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Star of stage and screen, and international icon, actress Katharine Houghton Hepburn was born on May 12, 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut to Dr. Thomas N. Hepburn, a distinguished urologist and surgeon specializing in the treatment of venereal disease, and Katharine (Kit) Martha Houghton, an advocate of women’s suffrage and birth control. Hepburn’s parents devoted themselves to working for social causes in which they believed, as well as to raising their family.
Hepburn was the second of six children. Known as “Kath” and “Kathy” as a child, Hepburn, reputedly a determined tomboy, at one point took the name “Jimmy.” In 1921, while visiting their mother’s friend Mary ("Auntie") Towle in Greenwich Village, Hepburn found her adored older brother, Tom, dead, a possible suicide.
She was admitted to her mother’s alma mater, Bryn Mawr College, in 1925. In her junior year (1927), she performed in The Truth About Blayds by A.A. Milne (although there are no materials in the papers on this production) and in her senior year (1928), she played Pandora in The Woman in the Moone by John Lyly (a.k.a. Lilly) in the college’s May Day celebration.
Around the time of her 1928 graduation from Bryn Mawr, Hepburn was hired by Edwin H. Knopf for his stock company in Baltimore. She played small parts in The Czarina and The Cradle Snatchers. Also in the company were Mary Boland, Kenneth MacKenna, Dudley Digges, and Robert Montgomery. Through Kenneth MacKenna (who wrote a letter of introduction), Hepburn began studying with acting teacher Frances Robinson-Duff.
Later that summer, Knopf’s company produced The Big Pondby George Middleton and A.E. Thomas in Great Neck, New York. Hepburn was fired after only one performance. She made her Broadway debut as a hostess under the name “Katherine [sic] Burns” in Night Hostess by Philip Dunning, which opened at the Martin Beck Theatre on September 12, 1928. That same year, Hepburn also understudied Hope Williams in the role of Linda Seton in Philip Barry’s play, Holiday. (Hepburn would later play the role in the film.) She also played Veronica Sims in These Days by Katharine Clugston, opening at the Cort Theatre on November 12, 1928. On December 12th, Hepburn married Ludlow Ogden Smith, from whom she was divorced in 1934.
Between 1929 and 1931, Hepburn toured and performed in several plays such as Death Takes a Holidayby Alberto Casella (from which she was fired in 1929), Art and Mrs. Bottle by Benn Levy (1930), and The Animal Kingdom by Philip Barry (1931). She also understudied Eunice Stoddard as Katia in A Month in the Country (1930), and performed in summer stock in Stockbridge, Massachusetts in 1930 (although there are no materials in the papers on these productions), as well as in Ivoryton, Connecticut in 1931.
Hepburn’s success as Antiope in The Warrior’s Husband by Julian F. Thompson, which opened Mar. 11, 1932 at the Morosco Theatre won her a screen test in Hollywood, leading her to her first role in A Bill of Divorcementand movie stardom. The film was directed by George Cukor, who became one of Hepburn’s closest friends. (Also around this time, Hepburn was represented by noted agent Leland Hayward.) However, throughout her career, Hepburn would always return to the legitimate stage.
After winning her first (of four) Academy Awards for Morning Glory (1933), Hepburn returned to the stage in the Jed Harris production of The Lake by Dorothy Massingham and Murray MacDonald at the Martin Beck Theatre. The play was lambasted by the critics and Hepburn did not return to the stage until she toured in Helen Jerome’s adaptation of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë in 1936-1937. The tour was produced by the Theatre Guild. In 1939, The Philadelphia Story triumphantly reunited Hepburn with both Philip Barry and the Theatre Guild. Shirley Booth, Joseph Cotten, and Van Heflin co-starred. Hepburn next returned to the stage in another Philip Barry play, Without Love, which opened on Nov. 10, 1942 at the St. James Theatre and co-starred Elliot Nugent and featured Audrey Christie. The 1942 film Woman of the Year also marked the beginning of Hepburn’s professional (and personal) partnership with Spencer Tracy.
At the urging of the Theatre Guild’s Lawrence Langner, Hepburn took on the challenge of playing Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, which opened at the Cort Theatre on Jan. 26, 1950. William Prince and Cloris Leachman were also in the cast. After playing to sold out houses, Hepburn took the play on tour and kept a record (sometimes humorous) of her travels throughout the U.S. After filming The African Queen, she toured England in The Millionairess by George Bernard Shaw, opening at London’s New Theatre on June 27, 1952 and then at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre on Oct. 17 of that same year. Hepburn’s costumes were by Pierre Balmain. Cyril Ritchard and Robert Helpmann were also in the cast directed Michael Benthall. Benthall and Helpmann began a close friendship with Hepburn that lasted until their deaths.
In 1955, with Robert Helpmann, she toured Australia with the Old Vic Company in three Shakespeare plays: The Merchant of Venice, The Taming of the Shrew, and Measure for Measure. Several scrapbooks in the papers document the tour.
For two summers (1957 and 1960), Hepburn performed at the fledgling American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut. In 1957, she appeared with Morris Carnovsky in The Merchant of Venice and with Alfred Drake in Much Ado About Nothing, the latter production touring after the summer season. She performed in Twelfth Night and in Antony and Cleopatra with Robert Ryan as Antony (1960).
Despite her initial reluctance, Hepburn made her musical debut as Coco Chanel in Coco, the musical by Alan Jay Lerner and André Previn in 1969, at the age of sixty-two. She also toured with the show after its Broadway run. Hepburn would repeat this process for her last two Broadway productions—A Matter of Gravity by Enid Bagnold (1976) and The West Side Waltzby Ernest Thompson (1981)—but also doing pre-Broadway tours for these two shows. Her work in Coco and The West Side Waltzearned her two Tony nominations.
In her later years, Hepburn continued to perform in films and on television, but she returned to the stage once more to introduce celebrity cast members at an Irish Repertory Theatre benefit performance of Yeats: A Celebration! at the Booth Theatre, June 6, 1994.
Katharine Hepburn died at her home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut on June 29, 2003 at the age of ninety-six.
- Contemporary Theatre, Film, and Television, Volume 5. Detroit, MI : Gale Research, Co., 1988.
- James, Caryn. "Katharine Hepburn, Spirited Actress, Dies at 96." New York Times [New York, N.Y.] 30 June 2003, A1.
- "Katharine Hepburn." American Decades. Gale Research, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Thomson Gale. 2007. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC
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