TRIBUTE TO Katharine Hepburn

Special Thoughts for FILMS FOR TWO
by Sharon Levine Waldman 

I have always admired Katharine Hepburn, but re-examining her life and career for this Tribute gave me many more reasons to celebrate her. Yes, Hepburn holds the all-time record for most Oscars won by an actor (4) and the second-most nominations (12), and yes, her 52-film/33-play career spanned seven decades. But that’s just a part of it.

She won a lot of other awards too. Ranked the #1 actress of the century by the American Film Institute and chosen Best Classic Actress of the 20th Century by Entertainment Weekly, Hepburn won an Emmy, three Best Actress BAFTAs, Best Actress at Cannes and Venice and two People’s Choice Awards — among many others.

Another big part of her significance is the impact she had as a role model for women. Her unique persona captured the public’s imagination, and the parts she played reflected a new kind of woman: confident, independent and able to hold her own with a strong male partner.

Kate was lean and athletic and liked to do her own stunts. But she was also sleek and graceful, luminous on camera, with a face that radiated her feelings to the audience. 

Much has been written about her living her life “like a man” — forceful, confident, outspoken and determined — but less about her compassion, ability to laugh at herself, and devotion to family. She was as admirable in life as in the characters she played. 

Hepburn was a successful and innovative businesswoman who took charge of her own career at a time when most actors were contractually restricted by the studios. She refused projects she didn’t like, buying out her contract to avoid doing lesser projects. She learned early on that owning the rights to projects gained her the power to make creative decisions. She also knew the subtleties of power play, like augmenting her 5’7” height with high heels and upswept hair so that she towered over studio bosses. 

Hepburn flouted fashion’s rules, wearing slacks and sneakers when most women wore girdles, petticoats, stockings, garter belts and high heels. “Stockings are an invention of the Devil,” she declared, and refused to wear them. She wanted to be comfortable. Once, when RKO brass took away her slacks (to force her to wear a skirt), she walked around the lot in her underwear until they returned them. Kate’s pants became a symbol of independence for women, liberating them to be more active and have more choices. 

“In 1930, she wore pants and suits considered scandalous; today, they are sensational,” said designer Calvin Klein, honoring Hepburn with a lifetime achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers in 1986. “They have prompted generations of fashion designers to capture her vitality and spirit.”

Kate, who never attended awards ceremonies, showed up for this one, quipping, “We’re in a pretty serious spot when the original bag lady wins a prize for the way she looks.”

Hepburn’s personal style, honesty, strength of spirit and ability to live on her own have already influenced three generations of women to be more educated, more independent and more active. 

Born May 12, 1907, in Hartford, Connecticut, she was deeply influenced by her parents, social activists who encouraged their children to develop mind and body, work hard, shoulder responsibility, treasure family, and keep going, no matter what. Her father, Dr. Thomas Norval Hepburn, a distinguished urologist/surgeon at Hartford Hospital, was a pioneer in the use of contraceptives to fight venereal disease. Her mother, Katharine Houghton (Kit) Hepburn, was a Boston socialite who worked to promote birth control/family planning, African-Americans’ civil rights and votes for women. The Hepburn house was a meeting ground for famous social reformers, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, Margaret Sanger, and George Bernard Shaw.

Kate (called Kathy) was an athletic tomboy, excelling at golf, tennis, swimming and diving. She swam in the ocean or a pool every day, until age finally slowed her down.

At the age of 13, she discovered her older brother Tom’s body when he accidentally hanged himself. After this tragedy, she left public school for private tutors. At Bryn Mawr College, Kate took a speech course and acted in a few plays, graduating in 1928 with a degree in history & philosophy.

After graduation, Kate moved to Manhattan, where friends introduced her to the theater. She married Ludlow Ogden (“Luddy”) Smith in 1928, but soon realized that she wanted to be free. They divorced in 1934 but remained friends. 

Hepburn’s first small parts on the New York stage attracted some attention, but she was fired twice. Undaunted, she kept striving to improve. She was inspired by actress Laurette Taylor and later, Spencer Tracy: “They were both like baked potatoes; fundamental, basic, rough in a way… No agony of preparation — like the Method — no constipation.”

Hepburn understudied Broadway star Hope Williams, who had “a slim figure, a boy’s haircut, and an arm-swinging stride. The half-boy, half-woman had been born,” Hepburn noted. Hope was to star in The WARRIOR’S HUSBAND in 1932, but ended up doing another play, so Kate got her role. 

Kate’s entrance in the play created a sensation: clad like an Amazon in a short tunic, she bounded down 20 steps with a stag over her shoulder, jumped the last four steps, threw the stag on the ground and landed on one knee. This got Hollywood’s attention.

At RKO, director George Cukor hired her for BILL OF DIVORCEMENT, starring John Barrymore. The film was a hit, and the sympatico Cukor and Hepburn became lifelong buddies and collaborators.

Hepburn made five more films for RKO between 1932 and 1934. Her “Jo March” in LITTLE WOMEN is widely beloved, and she won her first Academy Award for MORNING GLORY (1933). 

Kate carried on a lighthearted romance with agent Leland Hayward for four years, but when she wouldn’t marry him, he wed actress Margaret Sullavan.

Howard Hughes went to great lengths to meet and impress Kate, twice landing his airplane near her. They traveled together, and he taught her to fly. But they were both headstrong, and after living together for three years, they parted as friends.

Hepburn returned to Broadway in 1934 to star in THE LAKE, but was panned by Dorothy Parker, who famously declared that Hepburn “ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B.”

From 1935 to 1938, Hepburn made eight films, but only two hits: STAGE DOOR (1937) and ALICE ADAMS (1935). She teamed with Cary Grant in a series of delightful screwball comedies, the best of which, BRINGING UP BABY (1938), was a flop at the time but is now considered a classic.

After four box office failures in a row, theater owners in 1937 labeled Hepburn “box office poison,” and the offers stopped. So she bought out her contract and returned home.

When playwright Philip Barry showed Kate THE PHILADELPHIA STORY, she fell in love with the script and bought the film rights, with money borrowed from Howard Hughes. The play opened on Broadway in 1938 to great acclaim. When MGM’s Louis B. Mayer wanted to buy it, Kate demanded control of cast and director. The film version (1940), co-starring Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, was an immediate hit.

Hepburn now began a productive period of unprecedented power and control over her films. “L.B. Mayer and I were friends,” she said. “I brought him a lot of material. He gave me freedom and I gave him respect. He was a real gambler…and extremely honest.”

Hepburn requested Spencer Tracy, someone she’d never met, to star opposite her in WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942). According to legend, when they did meet, Kate said, “I’m afraid I’m a little tall for you,” and Tracy quipped, “Don’t worry, I’ll cut you down to size.” 

The electricity between Tracy and Hepburn was immediately obvious to moviegoers. The pair started a relationship that included nine films and a 27-year love affair. Their screen partnership gave rise to the term “Tracy-Hepburn relationship” to describe a film couple who are highly charged with both attraction and conflict.

“She was the feisty female to Tracy’s all-American male,” wrote Hollywood Reporter film critic Kirk Honeycutt. “In their best films together, she played the high-class dame brought low by this earthy fellow.”

ADAM’S RIB (1949), written by husband-and-wife team Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, in which Tracy and Hepburn play husband-and-wife opposing attorneys, excels in witty repartee and ironic role reversals. In PAT & MIKE (1952), Kate displayed her skills at golf and tennis, while Spencer, as her manager, delighted audiences with his reading of the line: “Not much meat on her, but what there is, is cherce” [choice].

“Spencer Tracy is the people’s star, clear and direct,” Hepburn wrote. “Ask a question, get an answer. No pause, no fancy thinking — a simple answer. He makes you believe what he is saying.”

Kate and Spencer never married, not, as legend has it, because he couldn’t get a divorce (he was Catholic; his wife Louise wasn’t), but because it suited both of them. Kate later mused, “Perhaps men and women should live next door and just visit now and then.” 

In 1947, when the House Un-American Activities Committee was blacklisting people for their beliefs, Hepburn challenged them in a speech: “Silence the artist,” she said, “and you have silenced the most articulate voice the people have.” Articles criticized her and organizations condemned her and her films. Mayer asked her why she made the speech. She answered that somebody had to speak out against the committee’s vicious smear campaign, and she could take the heat. She volunteered to go off salary, but Mayer refused.

After leaving MGM in 1951, Hepburn divided her time between the stage and films, doing Shakespeare and Shaw in New York, London, Stratford (Connecticut)m and across Australia.

Her most memorable films of the 1950s are THE AFRICAN QUEEN (with Humphrey Bogart, 1951), SUMMERTIME (1955), and THE RAINMAKER (with Burt Lancaster, 1956). Each is worth viewing for her finely tuned “spunky spinster” performances.

For five years during the 1960s, Kate devoted full time to caring for the ailing Tracy, who died in 1967 shortly after completing GUESS WHO’S COMING TO DINNER (which earned Hepburn her second Oscar).

Two incredible Hepburn screen performances of the 1960s tower above the rest: LONG DAY’S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT (1962) which some consider her best film, and THE LION IN WINTER (with Peter O’Toole, 1968) which brought her a third Oscar. 

Hepburn tried her first Broadway musical, COCO, at the age of 62, and was nominated for a Tony award. When she broke an ankle doing the play A MATTER OF GRAVITY in 1976, she performed the role in a wheelchair. In the road show that I saw in Houston, she never rose from the chair. Wheeled onstage at curtain call, she suddenly rose from the chair and stood tall for her bows. 

In 1982 Hepburn played an aging pianist in WEST SIDE WALTZ on Broadway to great acclaim (and a second Tony nomination). She nearly lost a foot in a car accident in late 1982 and spent three weeks in a hospital, but she was back at work by the end of the year in GRACE QUIGLEY, with Nick Nolte.

During the 1970s and ‘80s, Hepburn made fewer feature films and more TV movies. Her moving performance in ON GOLDEN POND (with Henry Fonda, 1981) provided her fourth Oscar.

In the 1980s, in her seventies, she became a best selling author with THE MAKING OF THE AFRICAN QUEEN, and her popular autobiography ME: STORIES OF MY LIFE.

Hepburn remained energetic into her 80s, rising at dawn and going to bed at seven. She worked in her garden, made anonymous gifts to her small community, and was considered a good neighbor. Slowed by arthritis, hip replacement surgery, tremors and pneumonia, she quipped in 1990, “I’m gradually disintegrating.”

Kate’s philosophy, handed down from her grandmother to her mother to her, was: “Don’t give in. Fight for your future. Women are as good as men. Make your own trail. Don’t moan. Think positively.” 

After she died at her home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut on June 29, 2003, the League of American Theaters and Producers dimmed the lights on Broadway in her honor.



  1. The Lion in Winter (1968)
  2. Bringing Up Baby (1938)
  3. Adam’s Rib (1949)
  4. The African Queen (1951)
  5. Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)
  6. The Rainmaker (1956)
  7. Desk Set (1957)
  8. The Philadelphia Story (1940)
  9. Summertime (1955)
  10. Little Women (1933)


Journalist, actress, author and editor Sharon Levine Waldman has worked with screenwriters and interviewed film personalities such as Shirley MacLaine, Jack Lemmon and Ron Howard. She coauthored books on the 1984 L.A. Olympics and a psychic popular in Japan. For eight years she has been married to former childhood sweetheart Alan Waldman, who also contributes to Films for Two. The Waldmans live and love in toasty Encino, California, where they operate Family Chronicles, a twoperson firm that interviews older people and captures their life stories in books, videotape or audiotape. To hear Sharon's Youtube talk about personal history, go to www.connectingyourdots.org and click on the blue icon, "Family History Cookbooks and Memoirs."