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Katharine Hepburn: The Madam of Movies

Updated on November 25, 2016
Katharine Houghton Hepburn (1907–2003)
Katharine Houghton Hepburn (1907–2003) | Source

Author's Forward: With 20 biographical books, her own autobiography, six movies about her life, 16 movie portrayals, and 21 published articles in various magazines and periodicals around the world, including two pictorial presentations and 80 cover photos from 1933-2003, a span of 70 years, I have nothing new to add to the information about this lady, except, perhaps, my own perception of her.

Katharine's Autobiography

The book is written in personal, conversational tone, Katharine's own voice. When reading it, you'll feel as if Katharine is speaking to you personally, sharing her life's story. A delightful read.

Childhood: Opportunistic Parenting

Katharine "Kate," was the second of six children--Thomas, (Kate), Richard, Robert, Marion, and Margaret--to Thomas Norval Hepburn, a urologist, and Katharine Martha Houghton, a women's civil rights activist. The well-to-do family resided in Hartford, Connecticut. Dr. Hepburn fought for the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, and Mrs. Hepburn actively participated in the women's suffrage movement.

The children were encouraged to express their opinions, regardless of whether Mom and Dad agreed with a particular point of view or not. Expression of opinion became a dinnertime ritual, and in spite of (or because of) the lack of the parents' religious persuasion, such expression was all important, almost sacred.

Kate had a close relationship with her father and brother Tom, who was nearly two years her elder. When the 15-year-old boy died, Kate felt a deep chasm in her psyche. Dr. Hepburn had shown the boy a hanging trick, which, presumably, had been successfully performed at least once. The boy probably had challenged himself to see how far he could go with the trick that resulted in his untimely death. Kate was the one who discovered her dead brother in his bedroom. So deeply had Tom's hanging affected the adolescent, she attempted to take Tom's responsibilities in the family and adopted the boy's birthday, November 8th, as her own. (She finally confirmed her true birthdate, May 12th, to the public in her autobiography.) Recalling Tom's death, Kate explained her parents' practical detachment. Grieving was viewed as useless, so work was always resumed quickly as an antidote to catastrophic events. Consequently, the incident was only discussed once by Mrs. Hepburn, who instructed the children never to mention it again.

Mrs. Hepburn in 1921 with her six children (left to right): Katherine, Marion, Robert, Thomas (behind mother), Richard, and Margaret (in lap).
Mrs. Hepburn in 1921 with her six children (left to right): Katherine, Marion, Robert, Thomas (behind mother), Richard, and Margaret (in lap). | Source

College Years

Kate, following the footsteps of her mother and aunts, attended Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where she majored in history and philosophy. Her scholastic performance in her early years was less than stellar, and was even put on probation for "smoking" in her dormitory room. Kate mentioned this incident in her autobiography. She had been sent a gift of flavored cigarettes, lit one, took a puff, and put it out--that was all. Her parents appealed the suspension because, after all, they were both smokers, and Kate was allowed to resume her studies.

She developed an interest in acting and performed in several college theatrical productions, her last and best being the part of Pandora in The Woman in the Moon, written by John Lyly. Kate's performance was part of the college's celebration of their "Grand May Day" celebrations, and she graduated that same year, 1928.

Later, when asked about her college years, she said, "Bryn Mawr isn’t plastic, it isn’t nylon, it’s pure gold. ... I came here by the skin of my teeth; I got in and by the skin of my teeth I stayed. It was the best thing I ever did. Bryn Mawr was my springboard into adult life. I discovered that you can do anything if you work hard enough. I feel that I was enormously lucky to come here. I am very proud when I see the name, very proud.”

The Entrance to Bryn Mawr College Today
The Entrance to Bryn Mawr College Today | Source

"I discovered that you can do anything if you work hard enough." --Katherine Hepburn

Kate in RKO Radio Pictures 1931-1938

  • 1932 "A Bill of Divorcement" with John Barrymore
  • 1933 "Little Women" with Paul Lukas
  • 1933 "Morning Glory" with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
  • 1935 "Alice Adams" with Fred MacMurray
  • 1935 "Break of Hearts" with Charles Boyer
  • 1935 "Sylvia Scarlett" with Cary Grant
  • 1936 "Mary of Scotland" with Fredric March
  • 1937 "Stage Door" with Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou
  • 1937 "Quality Street" with Franchot Tone
  • 1938 "Bringing Up Baby" with Cary Grant

Kate's First Break and RKO

Actually, when Kate first announced she was going to be an actress to her family, they were quite taken by surprise. She had set her mind, however, and there was no turning back; in fact, she had her heights set on stardom, nothing less.

She made her New York stage debut in 1928 in a production of These Days. The 1932 Broadway hit The Warrior’s Husband, however, really kick-started her career when she portrayed Antiope, an Amazon princess, who made her entrance bounding down a flight of stairs with a stag over her shoulders and knocking down her prince. No woman had ever played such an aggressive role on stage, and the audience loved it.

She turned down a contract with Paramount Pictures, but went onto RKO Radio Pictures, where she got her first film role in 1932. Her career took fire after that with a series of great performances and awards.

Kate as Antiope (1932)
Kate as Antiope (1932) | Source

Kate's Movies 1938-1959

  • 1938 "Holiday" with Cary Grant (Columbia)
  • 1940 "The Philadelphia Story" with Jimmy Stewart (MGM)
  • 1942 "Woman of the Year" with Spencer Tracy (MGM)
  • 1949 "Adam's Rib" with Spencer Tracy (MGM)
  • 1951 "The African Queen" with Humphrey Bogart (United Artist)
  • 1952 "Pat and Mike" with Spencer Tracy (MGM)
  • 1955 "Summertime" with Rossano Brazzi (London Film Productions)
  • 1956 "Rainmaker" with Burt Lancaster (Hal Wallis Productions)
  • 1957 "Desk Set" with Spencer Tracy (20th Century Fox)
  • 1959 "Suddenly Last Summer" with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift (Columbia)

Kate and Spencer Tracy

One cannot read very deeply about Kate's life without learning something about her relationship with Spencer Tracy, whom she had known and worked with for 25 years (1942-1967).

In addition to the five movies in Kate's listings, they appeared together in Keeper of the Flame (1943), Without Love (1945), Sea of Grass (1947), and State of the Union (1948). Perhaps the most dynamic of their performances was Adam's Rib, directed by George Cukor, who directed the pair in two other films. The movie was touted as the best battle-of-the-sexes comedy of its time. The most celebrated, however, was Kate's and Spencer's final film together Guess Who's Coming to Dinner about the awkward situation of a racially-mixed marriage proposal. The movie received an Academy Award for "Best Actress" (Kate) and "Best Writing, Story and Screenplay - Written Directly for the Screen" (William Rose). Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was also recognized and honored b Golden Globes, BAFTA, American Cinema Editors, Director's Gild of America, Fotogramas de Plata of Spain, Laurel Awards, and Writers Guild of America. With all the awards and recognition, however, Kate never watched a presentation of her performance with Spencer because it was their last movie together.

What made the relationship of the pair so interesting were their opposite qualities. When anyone gets behind the movie hoopla, the differences in private experiences and preferences became evident, mainly their beliefs being so opposite, with Spencer being Catholic and Kate essentially being atheist. The Directors Cukor, Stevens, Bucquet, Kazan, Lang, and Kramer undoubtedly picked up on the intrinsic differences.

With that said, no one could explain their relationship better than Kate herself with her letter to Spencer in the following video.

If you're a fan of Katharine Hepburn, you'll love this collectible.

Kate's Later Movies 1962-1994

  • 1962 "Long Day's Journey Into Night" with Ralph Richardson (Embassy Pictures)
  • 1967 "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" with Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier (Columbia)
  • 1968 "The Lion in Winter" with Peter O'Toole (AVCO Embassy)
  • 1973 "The Glass Menagerie" with Sam Waterston (Norton Simon Inc./Talent Associates)
  • 1975 "Love Among the Ruins" with Laurence Olivier (ABC Circle Films)
  • 1975 "Rooster Cogburn" with John Wayne (Universal Pictures/Hal Wallis Productions)
  • 1979 "The Corn is Green" with Ian Saynor (Warner Brothers)
  • 1981 "On Golden Pond" with Henry and Jane Fonda (ITC/IPC Films)
  • 1994 "Love Affair" with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening (Mulholland Productions)
  • 1994 "One Christmas" with Henry Winkler (Karpf-Davis Entertainment)

A Few Social Tidbits and Extras

ATHLETICISM: Kate was very athletic as a young girl, encouraged by her father, who taught her to do a back somersault.

CHILDHOOD FAMILY HOME: The family home was destroyed by the hurricane storm of 1938. Dr. Hepburn had the home rebuilt three feet higher than its previous construction. According to Elizabeth Mulholland, brick replaced wood in the refurbished home.

MARRIAGE: Kate was married on December 12, 1928, to Ludlow Ogden "Luddy" Smith, a prominent Philadelphia businessman and president of Ogden Ludlow Inc. The "Ludlow Formula" was a harbinger of computerized financial systems.

The couple met during Kate's senior year at Bryn Mawr College. Luddy was eight years Kate's senior. They separated in 1934, and Kate went to Mexico for a divorce. Some time after she filed, Luddy changed his name to Ogden Smith Ludlow in an effort to purge social records and start anew. Kate, at some point, had requested Ludlow to legally change his name during their marriage so that she would not be confused with "Kate Smith," a popular singer. Questioning the legality of a Mexican divorce, Ludlow filed officially in Connecticut on September 18, 1941. The couple had experienced a singular marriage, due to Katherine's career, for over 13 years.

In spite of distances the two never completely lost touch, however. Ludlow jump-started Kate's career after her series of box-office flops. After Spencer Tracy's death and that of Ludlow's second wife, Kate and Luddy resumed their relationship, remaining close until Ludlow's death in July 1979.

CLOSE CALLS AND HEALTH: On one occasion (between1930 and 1939), Kate was nearly decapitated by an airplane propeller while trying to avoid the media.

She suffered a life-long eye infection from filming Summertime (1955) when she forgot to close her eyes and jumped into a Venice canal for a required movie stunt.

Later, she also experienced some metal shards in one eye and had a prosthetic shoulder.

KATE'S DEATH AND BURIAL: Kate died naturally on June 29, 2003, at the age of 96, in her home located in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, and was buried at the family plot in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford, Connecticut.

KATHARINE HEPBURN CENTER: Today Bryn Mawr College offers internships, fellowships and awards to women leading publicly engaged lives to make a meaningful impact on the world.

KATHARINE HEPBURN CULTURAL ARTS CENTER: Located at 300 Main Street in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, the Center was originally built by Joseph Cone, a printer, performer, and musician, in 1911. The building was refurbished, renamed in Kate's honor, and reopened in 2005.

1979 Interview by Morley Safer of CBS's "60 Minutes"

The interview shows Kate as she was, practical, down-to-earth, honest, and possessing a self-denying, blunt humor, elements that intrinsically created her charm.

Your Movie Opinion

Of Kate's four Academy-Award-winning movies, which is your favorite?

See results

Credits and Resources (Kate's Movies, partial list) (Additional Movie Information and Trivia) (Information on Kate's Father) (Quote on Bryn Mawr College and Info on Role of Antiope) (Info on Destruction of Family Home) (About Kate's Husband) (Spencer and Tracy Movies)


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    • k@ri profile image

      Kari Poulsen 5 months ago from Ohio

      I have been a great admirer of Katharine Hepburn for years. I think my favorite movies were "The African Queen" and "Rooster Cogburn".

    • Bk42author profile image

      Brenda Thornlow 4 years ago from New York

      I love Katharine Hepburn and can't read enough about her! Thank you so much for sharing!

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 4 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      What a unique and precious comment, Eric! It would be interesting to procure a program from that performance.

      I never had the opportunity to meet Katharine; reading her autobiography was my closest encounter, I think, because the words are conversational, as if Kate were next to the reader speaking to him.

      There are many movies of hers which I have not seen. One that I recall which probably best depicts her assertiveness for acting is STAGE DOOR. She certainly was not afraid to speak her mind.

      Thank you so much for the visit and your insightful comment. There is something to be said for grace, much of which, I'm afraid, has been lost among our younger generations. Blessings!

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 4 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      I shook her hand in the Sedona Playhouse and I assume it was about 1963. She bowed at my bare feet and "was pleased to meet a boy of her heart". I think she performed a skit with Lucille Ball.

      The beauty and grace of these ladies cannot be over stated or over taught to our youth.

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 4 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      Writer Fox, how nice of you to read and comment on this hub.

      Katherine knew what she wanted to do with her life and went for it. I admire that kind of decisiveness (compared to me, who seems to be into everything and feeds on variety and versatility). Surprisingly, though, Kate was a do-it-yourself type of person and didn't mind doing her own stunts or getting her hands dirty gardening. According to information about her, she'd often arrive for film shootings without makeup and wearing slacks, an unpopular dress for women at the time.

      Thank you for reading and commenting!

    • Writer Fox profile image

      Writer Fox 4 years ago from the wadi near the little river

      Hepburn is definitely an American film icon. I never saw her in a movie when she was young, and didn't realize how attractive she was then. She certainly had a full career. Enjoyed your article!

    • Diana Lee profile image

      Diana L Pierce 4 years ago from Potter County, Pa.

      I still watch the classic films and admire these talented people. Katharine Hepburn is a legend. Well done.

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 4 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      Thank you, Eddwen, for the visit, vote, comment, and share. There are so many good hubs on Hub Pages to read that I can't keep up with them. There's so much on Katharine Hepburn, too. Hopefully, mine is different enough to warrant a reading from her admirers. Blessings!

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 4 years ago from Wales

      This was so interesting Marie; I vote up, share and wish you a great day.

      Here's to so many more hubs for us both to share on here.


    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 4 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      Thank you, MsDora, for visiting and commenting. The research on this particular hub was a bit overwhelming. I tried to focus more on Kate's family life and character, as opposed to the awards and Hollywood promotionals, although these needed to be included as well. I knew what I wanted to find from reading her autobiography. Enough said. She was a strong lady.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 4 years ago from The Caribbean

      Thank you for these insights into Hepburn's life. I am not very familiar with her movies, but I love the quote on beauty attributed to her.

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 4 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      Thank you TurtleDog and Cogerson for stopping by and commenting. In rereading, I was able to correct a couple of minor edits.

    • Cogerson profile image

      Cogerson 4 years ago from Virginia

      Congrats on your featured hub status. I will be linking this to my Kate Hepburn hub....very well done.

    • TurtleDog profile image

      TurtleDog 4 years ago

      I finally saw her in African Queen. One heck of a flick and one heck of an actress. Thanks for the post... voted up! interesting stuff

    • Marie Flint profile image

      Marie Flint 4 years ago from Jacksonville, Florida USA

      I have long admired Katharine for her strong character, perhaps one I saw lacking in myself and wanted. After my near-death experience in 2011, I picked up her autobiography at the local public library and read it cover to cover. Whenever I'm in a movie-watching mood and know that one movie choice stars Katharine Hepburn, I undoubtedly watch the one with her in it. Another once described her as "a damn-good actress!" In spite of the explicative, I agree with the sentiment.