by Andy Piascik
Katharine Hepburn was one of the great icons of American film, but also a lover of Connecticut life. She was born on May 12, 1907, in Hartford to feminist and activist Katharine Houghton Hepburn and Hartford physician Dr. Thomas Hepburn. Katharine displayed an independent spirit from an early age, augmented by abundant encouragement from both parents and a privileged upbringing. As a young girl she attended demonstrations with her mother, who was active in the movements for women’s suffrage and the right to obtain easy access to birth control, among others.
After attending the Oxford School in West Hartford, Hepburn enrolled in Bryn Mawr College, her mother’s alma mater. She graduated with a degree in history and philosophy in 1928. It was at college that she got seriously involved in acting for the first time, as she appeared in the school’s stage production of The Woman in the Moon in her senior year.
Katharine Hepburn’s Early Stage Career
Hepburn joined a Baltimore theater company immediately after graduating college and made her Broadway debut in September of 1928. During her first year in New York, producers hired and fired Hepburn from a series of roles. It was also that year she wed a college classmate, Ludlow Ogden Smith, to whom she remained married until 1934.
The years that followed her Broadway debut included numerous roles (including a summer spent performing in Ivoryton in 1931) until her stage breakthrough in The Warrior’s Husband in 1932. Positive reviews and a run of three months came with an offer from Hollywood to appear in A Bill of Divorcement, which co-starred John Barrymore. The film’s director was George Cukor, with whom Hepburn eventually made ten films.
Within a few years, Hepburn was one of the leading stars in Hollywood, as she earned important roles in one big film after another: Morning Glory (1933), Little Women (1933), Stage Door (1937), Bringing Up Baby (1938), Holiday (1938), and The Philadelphia Story (1940). She earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for three of those performances and won for Morning Glory. During the same period, she returned to the Broadway stage, most notably for The Philadelphia Story, in which she starred in the same role she later played in the movie.
On the set of Woman of the Year in late 1941, Hepburn met and fell in love with co-star Spencer Tracy. Hepburn was 34 and then divorced. Tracy, 41, was one of the giants of the screen and unhappily married. From the time they met until Tracy’s death in 1967, the two carried on a passionate romance that they kept secret, as Tracy’s wife refused to grant him a divorce.
The chemistry between Hepburn and Tracy led to a series of box office smashes, most notably Woman of the Year (1942), State of the Union (1948), Adam’s Rib (1949), and Pat and Mike (1952). That success came despite the fact that Tracy suffered from alcoholism and depression severe enough that it required hospitalization on at least one occasion.
Through her years with Tracy and beyond, Hepburn continued to work in, and earn acclaim for, movie and theater roles. She starred in a series of Shakespeare’s plays on Broadway and won Best Actress Oscars for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Lion in Winter (1968), and On Golden Pond (1981). She also continued to live much of the time in her beloved Connecticut home, even after a 1938 hurricane destroyed a significant portion of her property. In 1965 she narrated the documentary The Long Tidal River, about the polluting of the Connecticut River, which emptied into Long Island Sound near her house in the Fenwick section of Old Saybrook. Hepburn ultimately died at her Connecticut home in 2003, at the age of 96.
Bridgeport native Andy Piascik is an award-winning author who has written for many publications and websites over the last four decades. He is also the author of two books.