Partner Spencer Tracy, Friend Phyllis Wilbourn
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Katharine Houghton Hepburn (May 12, 1907 – June 29, 2003) was an American actress. Known for her fierce independence and spirited personality, Hepburn was a leading lady in Hollywood for more than 60 years. She has been romantically linked to Irene Mayer Selznick, Phyllis Wilbourn, Judy Hollywood, Billie Burke, Denise Parker, Nancy Hamilton, Alice Palache, Constance Collier. In the 1950s, after Constance Collier died, Phyllis Wilbourn, went to live with Katharine Hepburn, and when she died, she was buried in the Hepburn family plot. Katherine Hepburn did not make her home with Spencer Tracy but rather within a community of women. Laura Barney Harding, Emily Perkins, Constance Collier, Eve March, Frances Rich, Phyllis Wilbourn, and finally Cynthia McFadden were the ones to provide anchor, solace, and family. Part of Hepburn’s legend has always been about forbearance: tears are for sissies. Indeed, the people of her inner circle would always be those who had the steel to grin and bear: Laura Barney Harding, Phyllis Wilbourn, Irene Selznick, George Cukor.
According to Alan Royle, Kate’s more serious female relationships included Judy Garland for several years, Claudette Colbert for over a decade, Laura Barney Harding (heiress to the American Express fortune) for much of her adult life, Judy Holliday for several months, Jane Loring (film editor) for years and Elissa Landi. As for the men in her life there was, of course, Spencer Tracy for decades, Robert Walker (although she was more a surrogate mother image than lover), Paul Henreid late in life (until he opted to remain with his wife), agent Leland Hayward, Howard Hughes, John Ford, George Stevens, John Barrymore, Jimmy Stewart, Charles Boyer, Joseph Cotten, Van Heflin, Ernest Hemingway, Kenneth MacKenna and Robert Mitchum.
Hepburn appeared in a range of genres, from screwball comedy to literary drama, and she received four Academy Awards—a record for any performer—for Best Actress. In 1999, Hepburn was named by the American Film Institute as the greatest female star of Classic Hollywood Cinema.
by George Platt Lynes
American Academy of Dramatic Arts
The Savoy, London
Hepburn's New York apartment
Raised in Connecticut by wealthy, progressive parents, Hepburn began to act while studying at Bryn Mawr College. After four years in the theatre, favorable reviews of her work on Broadway brought her to the attention of Hollywood. Her early years in the film industry were marked with success, including an Academy Award for her third picture, Morning Glory (1933), but this was followed by a series of commercial failures that led her to be labeled "box office poison" in 1938.
Filmed in the summer and fall of 1935, Sylvia Scarlett, by a novel of Compton Mackenzie, was the story of a girl (Katharine Hepburn) disguised as a boy who teams up with a con man (Cary Grant) and falls in love for an artist. It was Hepburn's idea. She brought the story to George Cukor; he liked its naughty challenge to traditional male-female relationships. For screenwriter, they engaged John Collier, a British novelist recently brought to Hollywood. It was a sympatico collaboration, despite the fact that Collier was straight. "He was fascinated, just fascinated, by the queer world," said Don Bachardy, who, with his lover Christopher Isherwood, often hosted Collier at their Santa Monica home. "He wasn't the least bit gay, but he'd pump Chris for information about parties or dates he'd gone on."
Hepburn masterminded her own comeback, buying out her contract with RKO Radio Pictures and acquiring the film rights to The Philadelphia Story, which she sold on the condition that she be the star. In the 1940s, she was contracted to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where her career focused on an alliance with Spencer Tracy. The screen partnership spanned 25 years and produced nine movies.
Hepburn challenged herself in the latter half of her life, as she regularly appeared in Shakespearean stage productions and tackled a range of literary roles. She found a niche playing middle-aged spinsters, such as in The African Queen (1951), a persona the public embraced. Three more Oscars came for her work in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), and On Golden Pond (1981). In the 1970s, she began appearing in television films, which became the focus of her career in later life. She remained active into old age, making her final screen appearance in 1994 at the age of 87. After a period of inactivity and ill health, Hepburn died in 2003 at the age of 96.
Hepburn famously shunned the Hollywood publicity machine and refused to conform to society's expectations of women. She was outspoken, assertive, athletic, and wore trousers before it was fashionable for women to do so. She was briefly married as a young woman, but thereafter lived independently. A 26-year affair with her co-star Spencer Tracy was hidden from the public. With her unconventional lifestyle and the independent characters she brought to the screen, Hepburn epitomized the "modern woman" in the 20th-century United States and is remembered as an important cultural figure.
From across the dining table at Dean Fred Manning’s house, Kath Hepburn locked eyes with Phelps Putnam, a lusty, moody, married, alcoholic poet thirteen years her senior. Right from the start there was something between them. He called her the Kid. She called him Phelpie. “I took one look at him,” Hepburn would remember, “and I was stricken with whatever it is that strickens one at once and for no reason when one looks at a member of the opposite sex. I was fascinated.” Sometime probably during her sophomore year, Kath sat down for lunch at Clynnoc, Dean Manning’s cozy Victorian residence with large windows overlooking the tennis courts. Across from her sat Putnam, a guest of Manning’s husband. Put, as friends called him, was of medium height and slender. Deep-set dark eyes complemented a luxuriant mat of black hair on his chest and arms. His voice, long and drawn out with a Boston accent, was invariably hoarse, jagged from years of asthmatic wheezing. Though he was just a little past thirty, his hair had gone prematurely gray. He possessed a brooding, Brontëan beauty. In Kath’s besotted opinion, Put’s prominent brow made for “a very handsome head.” Equally struck was Put. “[A] rising flame / Of honor and dishonor and / A gong resounding overland,” he wrote in a poem he’d later acknowledge was inspired by Kath. Just what she was doing lunching with the dean is unknown; Kath certainly wasn’t a pet of the administration. But Palache was, and it’s a good bet that she was the conduit through which Kath came to Putnam’s attention. Hailing from Jamaica Plain, a suburb of Boston across the river from Palache’s hometown of Cambridge, Put was acquainted with Palache’s sisters. Dragging Kath 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 Kath’s class, though it does not appear that they knew each other well. When that lunch occurred, however, is a bit murky. Hepburn said she met Putnam during the spring of her senior year. Despite that imprecise statement, Barbara Leaming offered enormous specificity in her biography of Hepburn. She placed the first meeting between the two during the May Day celebrations on campus and described Putnam as an aggressive suitor, inveigling a luncheon invitation at the dean’s house after seeing Kath perform on stage. Yet there is absolutely no evidence for this. Dean Manning certainly did not make it a habit to facilitate meetings between students and her husband’s friend, whose reputation as a philanderer was well known. The fact that Put had a sister in Kath’s class would have made Manning even more wary of the potential for gossip. Actually, from Putnam’s own letters, we can deduce that he met Kath considerably earlier than her senior year. He would tell Russell Davenport that his poem “Marjory” was based on her, the name chosen because it contained the same number of syllables as “Katharine.” That poem was written in 1926 and published the following year as part of Putnam’s first collection, Trinc—all well before his supposed first meeting with Kath in spring 1928.
Hepburn's only husband was Ludlow Ogden Smith, a socialite-businessman from Philadelphia whom she met while a student at Bryn Mawr. The couple married on December 12, 1928, when she was 21 and he was 29. Hepburn had Smith change his name to S. Ogden Ludlow so that she would not be known as "Kate Smith", which she considered too plain. She never fully committed to the marriage and prioritized her career. The move to Hollywood in 1932 cemented the couple's estrangement, and in 1934, she traveled to Mexico to get a quick divorce. Hepburn often expressed her gratitude toward Smith for his financial and moral support in the early days of her career, and in her autobiography called herself "a terrible pig" for exploiting his love. The pair remained friends until his death in 1979.
Soon after moving to California, Hepburn began a relationship with her agent, Leland Hayward, although they were both married. Hayward proposed to the actress once they had each divorced but she declined, later explaining, "I liked the idea of being my own single self." They were involved for four years. In 1936, while she was touring Jane Eyre, Hepburn began a relationship with entrepreneur Howard Hughes. She had been introduced to him a year earlier by their mutual friend Cary Grant. Hughes wished to marry her, and the tabloids reported their impending nuptials, but Hepburn was too focused on resurrecting her failing career. They separated in 1938, when Hepburn left Hollywood after being labeled "box office poison".
In the 1950s, after lesbian actress Constance Collier died, her "companion," Phyllis Wilbourn, lived with Hepburn, and was buried in the Hepburn family plot.
Hepburn stuck to her decision not to remarry, and made a conscious choice not to have children. She believed that motherhood should be a full-time commitment, and said it was not one she was willing to make. "I would have been a terrible mother," she told Berg, "because I'm basically a very selfish human being." She felt she had partially experienced parenthood through her much younger siblings, which fulfilled any need to have children of her own. Rumors have existed since the 1930s that Hepburn may have been a lesbian or bisexual, which she often joked about. In 2007, William J. Mann released a biography of the actress in which he argued this was the case and her partner was Laura Barney Harding. In response to this speculation about her aunt, Katharine Houghton said, "I've never discovered any evidence whatsoever that she was a lesbian." However, in a 2017 documentary, columnist Liz Smith, who was a close friend, attested to the fact that she was.
Hepburn stated in her eighties, "I have no fear of death. Must be wonderful, like a long sleep." Her health began to deteriorate not long after her final screen appearance, and she was hospitalized in March 1993 for exhaustion. In the winter of 1996, she was hospitalized with pneumonia. By 1997, she had become very weak, was speaking and eating very little, and it was feared she would die. She showed signs of dementia in her final years. In May 2003, an aggressive tumor was found in Hepburn's neck. The decision was made not to medically intervene, and she died from a cardiac arrest on June 29, 2003, a month after her 96th birthday at the Hepburn family home in Fenwick, Connecticut. She was buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford. Hepburn requested that there be no memorial service.
Hepburn's death received considerable public attention. Many tributes were held on television, and newspapers and magazines dedicated issues to the actress. American president George W. Bush said Hepburn "will be remembered as one of the nation's artistic treasures." In honor of her extensive theatre work, the lights of Broadway were dimmed for the evening of July 1, 2003. In 2004, in accordance with Hepburn's wishes, her belongings were put up for auction with Sotheby's in New York City. The event garnered $5.8 million, which Hepburn willed to her family.[
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