20 years ago, Katharine Hepburn, one of the greatest stars of all time, died. No actress has won more Oscars than her.
With four Oscars – the only thing that counts forever in Hollywood – she is the most successful actress to date: Catherine the Great. June 29th marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Katharine Houghton Hepburn (1907-2003). The life of this Hollywood legend, even long after her death, feels like a full-length, fascinating film.
From Broadway to Hollywood
The beginning of her acting career is really difficult. After (completed) studies in philosophy and history, she persuaded her unenthusiastic father to become an actress. But Katharine speaks too fast, often gets muddled and is hard to understand at times. This improves after intensive speaking and dancing lessons. As early as 1928 she was able to get bigger theater roles on Broadway. Eventually Hollywood became aware of the willowy young woman with the classic facial profile.
Katharine Hepburn does not come as a shy young woman from the cool East Coast to the West Coast in California. “The Tsarina”, as her colleagues called her, had already attracted attention at the theater in New York with her sharp tongue and her imperious demeanor. The actress Lucille Ball (1911-1989) said of the young Hepburn: “She was not really superior to anyone. She ignored everyone equally.”
In Hollywood, the most important acting center in the world, she puts out her egocentric motto: “If you only ever do what you feel like doing, at least one person in the world is happy.” Already with her third feature film “Dawn of Glory” (1933) she achieved highest fame: the Oscar for best leading actress. But then it gets quiet.
From box office poison to the biggest star of all time
The emancipated Katharine, who embodies intelligent and unconventional women on screen so convincingly and captivatingly, is considered a “poison at the box office”. Even the comedy “Leopards Don’t Kiss You” (1938) with Cary Grant (1904-1986) as a partner, today a great film classic, flopped. And when she insisted that she be née Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939), producer David O. Selznick (1902-1965) reportedly countered that he couldn’t imagine Clark Gable (1901-1960 ) would hunt her down for ten years.
Katharine Hepburn then buys her way out of her contract with the RKO film studio and goes back to Broadway. There she had an immediate hit as the unapproachable high-society lady Tracy Lord in the comedy “The Philadelphia Story”. Hepburn secures the film rights, sells them to leading Hollywood studio MGM, and dictates her terms: starring for her, directed by her favorite director George Cukor (1899-1983), her co-stars Cary Grant and James Stewart (1908-1997). The film “The Night Before the Wedding” (1940) becomes one of Hollywood’s greatest financial successes. From then on, she has a largely free hand in Hollywood.
Katharine becomes the big female star, but not a sex symbol. Not a diva, but an expert, a real star, probably the greatest of all time. She is rebellious, witty, quick-witted – and despises the Hollywood fashion for feminine charms. She hates skirts, which she calls “work clothes” and prefers to wear trousers. When she provocatively asks the popular US journalist Barbara Walters (1929-2022) whether she even owns a skirt, she replies that she does have one, which she will wear to Walters’ funeral…
With Spencer Tracy she has the secret love of Hollywood
Hepburn, who is not related or related by marriage to the other great Hollywood star, the elfin Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993), hardly ever had any affairs, at least none are known. Her marriage to the stockbroker Ludlow Ogden Smith (1899-1979), whom she met during her studies, ended in divorce in 1934 after six years. She then dated the eccentric aviation pioneer, entrepreneur, and film producer Howard Hughes (1905-1976) for several years. She renounced having her own family for the rest of her life, in line with her motto: “Only when a woman decides not to have children can she live like a man. That’s exactly what I did.”
In everyday life she walks around without make-up and in jeans. She hates glamor and hype, and she doesn’t even like going to restaurants. This is how she manages to make a well-kept secret out of her private life, which certainly exists. In 1941 she got Spencer Tracy (1900-1967) the male lead in the film “The Woman They’re Talking About”. At the time, he wasn’t the most handsome in Hollywood, but more of the “gnarly old man” type, but he was considered a brilliant actor, an equal partner. During the filming, the two become a couple.
It’s another intriguing secret that in gossip-hungry Hollywood, this relationship is well-known but never publicized. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn are in eight more films together and remain secretly together for a total of 26 years. There are no private photos together, they never share an apartment, they take separate hotel rooms when they travel, and they never appear together in public.
The reason for this secrecy: Spencer Tracy is already married – and a devout Catholic. He officially lives with his wife, theater actress Louise Treadwell (1896-1983), and two children, and divorce is not an option for him.
Katharine Hepburn is putting her career on hold
Katharine Hepburn later says, “I loved Spencer Tracy. Only his interests and needs mattered. That wasn’t so easy for me because I was a decidedly egocentric person.” Only much later does she explain: “Men and women don’t really fit together. They should only live next to each other and visit each other from time to time.”
Living together at a distance is anything but easy. Tracy is heavily addicted to alcohol and is becoming increasingly ill. The Hepburn put her own career on hold for five years to nurture and care for her significant other.
17 days after shooting Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967) Tracy dies of heart failure on June 10, 1967 at the age of 67. After his death, Katharine Hepburn speaks to his widow for the first time, but out of consideration for the wife does not appear at her lover’s funeral. A few months later she received her second Oscar for her leading female role in this last film together.
An icon of the other Hollywood
The following year, she received her third Oscar for her terrific role as medieval Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine in “The Lion in Winter” (1968). She won the fourth in 1981 at the age of 73 with the wonderful old age melodrama “Am goldenen See” alongside Henry Fonda (1905-1982).
Katharine Hepburn has become an icon of the other Hollywood, not loud and shrill, but quiet, sensitive and intelligent, loved and respected by audiences and critics alike. She died on June 29, 2003 at the age of 96 from cancer. On the anniversary of her death, the entire Broadway in New York is completely blacked out for one minute. Her star shines to this day.