In the Toast series today, we look back at the dazzling, dynamic Hollywood icon Katharine Hepburn who is as much remembered for her impressive repertoire of work as for her progressive, forward-thinking worldview.
The commuter train rumbled over the bridge at 6 pm, passing over a pretty saltwater inlet. Seagulls flew over the blue water, cascading through the warm New England breeze as if in a ballet. Large, white clapboard houses dotted the shore, each with its own private dock and perfect little boat, glistening in the late-day sun.
To its passengers, the bridge was an unmistakable symbol of transition, the signifier that one was leaving the ‘big city’ for the ‘little seaside.’ The distinctive, clunky sound of the elevated tracks. The idyllic shoreline view that suddenly filled the train’s panoramic windows. But which ‘big city’ and ‘little seaside?’
This was the scene when yours truly learned of the great Katharine Hepburn’s passing. It was June 29, 2003. The city? New York. The little seaside? Connecticut. What’s more, Hollywood legend has it that Katharine Hepburn did this same weekly commute. Passing away at the strong, beautiful age of 96, she was a Connecticut native who, while spending her weekdays in her New York townhouse, spent her weekends relaxing at her Connecticut estate. The quiet, blissful seaside — that was Katharine’s treasured retreat.
Katharine was an iconic Hollywood actress who never truly took to the Hollywood lifestyle. Instead, she preferred to stay close to her roots. And while she might not have taken the commuter train (probably opting for a nice private car), many Connecticans on the commuter train that day still felt a kinship with this ‘hybrid’ Katharine starlet.
Katharine Hepburn was part Hollywood, and part New York. But she was first and foremost Connecticut. It was no surprise that she passed away there — at her beloved mansion in Old Saybrook. That day, the news of her passing filled the rumbling train car with chatter. Words rang out — ‘legend’ and ‘such a strong, nice person’ and ‘trailblazer.’
But what was so legendary about Katharine? There were actresses who starred in far more movies than her. And those who embodied Hollywood starlet far more eagerly. But that’s precisely what made Katharine so legendary. Sure, it was great that her work stood for itself — cinematic treasures like ‘Little Women’ (1933), ‘Adam’s Rib’ (1949) and ‘The African Queen’ (1951). But it was even greater that Katharine ‘demanded’ that her work stand for itself. Her talent always came first. Hollywood looks, persona, and glamorous lifestyle always took a backseat.
It’s not that Katharine Hepburn lacked self-awareness. Ironically, she was unapologetically straightforward in recognizing her Hollywood ‘star quality,’ once stating, “It’s either some kind of electricity or some kind of energy. I don’t know what it is, but whatever it is, I’ve got it.” But even this bold statement positions her as a Hollywood outsider, as nowhere does she mention acting skill here. She seemed to know that ‘star quality’ is equivalent to something intangible like energy — and that’s different from acting skill.
Touché, Katharine. Someone could be an amazingly ‘electric’ Hollywood star, but were they a good actor? She wisely knew to approach each role as an actress, not a Hollywood superstar. The ‘star quality’ was just incidental. How refreshing. And emulation-worthy. Hollywood ladies, leave your tiara and emerald earrings at the door.
The Most Oscars
A four-time Oscar winner, Katharine has won the most acting Oscars in Hollywood history. She’s also been nominated 12 times, a huge feat, only surpassed by Meryl Streep (21 nominations). But just as noteworthy as Katharine’s four Oscar wins was her renowned empty chair at all those posh Oscars ceremonies. Wait, she never attended? She never stood up, walked to the podium, and grabbed that golden statuette — the ultimate in Hollywood prizes? A big no. The ritz and glitz. The public acclaim and accolade. Katharine eschewed it, instead focusing exclusively on her work.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, on May 12, 1907, Katharine probably had ‘trailblazer’ emblazoned into her cozy New England pajamas. She came from a progressive family, with both parents prominent social and health activists. Katharine was an athletic child, who loved sports like swimming and tennis, not believing these physical activities to belong only to boys. She also started acting at an early age, and found herself in Hollywood, making her first movie, in 1932, at 25. She quickly rose to stardom, winning her first Oscar with 1933’s ‘Morning Glory.’
Katharine was an acting virtuoso, a phenom. For 2021 reference, Katharine was like the ‘Original Meryl’ (Meryl Streep). She could play anything, be anything. Though she often played intelligent, independent upper-middle class women who ‘liked to wear the pants’ (both literally and figuratively, something Katharine was also ground-breaking in wearing off-screen), she still appeared comfortable in any role. Never forced in her delivery, and with an eye for both comedic and dramatic timing, she was always natural and magnetic. As the Hollywood saying goes, “The camera loved her.”
The Dynamic Duo Of Katharine And Spencer
In the 1930s, she embarked on a lovely string of hits like ‘Stage Door’ (1937) and ‘Bringing Up Baby’ and ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940). She also met the love of her life, beloved actor Spencer Tracy, while filming ‘Woman of the Year’ (1942). These two would co-star in a huge handful of movies. And their extramarital love affair would last 25 years until Spencer’s death.
Though briefly married to another man while in her twenties, Katharine never married Spencer, and by all accounts, never pressured him to leave his wife and marry her. This would’ve gone against his religious principles, and his desire to not disrupt his children’s upbringing. Katharine respected that. She herself never had children, openly believing that it would interfere with her acting career.
The ‘trailblazer’ Katharine lived by her own rules, and Hollywood and the world trusted her. She challenged her audiences to understand nuances — and not just on-screen. Both her career and life were punctuated by independence. Her second Oscar win for the progressive ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ (1967) was proof positive of this dashing Independent spirit.
A touching film about an interracial couple (the awe-inspiring Sidney Poitier and real-life Katharine Hepburn niece named Katharine Houghton), ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ was a vibrant smash hit that smashed open the doors of racial prejudice. Kudos to Katharine Hepburn for blazing another trail — this time as the non-prejudiced mom character.
She and real-life niece Katharine Houghton (another Connecticut native) were part of Hollywood history. ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ played a pivotal role in Hollywood embracing ‘realistic’ movies that spoke to contemporary society. In the late 1960s, this is where Hollywood was going. Lucky for Katharine, she was already there, ahead of the pack. One could say she was downright leading.
The Stuff Of Hollywood Heartbreak
Katharine is sheer beauty in ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.’ Her performance is pitch-perfect. What’s more, if not familiar with the final scene in which she stands in her San Francisco living room and listens to her on-screen husband (played by her off-screen love, Spencer Tracy) talk about his open-hearted, unprejudiced view on love and marriage, then run and watch this scene. It’s a must-see.
It’s one of those rare, stargazing moments in which an audience gets to see an actress (and, importantly, a human being) say goodbye to her brilliant on-screen partner and off-screen love. What a bittersweet shot to the heart. Spencer’s health was failing in this film and this was their goodbye. He passed away shortly after filming. The tears in Katharine’s eyes in this San Francisco living room is beyond heartbreaking. Grab the tissues. Cuddle with a pillow.
Katharine went on to win two more Oscars — ‘The Lion in Winter’ (1968) and ‘On Golden Pond’ (1981). But, if channeling the late great Katharine’s spirit, she might not approve of all this Oscar talk. She also might not like being ranked as the monumental #1 top female star on the AFI’s (American Film Institute’s) prestigious list of Greatest American Screen Legends compiled in 1999. Yes, this continually referenced go-to guide on Hollywood royalty might just have to reckon with Katharine’s fiercely consistent legacy. For Hollywood, she was always about the work, not the recognition. Full-stop.
The End of The Love Affair
Her final role was in 1994’s ‘Love Affair.’ Now in her eighties, and with her trademark ‘watery’ blue eyes (a Hollywood war wound from when she jumped in an Italian canal while filming 1955’s ‘Summertime’), she was still luminous on-screen. She also had her trademark ‘wobbly’ voice and head, but that didn’t stop her. She was one brave actress.
Ask anyone about Katharine Hepburn, and there’s bound to be a plethora of feedback about her movies; what a progressively modern woman she was off-screen, and even her bold ‘pants-wearing’ fashion that made it okay for women to wear pants. Yes, Katharine Hepburn permanently impacted gender fashion norms on planet Earth!
Then ask anyone about their favorite Katharine flick, there’s bound to be a rainbow, and not just her popular movies. For instance, there’s 1957’s supremely sweet ‘Desk Set.’ What a sugary treat. Not only is this the first color movie in which she and Spencer Tracy star in together, but it’s quite possibly the first movie in which tech giant IBM appears. This movie showcases a giant, clunky mid-century computer named EMERAC. It’s the size of a whole room!
Legendary. Katharine Hepburn brought Hollywood and the world forward in so many ways. No wonder New York named a street and garden after her — the great Katharine Hepburn Place and Katharine Hepburn Garden on East 49th St. Walk this little fragrant, hushed slice of Manhattan, and feel all wonderfully serene.
And back in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, there’s a beautiful sand dune that bears her name — the peaceful Hepburn Dune, surrounded by peaceful blue water. It’s about twenty minutes from where this ‘The Toast’ host once vacationed as a young girl. Small world. No, Connecticut might not be much on a map. But it was the cherished home of the most successful, celebrated Hollywood actress who ever lived. Thank you, Katharine Hepburn, for making Connecticut proud.
Catch all the features from The Toast series here.
I was once an exec for The Economist magazine. Nowadays, I'm a published poet, travel writer, and "vintage" pop culture blogger from the New York City area. I love movies, and especially those dusty old classics. I "heart" the rich history of film.