayds. Hepburn agreed, finally breaking out of her self-imposed exile. The once-withdrawn girl was now flinging off her clothes every chance she got, whether to splash naked in the cloister fountain after a long night of studying or to brave a blizzard bareass on the roof of her dorm. Watching her, the girls of Bryn Mawr must have wondered who this new student was, and where she had suddenly come from.
That the autumn of 1926 marked a turning point is underscored by the fact that, almost overnight, Hepburn went from being known as the sullen “Katharine” (or occasionally “Kay”) to being hailed as “Kate.” Although she’d still think of herself as “Kath,” the name used by her parents, she allowed Palache to use the new nickname, and others followed suit. There they sit, Kate Hepburn and friends, hunkered down in Palache’s room in Merion Hall late at night, drinking cups of hot muggle—thick melted chocolate cut with steamed condensed milk. Palache always made sure to have it handy, knowing Kate’s voracious cravings for all things chocolate. Sometimes they’d wash down chocolate-covered strawberries or peanuts with the muggle, their sugar buzzes spiraling ever higher, making them sillier by the minute. But their talk wasn’t about boys or clothes the way it was among other girls. Instead, they traded stories of their own exploits, of sneaking into the village for ice cream or over to Haverford for a movie. Always they’d be seated in a circle, and Kate, more often than not, was smack dab in the middle.
In letters to her sisters, who had attended Bryn Mawr before her, Palache was frequently effusive about how “attractive” she found her fellow students. One, in particular, was Gertrude Macy, then a junior and later to be Broadway actress Katharine Cornell’s companion. “She sits right in front of me,” Palache wrote to her sister Mary. “Gert’s hair does fascinate me.” Apparently, Mary had also told her to be on the lookout for another girl, one Bette Whiting, for when Bette asked Palache to dance at a freshman party, the younger girl was overjoyed. There were others, too, that Palache kept her eye on: “Yes, I did ask to dance with Emily Glessner,” she wrote to Mary, “but she was not on my card.” Girls dancing with girls, of course, was nothing remarkable on a campus devoid of boys. Yet the fact that such intimacy sometimes led to passionate feelings should also not be surprising. While it’s true that, for most, same-sex crushes were just a passing phase, for others these feelings didn’t end at graduation, as we understand much better today. Some girls found their college crushes only the beginning of a lifelong orientation toward other women. And this may have been the case for Alice Palache. Her letters reveal nothing sexual—they were mostly written to her parents, after all—but they do make plain that her crush on Hepburn was heartfelt. Preparing to spend a weekend with the Hepburns in Hartford, Palache wrote to her mother asking for her “orange and lace evening dress.” She wanted to look “special,” she explained later, so that “Kate wouldn’t be sorry she brought me home.” Virtually every letter contains a mention of “my darling Kate”: “Kate and I” did this; “Kate thinks” that. On Christmas gifts for her sisters, Palache signed Kate’s name as well as her own. And while frequently commenting on the beaux of other girls, not once does Palache suggest that she herself might be interested in a boy. When a rumor went around that she was engaged to Charlie Caddock, a family friend who’d visited, Palache was “to no end amused.” Toward the end of her junior year, she wrote that she had “no time for anything or anybody—except Kate, of course, always my Kate.”
Some in her family, when questioned about their aunt, could not see Palache as anything other than traditionally heterosexual. Others took a more nuanced view. Her grandniece Cadigen Wiley recalled a definite gay presence among friends of the three Palache sisters. “And of the three,” she mused, recalling the sisters, “Alice was the warm, loving, passionate one. So if any of them would have been in touch sensually that way, it would’ve been Alice.” Palache would, in fact, marry, but quite late in life. In her postcollege letters, however, she would continue on exactly as she had as a girl, never mentioning any beaux while frequently writing to her mother and sisters about impassioned friendships with other women. By the 1940s, she had grown close enough to one woman to spend the holidays with her and to want to bring her home so that Professor and Mrs. Palache might meet her. “I know you’d both like her,” she wrote. And through all of this, whenever Kate Hepburn was in town, Palache would drop everything and everybody to see her. How did Hepburn return Palache’s feelings? After all, here was a girl who’d grown up with feminist and lesbian role models, who’d always instinctively identified with males, who’d just seen The Captive on Broadway. Given such a context, it’s neither inconceivable nor even very radical to consider the possibility that sexual experimentation occurred—if not with Palache, then with someone else in her clique. “They were definitely the experimenting kind,” agreed the relative of Hepburn’s friend. “I always got the impression from my [relative] that they were very sexually free and adventurous.” Yet despite their rebellious natures and tomboy reputations, all of Hepburn’s college pals would go on to marry and, except for Palache, have children—although Lib Rhett and Alita Davis took the time to become semi-professional athletes first (Lib in badminton, Alita in tennis). Both women settled down at the relatively advanced age of twenty-eight.
Palache was the conduit through which Hepburn came to Phelps Putnam’s attention. Hailing from Jamaica Plain, a suburb of Boston across the river from Palache’s hometown of Cambridge, Putnam was acquainted with Palache’s sisters. Dragging Hepburn along with her to a gathering at the dean’s, Palache likely made the first introduction. There was another connection on campus as well: Putnam had a sister, Frances, in Hepburn’s class, though it does not appear that they knew each other well. In May 1929, with Putnam and Palache, Hepburn attended Russell Cheney’s annual art opening at the Babcock Galleries. At some point, she also sat for a portrait by Cheney, who adopted Putnam’s habit of calling her “the Kid.”
Palache settled down, marrying her longtime friend Russell Jones and moving to upstate New York. In the late 1970s, Palache approached Kate about making a documentary film on Carey Thomas of Bryn Mawr. Ringing David Eichler, whose research skills she trusted, Hepburn asked him if the stories about Thomas being a lesbian were true. Eichler compiled a dossier and mailed it off to Hepburn in November 1977. “Of course,” he wrote, “I’m always suspicious of gossip in these matters so I’m inclined to adopt the ‘one swallow doesn’t make a summer’ theory. But when it comes to two swallows [Thomas’s two successive female companions]— well, you’ll see what I mean when you read it.” Hepburn’s life, of course, was overrun with swallows. Not surprisingly, the documentary on Thomas was never made.
At the end of her life, Palache thought Hepburn’s treatment of Phyllis Wilbourn was “just awful.” Yet Palache understood, down deep, that Hepburn adored Phyllis. “She’ll tell you she’s the most marvelous person—‘and how she can stand me I don’t know,’” Palache said, quoting Hepburn. “But from Phyllis’s point of view, I’m sure she wouldn’t do anything else in the world. It’s her life. It’s just absolute total devotion."
Alice Palache died on 12 June 1989, at the age of 82.
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