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Katharine Hepburn
Katharine Hepburn promo pic.jpg
Studio publicity photograph, c. 1941
Katharine Houghton Hepburn

(1907-05-12)May 12, 1907
Died June 29, 2003(2003-06-29) (aged 96)
Resting place Cedar Hill Cemetery, Hartford
Alma mater Bryn Mawr College
Occupation Actress
Years active 1928–1994
Ludlow Ogden Smith
(m. 1928; div. 1934)
Partner(s) Spencer Tracy
(1941; d. 1967)
Parent(s) Thomas Norval Hepburn
Katharine Martha Houghton

Katharine Houghton Hepburn (May 12, 1907 – June 29, 2003) was an American actress. Known for her fierce independence and spirited personality, Hepburn was a leading lady in Hollywood for more than 60 years. She appeared in a range of genres, from screwball comedy to literary drama, and she received a record of four Academy Awards for Best Actress. In 1999, Hepburn was named by the American Film Institute as the greatest female star of Classic Hollywood Cinema.

Raised in Connecticut by wealthy, progressive parents, Hepburn began to act while studying at Bryn Mawr College. After four years in the theatre, favorable reviews of her work on Broadway brought her to the attention of Hollywood. Her early years in the film industry were marked with success, including an Academy Award for her third picture, Morning Glory (1933), but this was followed by a series of commercial failures that led her to be labeled "box office poison" in 1938.

Hepburn masterminded her own comeback, buying out her contract with RKO Radio Pictures and acquiring the film rights to The Philadelphia Story, which she sold on the condition that she be the star. In the 1940s, she was contracted to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where her career focused on an alliance with Spencer Tracy. The screen partnership spanned 25 years and produced nine movies.

State of the Union with Tracey and Hepburn
State of the Union with Tracey and Hepburn

Hepburn challenged herself in the latter half of her life, as she regularly appeared in Shakespearean stage productions and tackled a range of literary roles. She found a niche playing middle-aged spinsters, such as in The African Queen (1951), a persona the public embraced. Three more Oscars came for her work in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), and On Golden Pond (1981). In the 1970s, she began appearing in television films, which became the focus of her career in later life. She remained active into old age, making her final screen appearance in 1994 at the age of 87. After a period of inactivity and ill health, Hepburn died in 2003 at the age of 96.

Hepburn famously shunned the Hollywood publicity machine, and refused to conform to society's expectations of women. She was outspoken, assertive, athletic, and wore trousers before it was fashionable for women to do so. She was briefly married as a young woman, but thereafter lived independently. A 26-year affair with her co-star Spencer Tracy was hidden from the public. With her unconventional lifestyle and the independent characters she brought to the screen, Hepburn epitomized the "modern woman" in the 20th-century United States, and is remembered as an important cultural figure.

Early life

Hepburn (left) with her mother and siblings 1921

Hepburn was born in Hartford, Connecticut, the second of six children. Her parents were Thomas Norval Hepburn (1879–1962 and Katharine Martha Houghton (1878–1951), a feminist campaigner. Both parents fought for social change in the US. As a child, Hepburn joined her mother on several "Votes For Women" demonstrations. The Hepburn children were raised to exercise freedom of speech and encouraged to think and debate on any topic they wished. She remained close to her family throughout her life.

The young Hepburn was a tomboy, and cut her hair short. Thomas Hepburn was eager for his children to use their minds and bodies to the limit, and taught them to swim, run, dive, ride, wrestle, and play golf and tennis. Golf became a passion of Hepburn's; she took daily lessons and became very adept, reaching the semi-final of the Connecticut Young Women's Golf Championship. She loved swimming in Long Island Sound. Hepburn was a fan of movies from a young age, and went to see one every Saturday night. She would put on plays and perform for her neighbors with friends and siblings for 50 cents a ticket to raise money for the Navajo people.

Katharine Hepburn yearbook photo
Hepburn's yearbook photo, 1928, Bryn Mawr College

In 1924 Hepburn gained a place at Bryn Mawr College. It was the first time she had been in school for several years, and she was self-conscious and uncomfortable with her classmates. She struggled with the scholastic demands of university. Hepburn was drawn to acting, but roles in college plays were conditional on good grades. Once her marks had improved, she began performing regularly. She performed the lead role in a production of The Woman in the Moon in her senior year, and the positive response it received cemented Hepburn's plans to pursue a theatrical career. She graduated with a degree in history and philosophy in June 1928.

Hepburn left university determined to become an actress. The day after graduating, she traveled to Baltimore to meet Edwin H. Knopf, who ran a successful stock theatre company. Impressed by her eagerness, Knopf cast Hepburn in his current production, The Czarina. She received good reviews for her small role, and the Printed Word described her performance as "arresting".

Personal life

Tracy Hepburn Desk Set
Hepburn had a 26-year relationship with actor Spencer Tracy, although he never divorced his wife. Promotional image for Desk Set 1957

Hepburn was known for being fiercely private, and would not give interviews or talk to fans for much of her career. She distanced herself from the celebrity lifestyle, uninterested in a social scene she saw as tedious and superficial, and she wore casual clothes that went strongly against convention in an era of glamour. She rarely appeared in public, even avoiding restaurants, and once wrestled a camera out of a photographer's hand when he took a picture without asking.

Despite her zeal for privacy, she enjoyed her fame, and later confessed that she would not have liked the press to ignore her completely. The protective attitude toward her private life thawed as she aged; beginning with a two-hour-long interview on The Dick Cavett Show in 1973, Hepburn became more open with the public.

The actress led an active life, reportedly swimming and playing tennis every morning. In her eighties she was still playing tennis regularly.

Hepburn liked to go barefoot, and for her first acting role in the play "The Woman in the Moon" she insisted that her character Pandora should not wear shoes. Off-screen, she usually dressed in slacks and sandals, even for formal occasions like TV interviews. The American Humanist Association to award her the Humanist Arts Award in 1985.

Final years and death

Hepburn's gravestone in Hartford, Connecticut

Hepburn stated in her eighties, "I have no fear of death. Must be wonderful, like a long sleep." Her health began to deteriorate not long after her final screen appearance, and she was hospitalized in March 1993 for exhaustion. In the winter of 1996, she was hospitalized with pneumonia. By 1997, she had become very weak, was speaking and eating very little, and it was feared she would die. She showed signs of dementia in her final years.

In May 2003, an aggressive tumor was found in Hepburn's neck. The decision was made not to medically intervene, and she died from cardiac arrest on June 29, 2003, a month after her 96th birthday at the Hepburn family home in Fenwick, Connecticut. She was buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford. Hepburn requested that there be no memorial service.

Katharine Hepburn House, Fenwick, CT
Katharine Hepburn House, Fenwick, CT

After Hepburn's death, film historian Jeanine Basinger stated, "What she brought us was a new kind of heroine—modern and independent. She was beautiful, but she did not rely on that." Mary McNamara, a journalist for the Los Angeles Times wrote, "More than a movie star, Katharine Hepburn was the patron saint of the independent American female."

Hepburn's death received considerable public attention. Many tributes were held on television, and newspapers and magazines dedicated issues to the actress. American president George W. Bush said Hepburn "will be remembered as one of the nation's artistic treasures". In honor of her extensive theatre work, the lights of Broadway were dimmed for the evening of July 1, 2003. In 2004, in accordance with Hepburn's wishes, her belongings were put up for auction with Sotheby's in New York City. The event garnered $5.8 million, which Hepburn willed to her family.


Katharine hepburn woman of the year cropped
Hepburn as Tess Harding in Woman of the Year

Hepburn is considered an important and influential cultural figure. Ros Horton and Sally Simmons included her in their book Women Who Changed The World, which honors 50 women who helped shape world history and culture. She is also named in Encyclopædia Britannica's list of "300 Women Who Changed the World", Ladies Home Journal's book 100 Most Important Women of the 20th century, Variety magazine's "100 Icons of the Century", and she is number 84 on VH1's list of the "200 Greatest Pop Culture Icons of All Time". In 1999, the American Film Institute named Hepburn the "greatest American screen legend" among females.

Regarding Hepburn's film legacy, one of her biographers, Sheridan Morley, said she "broke the mold" for women in Hollywood, where she brought a new breed of strong-willed females to the screen.

Off screen, Hepburn's lifestyle was ahead of her time, coming to symbolize the "modern woman" and playing a part in changing gender attitudes. Horton and Simmons write, "Confident, intelligent and witty, four-time Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn defied convention throughout her professional and personal life ... Hepburn provided an image of an assertive woman whom [females] could watch and learn from."

Hepburn's legacy extends to fashion, where she pioneered wearing trousers at a time when it was a radical move for a woman. She helped make trousers acceptable for women, and fans began to imitate her clothing. In 1986 she received a lifetime achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in recognition of her influence on women's fashion.


Katharine Hepburn Place
East 49th Street in New York City, named after Katharine Hepburn

Hepburn has been honored with several memorials. The Turtle Bay community in Manhattan, New York City, where she maintained a residence for over 60 years, dedicated a garden in her name in 1997. After Hepburn's death in 2003, the intersection of East 49th Street and 2nd Avenue was renamed "Katharine Hepburn Place". Three years later Bryn Mawr College, Hepburn's alma mater, launched the Katharine Houghton Hepburn Center. It is dedicated to both the actress and her mother, and encourages women to address important issues affecting their gender.


The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center was opened in 2009 in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, the location of the Hepburn family beach home, which she loved and later owned. The building includes a performance space and a Katharine Hepburn museum.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences library and the New York Public Library hold collections of Hepburn's personal papers. Selections from the New York collection, which documents Hepburn's theatrical career, were presented in a five-month exhibition, Katharine Hepburn: In Her Own Files, in 2009. Other exhibitions have been held to showcase Hepburn's career.

Hepburn has also been honored with her own postal stamp as part of the "Legends of Hollywood" stamp series.

Filmography and theatre credits

During her 66-year career, Hepburn appeared in 44 feature films, 8 television movies, and 33 plays. Her movie career covered a range of genres, including screwball comedies, period dramas, and adaptations of works by top American playwrights. She appeared on the stage in every decade from the 1920s to the 1980s, performing plays by Shakespeare and Shaw, and a Broadway musical.

Cary Grant Katharine Hepburn Holiday
Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn from the 1938 film Holiday
Katharine Hepburn Much Ado About Nothing 1958
Katharine Hepburn Much Ado About Nothing 1958

Select filmography:

  • Morning Glory (1933)
  • Little Women (1933)
  • Alice Adams (1935)
  • Stage Door (1937)
  • Bringing Up Baby (1938)
  • Holiday (1938)
  • The Philadelphia Story (1940)
  • Woman of the Year (1942)
  • Adam's Rib (1949)
  • The African Queen (1951)
  • Pat and Mike (1952)
  • Summertime (1955)
  • Desk Set (1957)
  • Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
  • Long Day's Journey into Night (1962)
  • Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)
  • The Lion in Winter (1968)
  • Love Among the Ruins (1975)
  • Rooster Cogburn (1975)
  • On Golden Pond (1981)

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