Katharine Hepburn Paddles Her Own Canoe, Proves Her Resilience in Hollywood, Is as Elegant as Audrey and Grace, and May Just Walk Around the Set in Her Underpants.
Katharine Hepburn: A Fierce Hollywood Original
March 12, 2021 Updated May 13, 2022
Never has there been a Hollywood figure more confident, inspiring, or fiercely original than Katharine Hepburn.
“Cold sober, I find myself absolutely fascinating.”
Hepburn announced in 1973 on the Dick Cavett show. Even now—almost two decades after her passing—the rest of the world still agrees with Kate’s succinct and honest assessment of herself.
Katharine Hepburn is absolutely fascinating. The daughter of forward-thinking parents who encouraged Kate to “paddle her own canoe,” Hepburn was a dreamer with a boundless supply of confidence, and a zest for life that was nothing short of extraordinary.
Over the course of her sixty-plus year career, Kate did it all: movies, Shakespeare, Greek Tragedy, Broadway musicals. In the process, she changed women’s fashion, prized her independence, and proved that if we just “keep a-going,” as Kate liked to say, we can quite literally accomplish anything.
To begin my series on this remarkable woman, here are a few things about the indomitable Katharine Hepburn you didn’t know:
Katharine Hepburn Loved Her Parents
“The first thing you must know about me is that I am the product of two extraordinary people.”
This is how Katharine Hepburn chose to start her charming 1993 documentary, All About Me. Throughout her 96 years, Kate regularly praised her parents. Hepburn was blessed with good ones. She knew it, she appreciated it, and she let the world know.
Kate credited her parents for all she accomplished:
“You know what I really am? I’m my main gift from my parents…That bit of fiber which can be developed in all of us—there it is—waiting to be used…How did I make it work? How did I have brains enough to survive…And how did I develop such a handy head of common sense? That is what can really keep you afloat. You can say, ‘You had money enough to swing it.’ Yes, I had. But money alone doesn’t do it. I wasn’t going to starve but I could have been defeated.”
It was Katharine Hepburn’s parents who taught her how to not accept defeat.
As a Hollywood star, Kate often said that compared to her parents, she was dull. She expressed frustration when the press referred to Kit or Tom Hepburn as the “mother or father of Katharine Hepburn,” believing it should be the other way around:
“My parents are important. I am not.”
Kate always insisted.
To understand Katharine Hepburn, a brief history of the two extraordinary people who raised her is essential.
Katharine Hepburn's Mother: Katharine Martha Houghton
Katharine Martha Houghton, or Kit, as she was known, was born into social position, wealth, and privilege on February 2, 1878. Her father’s family founded the Corning Glass Company. (Corning is best known for their classic white Corning bakeware, pyrex dishes, and most recently, the Gorilla Glass on Apple products.)
By age sixteen, Kit was an orphan, entrusted with the care of her two younger sisters. Her mother Caroline’s dying wish was that all three of her girls receive college educations and be the masters of their own destinies. It was up to Kit to make this a reality for the three Houghton girls, no small feat for a young woman in 1894.
Kit's Gift to Her Children
Somehow, Kit did it. She graduated from Bryn Mawr, and ensured that her sisters made it through as well.
Kit Hepburn’s admirable perseverance and appreciation of freedom were both passed along to her daughter, Katharine. In her autobiography [aff. link], Kate shared that the greatest gift her mother gave all six of the Hepburn children was freedom, and the encouragement to just go for it:
“The greatest gift she gave us was freedom to be noisy, to yell. No nags. Do it? Yes, do it! And tell me about it.”
Kit joined her younger sister Edith at Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1903, where she met the man she would marry.
It was a lengthy courtship. But for Kit, it was also love at first sight.
Katharine Hepburn's Father: Thomas Norval Hepburn
Unlike Kit, Thomas Norval Hepburn was born to near poverty and absolutely no social position on December 18, 1879. The son of a country preacher, Tom knew what it was like to be poor. And he didn’t like it.
So the handsome, athletic, motivated, and quick-minded young Tom decided his future would be different: he was going to medical school. Thomas Hepburn would make his own luck.
And he did.
Dr. Hepburn graduated from Johns Hopkins Medical School, completing his internship and residency at Hartford Hospital, where he specialized in the then practically unheard of field of urology. Dr. Hepburn remained a respected surgeon at Hartford Hospital for the next 50 years.
From her father, Katharine Hepburn inherited an amazing drive, competitive spirit, and zest for life. As Kate said of her father, who was arguably the greatest influence on her life:
“He wrote his own rules—and followed them to the smallest detail—‘Row your own boat.’ What wonderful examples our parents! Oh—we were so lucky.”
A Perfect Match
The marriage of Tom and Kit Hepburn was one of romance and passion. But it was also a perfect pairing of intellect and spirt. Kit was there for Tom as he worked hard to provide for his young family, and establish his medical practice in Hartford. And Tom was there for Kit when she sought a career to complement the joys of motherhood.
After the births of her first two children, Tom in 1905, followed by Kate on May 12, 1907, Kit found herself looking for a cause outside of the home to get excited about. As Kate remembered:
“Well, thought Mother, here I am, these two adorable children, a handsome, brilliant husband looking forward to his brilliant career. But me, what of me, what of me? Is this all that I’m here for? There must be something. I have a Bachelor’s degree, I have a Master’s degree.
She went home [after a walk] sort of puzzled, and Daddy came rushing in and said, ‘Look here in the paper. A woman named Emmeline Pankhurst is speaking about women and the vote tonight, let’s…’. They went. Dad obviously had begun to realize that Mother was getting restless about her spot in the world. He found the solution. Mother became the head of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association.”
Hep—as Tom was known—led his wife to the work that became her life’s passion: Kit Hepburn became a pioneering suffragist and birth control proponent.
Hep supported Kit even when her revolutionary causes harmed his burgeoning medical practice in conservative Hartford. Kit meanwhile respected her husband’s wish that she keep their home at the center of her life as she fought for women’s rights.
Listen to the Song of Life
Engraved on the fireplace mantle of Katharine Hepburn’s childhood home was the phrase “Listen to the Song of Life.” These were words the Hepburn family lived by. No topic was off limits, be it suffrage or venereal disease. The Hepburn children were encouraged to have goals, dreams, to think for themselves, and to push themselves mentally and physically.
It’s telling of the tone set in the Hepburn home that Kate chose to share these words by George Bernard Shaw when writing of her family life in Me: Stories of My Life [aff. link]:
“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”
Kate follows Shaw’s words with a stretch of classic Hepburn editorializing that’s further telling of the Hepburn home:
“Don’t give in. Fight for your future. Independence is the only solution. Women are as good as men. Onward! You don’t have much money but you do have independent spirits. Knowledge! Education! Don’t give in! Make your own trail. Don’t moan. Don’t complain. Think positively.”
Coming from a home with parents who promoted such uplifting and action-provoking thoughts, it’s no wonder that Katharine Hepburn went on to accomplish such extraordinary things.
A final grateful word from Kate on her parents:
“It was heaven. Always to have you two to turn to in despair, in joy. There you were: strong—funny. Two rocks. What you did for me—wow! What luck to be born out of love and to live in an atmosphere of warmth and interest.”
Katharine Hepburn Was a Natural Athlete
When considering the most elegant women of the Golden Age, Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn are perhaps the first names that come to mind.
But Katharine Hepburn also deserves a place on the short list of Classic Hollywood’s most graceful ladies.
Watch her dash into the ocean in Sylvia Scarlett (1935), or dive into the pool in The Philadelphia Story (1940). Watch her play golf, and chase Cary Grant around in Bringing Up Baby (1938). Or float up the stairs as Spencer Tracy follows her in Woman of the Year (1942).
Kate’s every movement has a natural grace.
And it’s because she was a natural athlete.
Like so many young girls, young Kate was a tomboy. She enjoyed sports and outdoor activities; the more daring the better. With an older brother she idolized, two younger brothers next closest to her age, and an athletic father she wanted to please, it’s not surprising that Kate found being a girl “a torment.”
“Jimmy was my name, if you want to know,”
Kate shared in her autobiography. Climbing trees, doing somersaults off her dad’s shoulders, diving, swimming, golf, tennis, running, jumping…with the encouragement of her father, Katharine Hepburn learned to do it all.
She became particularly skilled at golf, taking daily lessons as a teen. As Kate remembered:
“It looked as though I were going to develop into a pretty good player. I could hit it [the golf ball] a mile.”
A good player indeed.
At age fifteen, Kate took second place in the Connecticut Women’s Open. After her junior year at Bryn Mawr, she defeated players with nearly ten years more experience at another statewide golf championship.
Katharine Hepburn's Favorite Film
Other than brief glimpses of Kate’s sporting prowess—again, think about that elegant golf swing in Bringing Up Baby (1938)—Hepburn fans weren’t privileged to a full-scale show of Kate’s hidden talents until her 1952 film, Pat and Mike.
Written by Kate’s good friend Garson Kanin, it was watching Kate’s athletic skills that inspired Kanin to write the film:
“As I watched Kate playing tennis one day, it occurred to me that her audience was missing a treat.”
The chance to show what she could do on the tennis court, golf course, and track, was surely one of the reasons why Kate named Pat and Mike her personal favorite of all the films she made.
She Graduated From College
Like her mother Kit, Katharine Hepburn went to Bryn Mawr. She graduated in 1928 with a degree in history and philosophy.
But Kate’s time at Bryn Mawr wasn’t the college experience you’d expect of the spunky, highly vocal and opinionated Katharine Hepburn of legend.
By the time Kate arrived at Bryn Mawr in 1924, she’d become a withdrawn, reclusive young woman. The distinct personality change was brought on by a great family tragedy.
At age thirteen, while visiting family friends in New York, Kate discovered the body of her older brother Tom, hanging by a torn bedsheet wrapped around the rafters of the attic in their host’s home. His feet touching the floor, it appeared Tom had strangled himself to death.
It was difficult for Kate and the rest of the Hepburn family to accept Tom’s death as suicide. Kate sought alternate explanations her whole life. Despite some far-fetched theories claimed by Hepburn biographers over the years, Tom’s death seems a textbook example of the simplest explanation being the accurate one.
Coming Out of Her Shell
Her brother’s death arguably shaped Kate’s teenage and young adult years more than any other event. Following Tom’s suicide, Kate withdrew from public school. She was unable to deal with the questions of her classmates and the everyday social situations of academia. She homeschooled until leaving for Bryn Mawr in 1924. As Kate remembered in her autobiography [aff. link]:
“I tried school but it was—well, I should say I was—I felt isolated. I knew something that the [other] girls did not know: tragedy. They were curious and I would not, did not, want to talk or to discuss it.”
Kate’s reclusive behavior continued during her first years at Bryn Mawr. It was excitement over the school’s dramatics program that finally pulled Kate out of her shell. Her grades improved, she earned roles in school productions, and made friends.
Indicative of Hepburn’s intrinsic loyalty, many of these Bryn Mawr friendships—such as that with Alice Palache, the friend Kate toured Europe with before her junior year, and the friend who Kate later trusted to take care of her finances during the second half of her film career—lasted a lifetime.
Katharine Hepburn Was A Dreamer
Katharine Hepburn graduated from Bryn Mawr in 1928 with a dream that seemed almost impossible: to be not just a working actress, but a star.
Kate always knew she wanted to be famous. And no matter how unlikely the odds, she was a dreamer who believed it would happen. As Kate later described her lifelong mentality on the importance of dreaming big:
“Oh hell. We read fairy tales for years, don’t we? Are they throwing all of that out? If you don’t dream up your parents…your friends, and the person that you love—if you can’t dream them up, if you just see them in total four-letter-word reality, then God help you. You’ve got to dream up everything. I believe in miracles.”
On the way home from her graduation ceremonies at Bryn Mawr, Kate announced her acting ambitions to her parents. She even had her first job lined up—a bit role on stage with the Edward Knopf Stock Company in Baltimore—a fact Kate hoped would help soften the shock of her chosen career path. Kate had her mother’s full support. But her father almost went through the roof. Hep threatened to pull the car over and take a train home by himself. As Kate remembered in her autobiography:
“My mother was all for it. Anything I wanted just so I didn’t settle for the old routine of nursemaid to the rising generation. She thought women should give life a whirl. See if they could swing it so that they could be more independent of the male sex. Dad was for this too. He just didn’t care for the road I’d chosen.”
In Dr. Hepburn’s view, being an actress was just a few steps above being a streetwalker.
Winning Her Dad's Support
Kate moved forward with her dream. And despite his protestations, Dr. Hepburn regularly sent his daughter money that he won at bridge or golf. In Hep’s mind, gambling money wasn’t real money: it was his way of supporting Kate until she “recovered from this madness” without betraying his own principals. But eventually, Kate earned her father’s full support.
Indeed, it was usually letters from Dr. Hepburn that pulled Kate through the lows of her early career. Her father’s letters kept Kate dreaming when that famous Hepburn confidence alone wasn’t enough to keep her going.
One letter from Hep on Kate’s twenty-first birthday was full of particularly sage advice that keep his daughter optimistically dreaming:
…don’t take life or its happenings too seriously. Lift up the corners of that mouth that I gave you one moonlit night. Second, try to do one thing well—utilizing the experience of all preceding life and your own wit. Third, never let yourself hate any person. It is the most devastating weapon of one’s enemies.
Fourth, always remember that your Dad is liable to call you all sorts of names when he disapproves of your behavior, but don’t take him too seriously, and always come to him—whatever your difficulty—he may be able to help you. Impossibly, he may not be as stupid as he looks. Fifth, forget all the above and remember only that I would love to kiss you 21 times and give you a million dollars.
—Your hopeless Dad
Katharine Hepburn Was Married
Katharine Hepburn is known for her independent spirit, for her joy in a life lived on her own terms. Not even her passion for Spencer Tracy, the love of her life with whom Hepburn enjoyed a 26 year relationship, resulted in marriage. (Tracy insisted that Kate never pushed him to divorce his wife, and that both Kate and his wife liked everything “just the way it was.”)
But Katharine Hepburn was married once.
Twenty-one-year-old Kate, not long graduated from Bryn Mawr, married her best friend, Ludlow Ogden Smith, on December 12, 1928. Though Kate loved Luddy, as she called her new husband, the groom was clearly more crazy about the bride than she was for him.
Luddy had complete faith in Kate’s talents. He supported her acting ambitions from the start. Luddy knew his untraditional wife couldn’t be kept at home, satisfied with a prestigious name on the Philadelphia social register.
Especially not when there were stage productions and Broadway roles in New York to make hers.
"ME ME ME"
As Kate’s ambition grew, so too did her time away from Luddy. Looking back at her treatment of her sweet husband, Kate felt immense guilt [aff. link]:
“Luddy—all he wanted was me, and of course all I wanted was to be a great big hit star in the movies. Now as I write this, I am horrified at what an absolute pig I was…
Can you see how responsible he was for my beginning? Absolute generosity—no strings—give give give. Dear Luddy, thank you…I don’t think that it was all as cold-blooded as it sounds. I hope not. But the truth has to be that I was a terrible pig. My aim was ME ME ME.”
Luddy obviously loved Kate enough to put up with this “ME ME ME” attitude, but she eventually divorced him, hoping he’d find reciprocated devotion in another marriage. Ever the loyal friend, Kate attempted to make up for her earlier selfish behavior by caring for the widowed Luddy in his final years.
An Important Clarification
There have been speculations about Katharine Hepburn’s sexuality over the years.
Her penchant for pants and decision to live with good friend Laura Harding at the start of her Hollywood career led to rumors that Katharine Hepburn was a lesbian. With the publication of William J. Mann’s Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn in 2006, many have come to view those rumors as fact.
In his book, published three years after Hepburn’s death, Mann asserts that several of Kate’s relationships with women throughout her life were more intimate than friendship. According to Mann, Kate’s relationship with Spencer Tracy was largely fabricated, a convenient way to hide a sexual preference she was uncomfortable with.
It’s important to make clear that all of Mann’s claims about Kate’s sexual attractions and practices are nothing more than that—claims and theories carefully phrased to suggest the possibility of same sex romance in her life. Mann presents no hard evidence that proves Kate was anything but heterosexual, or that Spencer Tracy wasn’t the great romance of her life.
In the absence of actual facts, and considering that most of those who could confirm or refute Mann’s claims are dead, Kate’s niece and confidant, Katharine Houghton, is the most reliable source on her aunt’s sexuality.
In response to Mann’s claims about her aunt, Katharine Houghton shared that:
“I’ve never discovered any evidence whatsoever that she was a lesbian.”
She Preferred Pants
From her 1932 arrival in Hollywood, Katharine Hepburn created pandemonium with her penchant for trousers. At a time when women were expected to wear skirts and dresses exclusively, Kate’s insistence on wearing pants was shocking, even revolutionary. Trousers, overalls, jodhpurs, you name it. As long as it wasn’t a skirt, Kate probably wore it.
And she’d challenge any man who said he preferred a woman in a skirt to:
“Try it, try wearing a skirt.”
Kate later insisted it was her deplorance for stockings that influenced her preference for pants. But it probably had just as much to do with her love of being unique. When asked by the press at the start of her film career why she wore pants, Kate’s response was:
“[Because] they are comfortable and convenient. And…because it seems to amaze people. I like to do unusual things.”
That she certainly did.
A Katharine Hepburn Pants Story
One of the more noteworthy Katharine Hepburn pants stories occurred on her very first film, 1932’s A Bill of Divorcement.
Kate’s habit of wearing old blue jeans was deemed unacceptable by her studio, RKO. So much so that a studio executive threatened to steal her blue jeans if Kate didn’t throw them out.
But that didn’t scare Kate. She went right on wearing them.
That is, until one day she returned to her dressing room and discovered that the old pants were gone…
Now it was Kate’s turn to make a threat: if the jeans were not promptly returned, she’d walk around the RKO lot without wearing any bottoms, pants or otherwise.
RKO didn’t yet know their new star well enough to believe that Kate would make good on her threat.
The pants, unfortunately, were not returned.
So Kate did it:
“I did it. Of course I did it. I walked through the lot in my underpants.”
Needless to say, Katharine Hepburn was then given back her pants.
Over the years, Kate’s insistence on wearing pants meant that she had to use the service entrance at ritzy hotels like London’s Claridge’s, where it was deemed unacceptable for a woman to walk through the lobby in trousers.
Eventually, the times caught up with Katharine Hepburn, and pants became an acceptable ladies’ garment. In 1986, the Council of Fashion Designers of America presented Kate with a lifetime achievement award, in recognition of her pioneering role in women’s fashion.
She Failed and Rebounded Frequently
Katharine Hepburn was a leading lady in her very first film, 1932’s A Bill of Divorcement.
But it wasn’t an easy ride getting there.
Four weeks into her stage career, Kate found herself with a leading role on Broadway in the Knopf Stock Company’s production of The Big Pond. The actress initially cast in the play was fired, providing Kate with a rare break for a newcomer. As Kate recalled of this freak opportunity:
“I didn’t of course know what I was doing but I did it with great style. I took this change in my status as a matter of course–I was the leading lady, I had been in the theatre for about four weeks. This was happening just as I had imagined it would…it should. I was arriving.”
On opening night, Kate brought down the house with masterful delivery of her first line. Rapturous applause followed.
“Well…that’s that. I’m a star,”
Kate thought. So caught up on that initial burst of applause, Kate didn’t realize that for the rest of the show, her performance, well, sucked:
“[Once] the play was over, I noticed that no one particularly bothered to come in and tell me I was remarkable. But as I’d never really been a big star of an opening night, I didn’t know what to expect. So I thought they must have problems. It never occurred to me that I was the problem.”
Kate was fired the next day.
Indeed, Katharine Hepburn was fired, or “given the opportunity to resign,” from a handful of plays—each of which she thought was sure to be her big break, before finally hitting her stride on Broadway with 1932’s The Warrior’s Husband. It was the stage role that led to her contract with RKO, and stardom in Hollywood.
After becoming a movie star, Kate still routinely experienced setbacks, failures, and difficulties.
Whether it was the press turning on Kate for her refusal to cooperate and play the typical publicity game, or finding herself labeled “box office poison” and so unpopular in Hollywood that she had to escape back to Broadway—only returning to California once she had a hit play on her hands, Katharine Hepburn had to fight to retain her stardom. As Kate put it, she was frequently:
“swimming up stream, but [at least] I was swimming.”
Somehow, Hepburn always bounced back from her trials. It’s one of her most admiral qualities, and one of the reasons why Kate was arguably the first female movie star to maintain her stardom in old age.
Katharine Hepburn Challenged Herself
It wasn’t just her resiliency that kept Katharine Hepburn a fascinating figure in the public eye for seventy years.
Kate’s longevity was also due to her desire to constantly challenge herself. As set designer Ed Willis once said about Kate:
“People always said to me, ‘She’s trying to do everything.’ And my reply was, ‘The thing I’m afraid of and you should be afraid of, is that she can do everything.’”
It would have been easy for Katharine Hepburn to rest on the romantic leading lady roles of her younger years, then discreetly fade away once she came of a certain age when those roles were no longer offered.
But this is Katharine Hepburn we’re talking about.
Though much of her early film work is remarkable, Kate’s greatest artistry, the majority of her films that are acclaimed and loved classics, didn’t come until after she turned forty.
Adam’s Rib (1949), The African Queen (1951), Summertime (1955), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962) Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), On Golden Pond (1981).
All were made when Kate was well past the traditional prime of movie queens.
Shakespeare, Musicals, and Greek Tragedy
If that weren’t admirable enough, throughout the 1950s and early 1960s—when Kate was in her forties and fifties—she challenged herself with Shakespeare. Kate performed such classics as As You Like It, The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, and Twelfth Night to sold out houses. In 1970, Hepburn was nominated for a Tony Award for tackling the Broadway Musical Coco. She was nominated for yet another Tony at age 75 for 1982’s The West Side Waltz. Kate even brought a little Greek Tragedy into her filmography with The Trojan Women in 1971.
Of her commendable twelve Oscar nominations, eight came after Katharine Hepburn turned forty. And of her record breaking four Best Actress Oscar wins, Kate earned three of them after the age of sixty.
Kate said in her autobiography:
“[What] a tremendous opportunity it is just to be alive. The potential. If you can keep a-goin’—you actually can do it. So just keep a-goin’—you can win. It’s when you stop that you’re done.”
Clearly, these are words that Katharine Hepburn lived by. And it’s utterly inspiring.
Katharine Hepburn was the Brownie Expert of Hollywood
Katharine Hepburn’s brownie recipe was famous within the Hollywood community of her time. According to friends like George Cukor, almost as impressive as Kate’s delicious brownie recipe was her ability to eat a pan of those brownies by herself in a single sitting. Without losing her trim figure, no less.
Kate kept the legendary recipe pretty much under wraps until 1983, when a grocery store buddy she made over the years asked Kate to give his daughter, Heather, some words of advice.
It seems Heather, a student at Bryn Mawr, had lost all scholastic motivation, and planned to drop out before earning her degree.
No doubt, this reminded Kate of her own difficult time at the university.
So what did Kate do?
Why, she called Heather up! As Heather remembered:
“At 7:30 the next morning, the phone woke me up. I answered it and heard that famous voice, crackling with command. ‘Is this the young woman who wants to quit Bryn Mawr?’ I said it was. ‘What a damn stupid thing to do!’ she snapped. She went on to give me a lively lecture, the gist of which was that I had to finish my studies and get my degree, and after that I could do what I wanted to do. There was no arguing with her imperiousness. Then she said she wanted to meet us for tea.”
Tea Party Inspiration
On the day of the tea party, further conversation with Kate proved the inspiration Heather needed, and she did graduate. Heather and her father were even invited for subsequent visits to Kate’s home. On one of those visits, Heather’s father brought Kate some of his homemade brownies.
“’Too much flour!’ Kate declared. She then rattled off her own recipe, which he hastily wrote down. ‘And don’t over-bake them! They should be moist, not cakey!’”
Sage advice from Katharine Hepburn, the Brownie Expert of Hollywood, herself.
Be sure to check out my delicious spin on Kate’s famous brownie recipe here.