Katharine Houghton Hepburn (May 12, 1907 – June 29, 2003) was an American actress of film, stage, and television. Hepburn's career as a Hollywood leading lady spanned more than 60 years. Known for her headstrong independence and spirited personality, she cultivated a screen persona that matched this public image, and regularly played strong-willed, sophisticated women. Her work came in a range of genres, from screwball comedy to literary drama, and she received four Academy Awards for Best Actress—a record for any performer.
Hepburn famously shunned the Hollywood publicity machine and she refused to conform to society's expectations of women. She was outspoken, assertive, and athletic, and wore trousers before they were fashionable for women. She was briefly married as a young woman but thereafter lived independently. With her unconventional lifestyle and the independent characters she brought to the screen, Hepburn epitomized the "modern woman" in the 20th-century United States, and is remembered as an important cultural figure.
Hepburn was born on May 12, 1907, in Hartford, Connecticut, the second of six children. Her parents were Thomas Norval Hepburn (1879–1962), a urologist at Hartford Hospital, and Katharine Martha Houghton (1878–1951), a feminist campaigner. Both parents fought for social change in the US
The Hepburn children were raised to exercise freedom of speech and encouraged to think and debate on any topic they wished. Hepburn said she realized from a young age that she was the product of "two very remarkable parents", and credited her "enormously lucky" upbringing with providing the foundation for her success. She remained close to her family throughout her life.
The young Hepburn was a tomboy who liked to call herself Jimmy and cut her hair short. Her father was eager for his children to use their minds and bodies to the limit and taught them to swim, run, dive, ride, wrestle, and play golf and tennis. Golf became a passion of Hepburn's; she took daily lessons and became very adept, reaching the semi-final of the Connecticut Young Women's Golf Championship. She loved swimming in Long Island Sound, and took ice-cold baths every morning in the belief that "the bitterer the medicine, the better it was for you".
Hepburn was a fan of movies from a young age and went to see one every Saturday night. She would put on plays and perform for her neighbors with friends and siblings for 50 cents a ticket to raise money for the Navajo people.
In March 1921, Hepburn's 15-year-old brother Tom killed himself. The incident made the 13-year-old Hepburn nervous, moody, and suspicious of people. She shied away from other children, dropped out of Oxford School, and was tutored privately. For many years she used Tom's birthday (November 8) as her own. It was not until her 1991 autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life, that Hepburn revealed her true birth date.
In 1924 Hepburn was admitted to Bryn Mawr College. Hepburn was drawn to acting, but roles in college plays were conditional on good grades. Once her marks had improved, she began performing regularly. She performed the lead role in a production of The Woman in the Moon in her senior year, and the positive response it received cemented Hepburn's plans to pursue a theatrical career. She graduated with a degree in history and philosophy in June 1928.
Hepburn left university determined to become an actress. Her first appearance on the stage was in Baltimore just after her graduation. It was a small role in the play The Czarina for which she received good reviews, but she was criticized for her shrill voice in her second performance, and left Baltimore to study with a voice tutor in New York City.
Her Broadway debut came on November 12, 1928, at the Cort Theatre, but reviews for the show were poor, and it closed after eight nights.
On December 12, 1928, she quit her job as an understudy in the play Holiday, married Ludlow Ogden Smith, a socialite-businessman from Philadelphia whom she met while a student at Bryn Mawr. She was 21 and he was 29. Smith changed his name to S. Ogden Ludlow at her behest so that she would not be "Kate Smith", which she considered too plain. She planned to leave the theatre behind but began to miss the work and quickly resumed her previous job.
For the next few years, Hepburn tried and failed various time as broadway actress.
Then finally, while playing in The Warrior's Husband, she was spotted by a scout for the Hollywood agent Leland Hayward, who asked her to test for the part of Sydney Fairfield in the upcoming RKO film A Bill of Divorcement.
Offered the role, Hepburn demanded $1,500 a week, a large amount for an unknown actress. The director of the film George Cukor was impressed by her and encouraged the studio to accept her demands and they signed Hepburn to a temporary contract with a three-week guarantee.
Hepburn arrived in California in July 1932, at 25 years old. She starred in A Bill of Divorcement opposite John Barrymore, but showed no sign of intimidation. Although she struggled to adapt to the nature of film acting, Hepburn was fascinated by the industry from the start. The picture was a success and Hepburn received positive reviews.
On the strength of A Bill of Divorcement, RKO signed her to a long-term contract. George Cukor became a lifetime friend and colleague—he and Hepburn made ten films together.
Hepburn's third picture confirmed her as a major actress in Hollywood. For playing aspiring actress Eva Lovelace in Morning Glory, she won an Academy Award for Best Actress. Hepburn chose not to attend the awards ceremony—as she would not for the duration of her career—but was thrilled with the win. Her success continued with the role of Jo in t he film Little Women (1933). The picture was a hit, one of the film industry's biggest successes to date, and Hepburn won the Best Actress prize at the Venice Film Festival. Little Women was one of Hepburn's personal favorites and she was proud of her performance.
By the end of 1933, Hepburn was a respected film actress, but she yearned to prove herself on Broadway. Jed Harris, one of the most successful theatre producers of the 1920s, was going through a career slump. He asked Hepburn to appear in the play The Lake, which she agreed to do for a low salary. Harris' poor direction had eroded Hepburn's confidence, and she struggled with the performance. Finally not wanting to continue in a failing show, she paid Harris $14,000, most of her life savings to close the production instead.
After moving to Hollywood in 1932 Hepburn was estranged from her husband and in 1934, she traveled to Mexico to get a quick divorce. Hepburn often expressed her gratitude toward Ludlow Ogden Smith for his financial and moral support in the early days of her career, and in her autobiography called herself "a terrible pig" for exploiting his love. The pair remained friends until his death in 1979.
Soon after moving to California, Hepburn began a relationship with her agent, Leland Hayward, although they were both married. Hayward proposed to the actress after they had both divorced, but she declined, later explaining, "I liked the idea of being my own single self." The affair lasted four years.
After the failure of several more forgettable films, success returned to Hepburn with Alice Adams (1935), the story of a girl's desperation to climb the social ladder. Hepburn loved the book and was delighted to be offered the role. The film was a hit, one of Hepburn's personal favorites, and gave the actress her second Oscar nomination.
But she then made four unsuccessful pictures in a row. and alongside a series of unpopular films, problems arose from Hepburn's attitude, in particular toward the press, which gave her the nickname "Katharine of Arrogance".
Hepburn was known for being fiercely private, and would not give interviews or talk to fans for much of her career. She distanced herself from the celebrity lifestyle, uninterested in a social scene she saw as tedious and superficial, and she wore casual clothes that went strongly against convention in an era of glamour. She rarely appeared in public, even avoiding restaurants, and once wrestled a camera out of a photographer's hand when he took a picture without asking.
The public was also baffled by her boyish behavior and fashion choices, and she became a largely unpopular figure.
For the next years, RKO tried resurrecting her popularity. But after the release of Howard Hawks' screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938), where she played opposite Cary Grant, hugely popular at the time, the Independent Theatre Owners of America included Hepburn on a list of actors considered "box office poison".
Hepburn opted to buy out her contract with RKO for $75,000 and took action to create her own comeback vehicle. She left Hollywood to look for a stage project, and signed on to star in Philip Barry's new play, The Philadelphia Story. It was tailored to showcase the actress, with the character of socialite Tracy Lord incorporating a mixture of humor, aggression, nervousness, and vulnerability. Howard Hughes, Hepburn's partner at the time, sensed that the play could be her ticket back to Hollywood stardom and bought her the film rights before it even debuted on stage.
Hepburn was introduced to Howard Hughes by Cary Grant, their mutual friend, and started a relationship with him in 1936.
Hughes wished to marry her, and the tabloids reported their impending nuptials, but Hepburn stayed focused on resurrecting her failing career.
The Philadelphia Story first toured the United States, to positive reviews, and then opened in New York at the Schubert Theatre on March 28, 1939. It was a big hit, critically and financially, running for 417 performances and then going on a second successful tour.
Several of the major film studios approached Hepburn to produce the movie version of Barry's play. She chose to sell the rights to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), Hollywood's number one studio, on the condition that she be the star. As part of the deal she also received the director of her choice, George Cukor, and picked James Stewart and Cary Grant (to whom she ceded top-billing) as co-stars
The Philadelphia Story was one of the biggest hits of 1940, breaking records at Radio City Music Hall. Hepburn was nominated for her third Academy Award for Best Actress, and won the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress while Stewart won his only Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance.
Hepburn was also responsible for the development of her next project, the romantic comedy Woman of the Year. She presented the finished product to MGM and demanded $250,000—half for her, half for the authors. Her terms accepted, Hepburn was also given the director and co-star of her choice, George Stevens and Spencer Tracy.
Tracy was initially wary of Hepburn, unimpressed by her dirty fingernails and suspecting that she was a lesbian, but Hepburn said she "knew right away that [she] found him irresistible".
On Hepburn and Tracy's first day on set together, she allegedly told Tracy "I'm afraid I'm too tall for you" to which Tracy replied, "Don't worry Miss Hepburn, I'll soon cut you down to my size."
Released in 1942, Woman of the Year was another success, and Hepburn received a fourth Academy Award nomination. During the course of the movie, Hepburn signed a star contract with MGM.
Since Woman of the Year, Hepburn had committed to a romantic relationship with Tracy. She was 34 and he was 41.
Tracy remained married throughout their relationship. Although he and his wife Louise had been living separate lives since the 1930s, there was never an official split and neither party pursued a divorce. Hepburn did not interfere, and never fought for marriage. She stuck to her decision not to remarry and made a conscious choice not to have children. She believed that motherhood requires a full-time commitment, and said it was not one she was willing to make.
With Tracy determined to conceal the relationship with Hepburn from his wife, it had to remain private. They were careful not to be seen in public together and maintained separate residences.
MGM reunited Hepburn with Tracy in Without Love (1945), which received poor reviews, but a new Tracy–Hepburn pairing was popular, selling a record number of tickets over the Easter weekend in 1945.
Since the beginning of their relationship, Hepburn dedicated herself to helping the star, who suffered from alcoholism, insomnia and was frequently depressed;
Reports from people who saw them together describe how Hepburn's entire demeanor changed when around Tracy. She mothered and obeyed him, and Tracy became heavily dependent on her.
Her career slowed as a result, and she worked less for the remainder of the decade than she had done in the 1930s—notably by not appearing on-stage again until 1950.
Tracy and Hepburn appeared onscreen together for a third consecutive year in the 1949 film Adam's Rib which was a hit, favorably reviewed and the most profitable Tracy–Hepburn picture to date.
The 1950s saw Hepburn take on a series of professional challenges, and stretch herself further than at any other point in her life at an age when most other actresses began to retreat.
In January 1950, Hepburn ventured into Shakespeare, playing Rosalind on stage in As You Like It. It opened at the Cort Theatre in New York to a capacity audience and was virtually sold out for 148 shows.
In 1951, Hepburn filmed The African Queen, her first movie in Technicolor. Co-starring Humphrey Bogart, Hepburn got her fifth Best Actress nomination at the Academy Awards for her performance, while Bogart was awarded his Academy Award for Best Actor(The only one in his career). The first successful film she had made without Tracy since The Philadelphia Story a decade earlier, it proved that she could be a hit without him and fully reestablished her popularity.
Hepburn went on to make the sports comedy Pat and Mike (1952) with Spencer Tracy, which brought her a nomination for the Golden Globe Award for Best Actress and was also Hepburn's personal favorite of the nine films she made with Tracy.
Pat and Mike was the last film Hepburn completed on her MGM contract, making her free to select her own projects. She spent two years resting and traveling, before committing to David Lean's romantic drama Summertime (1955). The movie was filmed in Venice, with Hepburn playing a lonely spinster who has a passionate love affair. The role earned her another Academy Award nomination and has been cited as some of her finest work. Lean later said it was his personal favorite of the films he made, and Hepburn his favorite actress.
Hepburn received an Academy Award nomination for the second year running for her work opposite Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker (1956). Again she played a lonely woman empowered by a love affair. Hepburn said "I was playing me. It wasn't difficult for me to play those women, because I'm the maiden aunt."
In the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams' controversial play Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) with Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift, Hepburn played a creepy aunt Violet Venable which gave Hepburn her eighth Oscar nomination.
Hepburn earned her ninth Oscar nomination for her role Sidney Lumet's film version of Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962).
Spencer Tracy's health declined in the 1960s, and following the completion of Long Day's Journey Into Night, Hepburn took a five-year break in her career to care for him. She moved into Tracy's house for this period.
She did not work again until 1967's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, her ninth film with Tracy. The movie dealt with the subject of interracial marriage, with Hepburn's niece, Katharine Houghton, playing her daughter. Tracy was dying by this point, suffering the effects of heart disease, and Houghton later commented that her aunt was "extremely tense" during the production.
Spencer Tracy died 17 days on June 10, 1967 after filming his last scene, and Hepburn was with him when he died. Out of consideration for Tracy's family, she did not attend his funeral.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was a triumphant return for Hepburn and her most commercially successful picture to that point. She won her second Best Actress Award at the Oscars, 34 years after winning her first. Hepburn felt the award was not just for her but was also given to honor Tracy.
Hepburn quickly returned to acting after Tracy's death, choosing to preoccupy herself as a remedy against grief.
She chose to play Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter (1968), co-starring Peter O'Toole. The movie was nominated in all the major categories at the Academy Awards, and for the second year running Hepburn won the Oscar for Best Actress (shared with Barbra Streisand for Funny Girl). The role, combined with her performance in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, also received a British Academy Film Award (BAFTA) for Best Actress.
From December 1969 to August 1970, Hepburn starred in the Broadway musical Coco, about the life of Coco Chanel. She admitted that before the show, she had never sat through a theatrical musical. She was not a strong singer, but found the offer irresistible and took vocal lessons six times a week in preparation for the show. Reviews for the production were mediocre, but Hepburn herself was praised, and Coco was popular with the public—with its run twice extended. She later said Coco marked the first time she accepted that the public was not against her, but actually seemed to love her. Her work earned a Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Musical.
Hepburn stayed active throughout the 1970s. In 1973, she ventured into television for the first time, starring in a production of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. She had been wary of the medium, but it proved to be one of the main television events of the year, scoring high in the Nielsen ratings. Hepburn received an Emmy Award nomination for playing wistful Southern mother Amanda Wingfield, which opened her mind to future work on the small screen. Her next project was the television movie Love Among the Ruins (1975), a London-based Edwardian drama with her friend Laurence Olivier. It received positive reviews and high ratings and earned Hepburn her only Emmy Award.
Despite her zeal for privacy, she enjoyed her fame, and later confessed that she would not have liked the press to ignore her completely. The protective attitude toward her private life thawed as she aged; beginning with a two-hour-long interview on The Dick Cavett Show in 1973, Hepburn became more open with the public.
In 1976, Hepburn was voted "Favorite Motion Picture Actress" by the People's Choice Awards. In 1979, she played in the television movie The Corn Is Green (1979), the last of ten films Hepburn made with George Cukor. The film gained her a third Emmy nomination.
By the 1980s, Hepburn had developed a noticeable tremor, giving her a permanently shaking head. But she continued working, playing opposite Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond, which was the second-highest-grossing film of 1981. It demonstrated how energetic the 74-year-old Hepburn was, as she dived fully clothed into Squam Lake and gave a lively singing performance. The film won her a second BAFTA and a record fourth Academy Award. Henry Fonda won his only Academy Award for his role in the movie, the third male screen legend (after James Stewart and Humphrey Bogart) who won his only Academy Award acting alongside Hepburn.
Hepburn's reputation as one of America's best loved actors was firmly established by this point, as she was named favorite movie actress in a survey by People magazine and again won the popularity award from People's Choice.
Hepburn never talk publicly about her feelings for Spencer Tracy until his wife Louise Tracy's death in 1983. In response to the question of why she stayed with Tracy for so long, despite the nature of their relationship, she said, "I honestly don't know. I can only say that I could never have left him." She claimed to not know how he felt about her, and that they "just passed twenty-seven years together in what was to me absolute bliss".
In 1985, she presented a television documentary about the life and career of Spencer Tracy. The majority of Hepburn's roles from this point were in television movies, which did not receive the critical praise of her earlier work in the medium, but remained popular with audiences. With each release, Hepburn would declare it her final screen appearance, but she continued to take on new roles.
In 1986 Hepburn received a lifetime achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in recognition of her influence on women's fashion. She pioneered wearing trousers at a time when it was a radical move for a woman. She helped make trousers acceptable for women, and fans began to imitate her clothing.
In 1991, Hepburn released her autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life, which topped best-seller lists for over a year.
The actress led an active life, reportedly swimming and playing tennis every morning. In her eighties she was still playing tennis regularly, as indicated in her 1993 documentary All About Me. She also enjoyed painting, which became a passion later in life.
Hepburn liked to go barefoot, and for her first acting role in the play The Woman in the Moon she insisted that her character Pandora should not wear shoes. Offscreen, she usually dressed in slacks and sandals, even for formal occasions like TV interviews. In her own words, "the thing that drove me out of skirts was the stocking situation... That's why I've always worn pants...that way you can always go barefoot".
She did not believe in religion or the afterlife. In 1991, Hepburn told a journalist, "I'm an atheist, and that's it. I believe there's nothing we can know, except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for other people."
Hepburn's final appearance in a theatrically released film, and her first since Grace Quigley nine years earlier, was Love Affair (1994). At 87 years old, she played a supporting role, alongside Annette Bening and Warren Beatty.
Hepburn played her final role in the television film One Christmas (1994), for which she received a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination at 87 years old.
Her health began to deteriorate not long after her final screen appearance, and she was hospitalized in March 1993 for exhaustion. In the winter of 1996, she was hospitalized with pneumonia. By 1997, she had become very weak and was speaking and eating very little, and it was feared she would die. She showed signs of dementia in her final years.
In May 2003, an aggressive tumor was found in Hepburn's neck. The decision was made not to medically intervene, and she died from cardiac arrest on June 29, 2003, a month after her 96th birthday at the Hepburn family home in Fenwick, Connecticut.
She was buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford. Hepburn requested that there be no memorial service.
Hepburn's death received considerable public attention. Many tributes were held on television, and newspapers and magazines dedicated issues to the actress. American president George W. Bush said Hepburn "will be remembered as one of the nation's artistic treasures". In honor of her extensive theatre work, the lights of Broadway were dimmed for the evening of July 1, 2003.
"I think I'm always the same. I had a very definite personality, and I liked material that showed that personality."
Hepburn is considered an important and influential cultural figure. She is named in Encyclopædia Britannica's list of "300 Women Who Changed the World". In 1999, the American Film Institute named Hepburn the "greatest American screen legend" among females. A number of Hepburn's films have become classics of American cinema, with four of her pictures (The African Queen, The Philadelphia Story, Bringing Up Baby, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner) featured on the American Film Institute's list of the 100 Greatest American Films of all time. Adam's Rib and Woman of the Year were included in the AFI's list of the Greatest American Comedies.
In 2004, in accordance with Hepburn's wishes, her belongings were put up for auction with Sotheby's in New York City. The event garnered $5.8 million, which Hepburn willed to her family.