Katharine Hepburn, Hollywood Legend and Hurricane Survivor

Katharine Hepburn searching through the debris of her Fenwick home after the Hurricane of 1938.
Katharine Hepburn searching through the debris of her Fenwick home after the Hurricane of 1938. | Source
Katharine Hepburn was known for her fierce personality and also her high cheekbones!
Katharine Hepburn was known for her fierce personality and also her high cheekbones! | Source

Katharine Hepburn, a pillar of classic Hollywood, a unique beauty who was bold, fierce and independent. This Hollywood legend wasn't just an image of strength on the silver screen, she was also a survivor. A survivor that faced a category three hurricane head on and lived.

Hepburn fought back from the unfortunate label of box office poison in the mid to late 1930's but went on to win four Best Actress Academy Awards out of an astonishing 12 nominations! She still holds the record for most Best Actress Awards (yes, she has more than Meryl Streep). So is it no surprise that this same woman wasn't just as strong off the screen. Besides the love affair with Spencer Tracey and the horrible experience of finding her brother after his suicide, Hepburn also survived the Great New England Hurricane of 1938.

Actress Katharine Hepburn at age 33 (1941). Three years after surviving the 1938 Great New England Hurricane.
Actress Katharine Hepburn at age 33 (1941). Three years after surviving the 1938 Great New England Hurricane. | Source

Who is Katharine Hepburn?

Katharine Hepburn is a well-known American movie actress who acted from 1928 to 1994. She was born in Hartford, Connecticut on May 12th 1907 to an aristocratic family. Her father was a well-known doctor and her mother was the head of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association. Her intellectual parents raised her to be informed and to have her own voice, not a common practice in the early 20th century!

Katharine had a very long and turbulent career as an actress. Known for her screwball comedies, her feminist attitudes, pant suits, cheekbones and even her years as "box-office poison"! However, when her career did come to an end, she would be celebrated as a pillar of the golden age of Hollywood, eventually collecting not one but four Best Actress Oscars!

Her personal life was just as turbulent as her career. Sadly, at the young age of just 13, Kate discovered her older brother's body in Greenwich Village after an apparent suicide. This impacted for the rest of her life. She married only once from 1928-1934 to Ludlow Ogden Smith. She would never marry again but would have one of Hollywood's lasting romances with leading man Spencer Tracy from 1941 to 1967 when he passed away. A great romance, which began as an affair.

Hepburn passed away at the age of 96 on June 29th 2003 at her family beach home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut.

The original beach home of the Hepburn family at Fenwick in Old Saybrook, CT. It was completely destroyed in the 1938 hurricane.
The original beach home of the Hepburn family at Fenwick in Old Saybrook, CT. It was completely destroyed in the 1938 hurricane. | Source

Katharine Hepburn and the 1938 Great New England Hurricane

September 1938 was not a particularly good time for Katharine Hepburn. Her recent screwball comedy "Bringing Up Baby" with co-star Cary Grant was a flop at the theaters (even though it's considered a classic now!). Rumor had it, that she was hoping for the lead in the soon to be made blockbuster Gone With the Wind (but less face it, a Connecticut Yankee like Kate, would never get the part of the iconic southern belle). And even after winning a Best Actress Academy Award a few years prior, she was already being considered box office poison.

So although her career seemed to be going bad, Katharine returned to her true home. Not the city she was born in but the summer home that her family had in Fenwick, a borough of Old Saybrook, Connecticut. The house sat directly on Long Island Sound. This is where Kate felt alive! She would play golf and swim in the sound. In fact on the morning of September 21st 1938, Kate did both.

During her morning swim she noticed the usually calm waters of Long Island Sound were in fact pretty rough, unusual but not unheard of. After her dip in the water, she went to play a round of golf, a sport she was pretty good at and played in here film "Pat and Mike".

Back in 1938, hurricanes could be tracked only by eyewitness reports. Satellites and radar had not been invented yet and although the weather service existed, their forecasting skills were severely limited when it came to storms out over the ocean.

On the morning of September 21, 1938, a hurricane was off the coast of the outer banks of North Carolina. A strong storm, but it was expect to curve out to sea like majority of the storms did. Meanwhile, after a week of rain in New England, the morning of the 21st had finally cleared and those who were able to, decided to take advantage of the late summer weather. This is why Kate decided to take a nice swim in the unusually rough waters of Long Island Sound.

By afternoon, the clouds had begun to close in on the beautiful morning and the winds began to speed up. No one was aware that the unnamed storm that was off the Carolina coast was not heading out to see but straight up the eastern seaboard and at incredible speed too! In fact, the storm was racing towards New England at 60 mph!

Without warning the wind and water slammed into the south shore of Long Island and New England. The storm was a deadly surprise that caught many leaving work and school. On Fenwick, where Hepburn resided, the waters began to rise and the wind began to howl. Soon the water was crashing up onto the Hepburn home. At this point, Kate, her mother and brother climbed out the kitchen window to run for safety. They were lucky to do so. The storm surge would soon completely wash away her home on the shore.

The storm made landfall on Long Island as a category 3 storm with 120 mph winds around 2:30pm. The storm continued across Long Island Sound, making a second landfall around Milford, CT (my hometown!) just west of New Haven, CT as a category 3 hurricane with 115 mph winds around 4 pm. With this position, the strongest of the winds and storm surge were just to the east of the eye, right over Eastern Connecticut and Rhode Island, right where Katharine Hepburn lived!

The storm brought a record 10 feet storm surge to New London, CT. Even higher storm surges could be found in Rhode Island. The unnamed monster of a storm resulted in a staggering 700 deaths, 63,000 lost homes and $620 million 1938 dollars in damage, that's equal to $41 billion in 2005 dollars!!!

Hepburn was lucky to be alive after the unannounced arrival of what is also called The Long Island Express. This storm reshaped the New England coastline and forever will be one of the worst storms to hit the United States.

1938 Great New England Hurricane News Reel

Hepburn searching through debris of her family's summer cottage after the hurricane of 1938.
Hepburn searching through debris of her family's summer cottage after the hurricane of 1938. | Source
Hollywood actress, Katharine Hepburn, sitting in the muddy debris of her destroyed family beach home after the Great New England Hurricane of 1938
Hollywood actress, Katharine Hepburn, sitting in the muddy debris of her destroyed family beach home after the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 | Source
Katharine Hepburn digging through the debris of her home after the 1938 hurricane.
Katharine Hepburn digging through the debris of her home after the 1938 hurricane. | Source
Kate Hepburn sitting in a tub after the Great New England Hurricane of 1938
Kate Hepburn sitting in a tub after the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 | Source

Hepburn After the Storm

Hepburn was too storng of a person to let a little wind and water stop her in her tracks. The very day after the storm, Hepburn started shifting through the debris of her home and even posed for some photos (see above). In these photo's she perfectly illustrates the seriousness of the situation, along with some lightheartedness, as portrayed by the photo of her in the bathtub. She was determined to rebuild, however it wasn't just her home that she would be rebuilding but also her career.

After the storm, she worked to produce and star in a little play called "The Philadelphia Story", it was written just for her. After a successful stint on stage, Hepburn bought the rights to the play and turned it into the classic film by 1940. "The Philadelphia Story" Starred herself, Cary Grant and James Stewart. The film went on to receive six Academy Award nominations, of which it won two. One by James Stewart for Best Male Lead and the other by Donald Ogden Stewart for best screenplay.

The success of The Philadelphia Story put Hepburn back on track to becoming a Hollywood Legend. You have to wonder if losing her home and surviving the Great New England Hurricane of 1938 had anything to do with her amazing comeback.

Two Scenes from The Philadelphia Story

Katharine Hepburn's Academy Award Nominations and Wins

Year
Movie
Best Actress in a Leading Role
1934
Morning Glory
Won
1936
Alice Adams
Nominated
1941
The Philadelphia Story
Nominated
1943
Woman of the Year
Nominated
1952
The African Queen
Nominated
1956
Summertime
Nominated
1957
Rainmaker
Nominated
1960
Suddenly, Last Summer
Nominated
1963
Long Day's Journey Into Night
Nominated
1968
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
Won
1969
The Lion in Winter
Won
1982
On Golden Pond
Won
Katharine Hepburn was nominated a total of 12 times for Best Actress in a Leading Role by the Academy Awards and ended up winning four times!

What is your favorite Katharine Hepburn movie?

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6 comments

Denise Handlon profile image

Denise Handlon 18 months ago from North Carolina

Wow, what a great hub, Brian. I've always admired Hepburn and love her character traits-her independence, wit, and intelligence. She has always been one of my favorite actors. This hub is well researched and is complete with photos, chart of movies, and survey. I'm glad you found the news piece about the hurricane. It was interesting, and I was unaware that she was caught in this hurricane.

I was caught in Hurricane Irene, which hit a few years ago. I started driving home from work and the roads were all blocked by trees. I actually ended up sleeping in my car through the rest of the hurricane into the morning. I did write a hub about it, if you are interested.

I rate this UP / I/ U / and A Thanks!

BTW I notice that you do have quite a few garden hubs. I'll read those another time. :)


BWD316 profile image

BWD316 18 months ago from Connecticut Author

Thanks Denise! Hepburn is one of my favorite classic Hollywood stars, also a resident of my home state of Ct and to top it off, my grandma was a little girl when this storm hit and I grew up hearing her story. So this hub was not only easy but fun to put together. Thanks for your comments, I wanted to give the reader as much information as possible!

I'm definitely reading your Hurricane Irene hub, sounds like an experience, I'm glad you made it through safely! We also got hit by Irene up here in CT but I lucked out, my neighborhood never even lost power (like the only one in the entire state lol) but I did get some awesome photos of the waves and storm surge in Long Island sound!


RonElFran profile image

RonElFran 17 months ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

Very interesting. I never knew about Hepburn being affected by a hurricane. Maybe those photos served to humanize her to the public. In any case, this was informative.


BWD316 profile image

BWD316 17 months ago from Connecticut Author

Thanks RonElFran for commenting, I'm glad you found the hub informative!


alahiker28 profile image

alahiker28 16 months ago from the Deep South

Who knew? Thanks for sharing. Voted up.


BWD316 profile image

BWD316 16 months ago from Connecticut Author

Thanks alahiker28!

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