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Katharine Hepburn, Number One Actress

Updated on September 25, 2014

Number One Actress

Katharine Hepburn was a wonderfully accompished actress and has become an inspirational figure for many generations of moviegoers. She was ranked in first place by the American film Institute in their list of greatest ever Hollywood actresses and her career as a leading lady spanned seven decades during which she made over fifty films of all types, ranging from screwball comedies and romances to high drama.

She was nominated for twelve Oscars (a record) and won four, three of them after she had turned sixty.

She formed memorable partnerships onscreen with top Hollywood names such as Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy and director George Cukor but outlasted all of them and excelled just as easily on her own. She was a phenomenon, an acting colossus.

Early Days

Katharine Houghton Hepburn was born on May 12, 1907, in Hartford, CT. Her mother, also Katharine, was a feminist and suffragist. Her father, Thomas, was a doctor. Kate lived her whole childhood in

With her elder brother, Tom

Connecticut with her five siblings. In 1921, Katharine found her much loved elder brother Tom hanging by the neck in their aunt's attic while on a visit. It was never determined whether his death was a suicide or a stunt gone wrong, but his death was terribly traumatic for young Katharine, and would haunt her for years.

She was educated at the Kingswood-Oxford School before going on to attend Bryn Mawr College, where it was rumored she was expelled for smoking and breaking curfew, receiving a degree in history and philosophy in 1928, the same year she had her debut on Broadway after landing a bit part in Night Hostess. Also in 1928, while living in New York, she married Ludlow Ogden Smith. The marriage didn't last too long and they were divorced in 1934. Katharine often expressed her gratitude toward Ludlow for his financial and moral support in the early days of her career and "Luddy" continued to be a lifelong friend to her and the Hepburn family.

First Steps to Stardom

After several summers of acting in stock company productions, in 1932, Hepburn landed the role of Antiope

With Douglas Fairbanks, "Morning Glory."

the Amazon princess in The Warrior's Husband (an update of Lysistrata), which required her to wear a very short costume and debuted to excellent reviews.She became the talk of New York City, and came to the attention of the big Hollywood studios.

In her first major film, A Bill of Divorcement, Hepburn managed to upstage John Barrymore and was immediately a star. Her studio, RKO, put her straight to work: 14 films in the next six years. A year after Divorcement, she played the ingenue Eve Lovelace, a young, determined stage-struck girl, in New York City, who wants to become the "finest actress in the world" in Morning Glory and won her first Oscar.

That same year (1933), Hepburn played Jo in the screen adaptation of Little Women, which broke box-office records.

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Katharine Hepburn Trivia

Things you didn't know you didn't know

The American Film Institute voted her the greatest American female screen legend of all time.

Katharine almost became a professional tennis player.

In 1958, Katharine was named the Woman of the Year from the Hasty Pudding Theatricals.

In 1989, Katharine was the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award at the American Comedy Awards.

In 1928, Katharine received a Bachelor of the Arts degree in History and Philosophy from Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Katharine's mother, Katharine Houghton was a co-founder of Planned Parenthood.

Katharine was of English and Scottish descent.

Katharine was actually a natural red head.

She was once voted the "2nd Greatest Movie Star of All Time" by Entertainment Weekly.

Katharine turned down the role of Marilla in the 1985 telefilm Anne of Green Gables , but recommended her great-niece, Schuyler Grant for the role of Anne. Schuyler ended up playing Diana instead.

Katharine was a direct descendant of Britain's King John through one of his illegitimate children.

In 1990, Katharine was recipient of the Kennedy Center Honor.

Katharine admitted to using her brother's birthdate as her own for years.

In 1935, in the title role of the film Alice Adams, Hepburn earned her second Oscar nomination and by 1938 she was a bona fide star. Her forays into comedy with the films Bringing Up Baby and Stage Door were well-received critically

With James Stewart in The Philadelphia Story

but audience response to the two films was tepid, and the good reviews from the critics were not enough to rescue her from an earlier string of flops (The Little Minister, Spitfire, Break of Hearts, Sylvia Scarlett, A Woman Rebels, Mary of Scotland, Quality Street).

As a result, Hepburn's movie career began to decline. She went back to Broadway in 1938 with a part written especially for her in Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story. Certain of a hit, she bought the film rights to the play; thus, when it ended up a success, she was able to negotiate her way back into Hollywood on her own terms, including her choice of director (George Cukor) and co-stars (James Stewart and Cary Grant). Produced by MGM in 1940, the film version was a box-office triumph, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her work and her career was revived almost overnight.

After several years of off-and-on films, Hepburn scored another marked success with 1951's The African Queen, for which she received her fifth Best Actress nomination, losing to Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire. She played a prim spinster missionary in Africa who convinces Humphrey Bogart's character, a hard-drinking riverboat captain, to use his boat to attack a German ship.

Later Career

From the early 50's on she played a number of parts similar to the African Queen in such films as Summertime, The Rainmaker and Suddenly, Last Summer. She also received Oscar nominations for these films.

Kath and Spencer Tracy

Kath and Henry Fonda

Katharine made few films in the 60'sShe received her ninth Oscar nomination for Long Day's Journey into Night and during this decade made her last film with Spencer Tracy Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in 1967 for which she received yet another Oscar nomination and won. She also won for her portrayal in The Lion in Winter.

Katharine then spent much of the seventies in TV fare such as Love Among the Ruins, with Laurence Olivier, a movie which earned them both Emmys. She continued to work despite her deteriorating health, and she won a fourth Oscar for 1981's On Golden Pond.

She wrote her autobiography, "Me, Stories of My Life" in 1991 and did a TV film about her life based on this book.

Into her nineties and on the threshold of her tenth decade, Katharine Hepburn remained the consummate personality, actress, and star.

On June 29, 2003 she died of natural causes in Old Saybrook, Connetticut. She was 96.

An Appreciation of Katharine

Katharine Hepburn never conformed to the traditional star image, but there is no doubt that she was a super star as an actress in movies, on stage, and on television. A strong-minded, independent woman, she has lived her life and her career to suit herself. In the process she has entertained, delighted, and aroused millions, and she has done so without compromising her beliefs.

A true star. A worthy Number One.

Reader Feedback

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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      My very favorite - an amazing actress and woman.

    • tricomanagement profile image


      6 years ago

      surely a favorite of mine - thanks for the reminder

    • MusicFan57 profile image


      6 years ago

      My favorite actress of all time, truly awesome.

    • KokoTravel profile image


      6 years ago

      A wonderful tribute to a great actress... one of my favorites

    • chrisqw profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago

      Thanks Nancy, and everyone for the nice comments.

    • Nancy Hardin profile image

      Nancy Carol Brown Hardin 

      7 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      She was wonderful both in her young years and her older years. I love this lens and thanks for sharing.

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Great lens for a great actress. Her variety of roles and consistent high quality were outstanding

    • Janusz LM profile image

      Janusz LM 

      11 years ago

      Brilliant! 10 star performance :)

    • Classic LM profile image

      Classic LM 

      11 years ago

      You managed to make me speechless once again, and THAT is difficult to achieve. Keep the god stuff coming! A

    • kerbev profile image


      11 years ago from Upstate, NY

      Love her.

      great lens!


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