Katharine Houghton Hepburn (May 12, 1907 – June 29, 2003) was an iconic star of American film and stage, widely recognized for her sharp wit, New England gentility and fierce independence. A screen legend, Hepburn holds the record for the most Oscars for best actress won at four. She was nominated for twelve Best Actress Academy Awards, the record for nominations until 2003, when Meryl Streep earned her 13th nomination for Adaptation. Hepburn won an Emmy in 1975 for her lead role in Love Among the Ruins, and was nominated for four other Emmys during the course of her acting career. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Hepburn the greatest actress of all time.
Hepburn's early years
Hepburn was born in Hartford, Connecticut to a successful urologist, Thomas Norval Hepburn, and a suffragette, Katharine Houghton Hepburn. Hepburn's father was a staunch proponent of publicizing the dangers of venereal disease in a time when such things were not discussed, and her mother advocated birth control and equal rights for women. "We were snubbed by everyone, but we grew quite to enjoy that," Hepburn later said of her unabashedly liberal family, who she credited with giving her a sense of adventure and independence.
Her father insisted that his children be athletic, and encouraged swimming, riding, golf and tennis—a characteristic for which Hepburn would later become recognized. Hepburn excelled at physicality, fearlessly performing her own pratfalls in films such as Bringing Up Baby, which is now held up as an exemplar of screwball comedy.
She was educated at Bryn Mawr College, receiving her drama degree in 1928, the same year she debuted on Broadway after landing a bit part in Night Hostess. A banner year for Hepburn, 1928 also marked her nuptuals to socialite businessman Ludlow Ogden Smith, whom she had met at Bryn Mawr. Hepburn and Smith's marriage was rocky from the start—she insisted that he change his name to S. Ludlow Ogden, so she would not be called the "too ordinary" name of "Mrs. Smith". Succumbing to the pressures created by Hepburn's burgeoning film career, the couple divorced in 1934.
Hepburn's film career begins
Hepburn continued to work in theater, suffering her fair share of bad reviews. Her acting in The Lake resulted in Dorothy Parker’s famous remark that Hepburn "ran the gamut of emotions from A to B." Her big splash on Broadway came with the 1932 play The Warrior’s Husband (an update of Lysistrata) in which she played an Amazon princess. She entered the stage by leaping down a flight of steps while carrying a large stag on her shoulders—an RKO scout was so impressed by this feat that he offered her a film contract.
But in true Hepburn fashion, she demanded an outlandish $1,500 per week for film work (at the time she was earning $80 per week). After seeing her screen test for A Bill of Divorcement (1932), RKO agreed to her demands and cast her, launching her film career aside legendary actor John Barrymore and director George Cukor, who would become a lifetime friend.
Though she was headstrong, her work ethic and talent were undeniable, and the following year (1933), Hepburn won her first Oscar for best actress in Morning Glory. That same year, Hepburn played Jo in the screen adaptation of Little Women, which broke box-office records. In 1935, in the title role of the film Alice Adams, Hepburn earned her second Oscar nomination. By 1938 Hepburn was a bona-fide star, and her foray into comedy with the film Bringing Up Baby was well-received both critically and at the box office. But it was not enough to rescue her from an earlier series of flops such as The Little Minister (1934), Spitfire (1934) and Break of Hearts (1935), and her career began to decline.
Box office poison
Some of what has made Hepburn greatly beloved—her unconventional, straightforward, anti-Hollywood attitude—also began to turn audiences sour. Outspoken and intellectual, she defied the era's "blonde bombshell" stereotypes, often choosing to wear pants suits and no makeup. She also had a famously difficult relationship with the press, turning down many interviews. Hepburn's aversion to media attention did not thaw until 1973, when she appeared on The Dick Cavett Show.
She could also be prickly with fans—though she relented as she aged, in her early career Hepburn often denied requests for autographs. She was saddled with the label "difficult to work with", an attitude that earned her the nickname "Katharine of Arrogance" among directors and crew. Soon audiences began staying away from her movies.
In 1939, Hepburn's career came to what was perhaps its lowest point when she lost out on the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind. It was around this time that a publication branded her "box office poison". Hepburn's retort was quick and telling: "Not everyone is lucky enough to understand how delicious it is to suffer."
Smarting, Hepburn returned to her roots on Broadway, appearing in The Philadelphia Story, a play which Philip Barry, the screenwriter for an earlier Hepburn film Holiday, wrote especially for her. She played spoiled socialite Tracy Lord to rave reviews. On the advice of millionaire Howard Hughes, who at the time was her lover, she purchased the rights to the play and turned it into a hit movie, which she appeared in with Cary Grant and James Stewart and was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. Her career was revived.
Hepburn and Spencer Tracy
In 1942, Hepburn made her first appearance opposite Spencer Tracy in Woman of the Year. Behind the scenes the pair fell in love, beginning what would be one of Hollywood's most famous romances.
Hepburn in all filmed nine movies with Tracy, including Adam's Rib and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, for which Hepburn won her third Best Actress Oscar. They are one of Hollywood's most recognizable screen pairs, and have in large part become the standard by which other screen romances are judged. Hepburn, with her sharp wit and New England brogue, complemented Tracy's easy working-class machismo, and he seemed to be the only one Hepburn would allow to tame her. When Joseph Mankiewicz introduced them, Hepburn said "I'm afraid I'm too tall for you, Mr. Tracy." Mankiewicz retorted: "Don't worry, he'll soon cut you down to size."
As The London Telegraph observed in Hepburn's obituary, "Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were at their most seductive when their verbal fencing was sharpest: it was hard to say whether they delighted more in the battle or in each other."
The pair were openly in love with one another but never married, though Tracy lived with Hepburn. Tracy, a devout Catholic, had been married to another woman since 1928 and remained so until his death. Hepburn, out of respect for his family, did not attend Tracy's funeral.
Before Tracy, Hepburn had relationships with Leland Hayward and Howard Hughes. Hepburn figures in Martin Scorsese's 2004 biopic of Hughes, The Aviator, portrayed by actress Cate Blanchett, who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for the role. Blanchett, who thanked Hepburn during her acceptance speech, had carried one of Hepburn's silk gloves in her purse during the Oscars for luck.
The African Queen
Hepburn is perhaps best-remembered for her role in The African Queen (1951), for which she won her second Best Actress Oscar. 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.
Filmed on location in Africa, most of the cast and crew suffered from malaria and diarrhea—except director John Huston and Bogart, neither of whom ever drank any water. Hepburn disliked their nightly indulgences and, like her character in the film, took comfort in the Bible. The trip and the movie made such an impact on her that she wrote a book about that portion of her life: The Making of The African Queen: Or, How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind, which made her a best-selling author at the age of 77.
Hepburn died on June 29, 2003 at 2:50 p.m., at Fenwick, the Hepburn family home, in Old Saybrook, Connecticut. She was 96. In honor of her early roots in the theater, after her death the bright lights of Broadway were dimmed.
Her autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life, was published in 1991. The book Kate Remembered, by A. Scott Berg, was published a mere 13 days after her death; it documents the friendship between the actress and biographer.
Hepburn's professional legacy is today carried on within her family. Hepburn's niece is actress Katharine Houghton, who appeared with her in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967). Hepburn's grand-niece is actress Schuyler Grant.
In 2004, in accordance with Hepburn's wishes, her personal effects were put up for auction with Sotheby's in New York. Hepburn had meticulously collected an extraordinary amount of material relating to her career and place in Hollywood over the years. The auction netted several million dollars, which Hepburn willed mostly to her family and close friends.