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Katherine Hepburn, Independent Actress

Updated on April 26, 2015

Beautiful Katherine Hepburn

The Beautiful, and Twisted Katherine Hepburn

A steely-eyed independent, Katharine Hepburn was born with a Bostonian silver spoon in her mouth and became loud as soon as she could talk. Her parents set the pattern: Dr Thomas Hepburn, a surgeon and urologist, made it his mission to educate the public about venereal disease, while his wife, Katharine, picketed the White House on behalf of suffragettes and campaigned for birth control. Although this attributes are admired these days, it led to some awkwardness in their offspring.

The Hepburns trained their six children to follow in their own socially conscious footsteps, and Kate, a good pupil, rarely won friends but often influenced people in argument, was a tortured soul Her privileged but isolated childhood, which included private tutors rather than schools, made her outwardly aggressive and self-confident, traits that alienated her peers when she went to the upmarket Bryn Mawr College at age 16. It was here that she decided to become an actress. Its not that people didn't like independence, its just that she was not a team player, it was her way or the highway, and, she was closed to other opinions that differed from those of her parents.

The start of her chosen career was inauspicious. She was hampered by a shrill voice that could turn to a gabble under stress, as happened in The Big Pond in 1928, her first New York play, in which she understudied the lead. When the star was fired, Hepburn took over, then fell apart . She arrived late for the first night fixed up her lines, fell over her feet and talked so rapidly that even the rest of the cast couldn't understand her. she followed the first lead into the street.

The Hollywood Hepburn

Kate and Spencer Tracy on Amazon

Beautiful and Hardheaded

The incident set another pattern, which she later described: "I was always getting fired. I could always get a part quickly. But I couldn't keep it. "The sight of people out there just terrified me."

Part of the problem was that the fiery Hepburn, even at 21, was no sweet young ingenue, but a dominant woman who needed parts to match. When she got one as Queen of the Amazons in The Warrior's Husband in 1932, her performance was highly praised for her own unique strength.

The Hepburn style heroine was now emerging, and Hollywood was the next stop, thanks to George Cukor who recognized the talent behind the non-conformist exterior. He directed Hepburn in A Bill of Divorcement in 1932, the movie that made her a star. She played opposite the veteran actor John Barrymore, who at age 50, she was 23, decided that he would seduce the stunning young actress. To his distress at having his advances shrugged off so lightly, he fired, "all women want to have The Great Barrymore for a lover", and spitfire Kate shot back, "well I don't."

She was highly praised for her performance with Barrymore and was now receiving good roles. She won first Oscar for Morning Glory, and performed one of her all time favorite parts, that of Jo, in Little Women in 1933. She was then cast in a string of failures that earned her the label "box office poison". The positive side of this apparent kiss of death was a switch from drama to comedy that led to some of her finest movies.

Howard Hawks was her mentor for the new genre in Bringing Up Baby in 1938, and she could hardly have had a more satisfactory leading man than Cary Grant, through her tendency to overact was hindrance at first.

But once she caught on, she was terrific, as she showed two more with Grant in Holiday in 1938 and The Philadelphia Story in 1940, before she met Spencer Tracy, on the set of Woman of the Year.

Classic Cheekbones of Katherine Hepburn

Hepburn & Tracy

The chemistry between Hepburn and Tracy produced some of the greatest films in her career, among them Adam's Rib, Pat and mike, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. It also resulted in one of the longest running and most discreetly handled romances Hollywood has known.

The love affair showed another side of Hepburn, who had always claimed the bonds of marriage and motherhood were not for her. Although she had one husband, an old family friend called Ogden Ludlow Smith, whom she married in 1928, she only lived with him for three months. Her affair with Howard Hughes also was made to play second fiddle to her career.

With Tracy it was different. he got top billing in their nine films together, and when filming stopped, Hepburn shopped, cooked, and cared for him. Marriage was never possible because the actor already had a wife, but Hepburn nursed him through his long drinking bouts and his final illness as lovingly as any spouse. Hepburn was simply too hard headed to admit that she wanted to Marry Tracy, and she knew that he was too much of a coward to divorce his wife for her.

With the exception of this interlude, her life had been a model of independence through six decades of career decisions. Her portrayals of single women isolated by circumstances who learn to love in middle age, opposite Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen in 1951, Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker, and John Wayne in Rooster Cogburn in 1975, have made her unique in an industry that usually prefers its radiant emotion under thirty. Nor had age dimmed her athleticism. Although "she can't ride worth a damn", according to John Wayne, she insisted on doing all her own stunts in Rooster Cogburn. "I haven't waited all these years to do a cowboy picture with John to give up a single minute of it now.," she stated with a conviction no one could deny.

Although she maintained the facade of satisfaction, it is believed that Kate greatly wished that she could have embraced a more conservative lifestyle when she was younger and resented women who were living the life that she truly wanted. She worked with Jane Fonda during the 70s and badgered Jane mercilessly because she had children. Kate would hiss, " If a woman chooses a career, she should not have children."

Nine years later it was the same story on The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley opposite Nick Nolte. The picture has her walking fully clothed into the ocean, a scene she did her self in the autumn on the Eastern Seaboard some half a dozen times before she was fully satisfied. The fiery and perfectionist Kate was still one very determined lady.

In her 80's Katharine Hepburn was still strong, then she suddenly became hospitalized with pneumonia. In 1997 she had become very weak and spoke very little. Signs of dementia were now beginning to show, but the strong willed Kate survived until she was 96 years old. She passed away in 2003 from a massive tumor in her neck.


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    • Uninvited Writer profile image

      Susan Keeping 

      6 years ago from Kitchener, Ontario

      Katherine Hepburn is my role model :) Loved her.

    • Deborah Brooks profile image

      Deborah Brooks Langford 

      6 years ago from Brownsville,TX

      wow this is a wonderful hub.. I am so glad I got to read it.. She was a great actress.. Great job..


    • breakfastpop profile image


      6 years ago

      I adored Kate. There really is no one like her.

    • profile image


      6 years ago

      I love old Hollywood, especially Katherine Hep! She was a great actress, especially in "Guess Who's Coming For Dinner"! I like how you wrote this and summed her life without making it the same as other bios I have read. Good work again!

    • Angela Blair profile image

      Angela Blair 

      6 years ago from Central Texas

      Ah, yes,...the magnificent Kate. She was the torch barrier for those of us who were of an independent nature and continues to be my heroine to this day. Before her, we were all doomed to housewifery (and most loved it). I've read several books on her life and she was, in fact, one of the most interesting women of her time -- just as you've stated. Wonderful, wonderful and Up! Best/Sis


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