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Katharine Hepburn Young: A Look Back at the Silver Screen Legend’s Fascinating Life

One of Hollywood’s greatest actresses of all time

Classy and fiercely independent, actress Katharine Hepburn was everything she seemed and more, carrying herself with an elegant demeanor, proving to be a phenomenal talent and always remaining unapologetically true to who she was. But while she was unquestionably all of that, there was so much more to Katharine — with an “a,” seeing it spelled with an “e” was one of her pet peeves — Hepburn.

The actress was also extremely punctual, confirming this herself in an interview, stating, “I’ve never been late once in all my years in the theater,” that attention to life in the moment likely contributing to her being hailed as one of the most acclaimed actresses in Hollywood history.

woman smoking; katharine hepburn young
Katharine Hepburn (1935)Ernest Bachrach / Contributor / Getty

Katharine Hepburn Young

young girl ; katharine hepburn young
Katharine Hepburn at age 4 (1911)Bettmann / Contributor

She was born Katharine Houghton Hepburn on May 12, 1907 in Hartford Connecticut to Thomas and Katharine Hepburn. She would graduate from Bryne Mawr College with a degree in history and philosophy in 1928, though it seems that only happened because she had discovered her thespian interests, and to be involved in school productions you had to have solid grades. College life itself, she reportedly found unfulfilling, but acting was something else entirely.

Katharine Hepburn at the age of 14 in 1921
Katharine Hepburn at the age of 14 in 1921Getty Images: Bettmann

It was while in her senior year at Bryn Mawr that she landed the lead role in the Elizabethan era play The Woman in the Moon, and the feedback she received from the audience was more than enough to convince her that acting — and, at that moment, particularly stage acting — was her calling.

Katharine Hepburn (right) at Bryn Mawr College, 1928
Katharine Hepburn (right) at Bryn Mawr College, 1928 Getty Images: Bettmann

Her professional career began on the stage in 1928 in a Baltimore, Maryland production of The Czarine, and would from there encompass 17 different shows by 1934’s The Lake. In between, though, she appeared in the 1932 production The Warrior’s Husband, portraying the Amazon Antiope, which is the one that caught the attention of Hollywood (more on that shortly), not to mention stage critics.

Katharine Hepburn in 1932's 'The Warrior's Husband'
Katharine Hepburn in 1932’s ‘The Warrior’s Husband’1932 PR Photo

“I’ve been waiting for Miss Hepburn to fall heir to a role worthy of her talent and her beauty,” enthused Walter Brown, “Dramatic Editor” for The Hartford Courant on March 15, 1932. “Antiope is that role and Miss Hepburn makes the most of it, bringing out its tenderness, its humor, its bite. It’s been many a night since so glowing a performance has brightened the Broadway scene.”

But then there was the previously-referenced The Lake, for which the performance of Katharine Hepburn young was savaged, with poet and writer Dorothy Parker famously commenting that the actress “ran the gamut of emotions — from A to B.” Unfortunately, after this discouraging review and the show’s lack of success, Hepburn was labelled “box office poison.”

Katharine Hepburn in the 1930s
Katharine Hepburn in the 1930sGetty Images: Bettmann

As it turns out, though, you’re only as poisonous as your last failure, and Hepburn was back on stage again by 1936, spending a year touring in the title role of Jane Eyre before receiving acclaim for her portrayal of Tracy Lord in 1939 to 1941’s The Philadelphia Story. Over the decades, there would be frequent returns to the stage — Broadway and otherwise — between 1942 to 1943’s Without Love and 1981 to 1982’s The West Side Waltz.

Not to mention, all of those movies!

Katharine Hepburn young transitions to the big screen

woman and man looking at each other
Katharine Hepburn & David Manners in ‘A Bill of Divorcement’ (1932)Bettmann / Contributor / Getty

With her performance in The Warrior’s Husband impressing film director George Cukor, he hired her for the role of Sidney in the film version of the play A Bill of Divorcement, a profitable movie which led The Hollywood Reporter to call the actress “a new star on the cinema horizon.” She and Cukor would work together again seven more times.

In 1933, she took home the Best Actress Academy Award for her role as Eva Lovelace in Morning Glory, doing the same as Christina Drayton in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter (1968) and Ethel Thayer in On Golden Pond (1981).

A scene from 'The Holiday'
Katharine Hepburn in ‘The Holiday’ (1938)Screen Archives / Contributor / Getty

There would be an additional near-40 films over the next 60 years, with Katharine Hepburn finding herself a Best Actress nominee for Alice Adams (1935), reprising her role of Tracy Lord in the movie adaptation of The Philadelphia Story (1940), Woman of the Year (1942), The African Queen (1951), Summertime (1955), Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962).

Box office poison indeed!

woman looking away
Katharine Hepburn in ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940)Archive Photos / Stringer / Getty

While Hepburn was known best as a stunning screen actress, she was also famously known for her 25-year love affair with married actor Spencer Tracy. This was never publicly acknowledged until after Tracy’s wife passed in 1983, at which point Hepburn wrote about their love story in her autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life, noting, “It was a unique feeling I had for him. I loved him. I would have done anything for him.”

Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in the 1940s
Spencer Tracy and Kathrarine Hepburn in the 1940s John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

As intensely private as Hepburn was, the chemistry between her and Tracy was obvious on screen as they appeared in no less than nine films together: Woman of the Year (1942), Keeper of the Flame (1942), Without Love (1945), The Sea of Grass (1947), State of the Union (1948), Adam’s Rib (1949), Pat and Mike (1952), Desk Set (1957) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).

Personally Speaking

Katharine Hepburn, 1932
Katharine Hepburn, 1932 Ernest Bachrach/John Kobal Foundation/Getty Images

Katharine Hepburn was only married once, to Ludlow Ogden Smith, from 1928 until they were divorced in 1934. Although it was very strange for a woman to be successful, unmarried and childless, Hepburn had no issue with it.

I’ve lived my life as a man, since I had no childrearing responsibilities. And I knew I might regret it, not having children and a family. But I made a conscious decision not to get tied up in the domestic life because I thought it would bore me — I wanted adventure.”

UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1945
UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1945: Photo of Katharine Hepburn Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

She did, as noted, become romantically involved with Spencer Tracy in 1941 and remained so until his death in 1967.

She would die of cardiac arrest on June 29, 2003 at the age of 96. In 1993, she expressed her thoughts on dying during the Turner Network Television documentary Katharine Hepburn: All About Me: “I have no fear of death. Must be wonderful, like a long sleep.”

Pragmatic about death as she was about life.

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