Born May 12, 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut, Katherine Hepburn was the daughter of a doctor and a suffragette, both of whom always encouraged her to speak her mind, develop it fully, and exercise her body to its full potential. 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 received four Academy Awards for Best Actress a record for any performer. Hepburn was a tomboy who liked to call herself Jimmy, and cut her hair short like a boy’s.
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. Hepburn was a fan of movies from a young age, and went to see one every Saturday night.
Tragedy struck in 1921, when Hepburn found her older brother Tom, whom she worshipped, hanging from the rafters of the attic by a rope, dead of an apparent suicide. Her family denied that it was self-inflicted, arguing that he had been a happy boy.
Katherine was devastated by his death and sank into a deep depression. She shied away from children her own age and was mostly schooled at home. For many years, she used Tom’s birthday (8 November) as her own. In 1939, Katharine returned to Broadway to star in ‘The Philadelphia Story’.
She secured her role in the onscreen version, which also starred James Stewart. Following swiftly on came another success, ‘Woman of the Year’. Spencer Tracey first shared the screen with Katharine in this picture.
She started to make films at a less breakneck speed from the late 1940s, with one of her most memorable films, ‘The African Queen’, directed by John Huston in 1951. Her performance was complemented by that of unlikely companion, Humphrey Bogart.
Her physical presence was distinctive; her often-imitated voice filled with the vowels of a well-bred New Englander, and her sharp-planed face defined by remarkably high cheekbones. In her youth she did not have classical leading-lady looks, but a handsome beauty.
In old age she was a familiar figure with her hair, gradually changing from auburn to gray, always in a topknot and her boyish figure always in the trousers that she helped to make fashionable.
Her life and career were dominated by her love affair with Spencer Tracy, which created one of the great romantic legends and brilliant movie pairings of their day. Tracy was unhappily married and the father of two when they met and he remained married until the end of his life.
Although Hepburn suffered some significant injuries in a 1985 automobile accident, and illnesses usual to one of her years, she golfed, cycled, and swam in the sea into her nineties. Katharine Hepburn provided some new perspectives on her personality and the roles she played on stage and screen in her autobiography, published after she retired from performance.
In it she stressed the important influence of her intellectual family, and her continued closeness with her siblings and their children.