Encyclopedia Womannica

Leading Ladies: Katharine Hepburn

Episode Summary

Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003) was a stage and film actress, famously known for her grit. The American Film Institute named her the greatest female star of Classic Hollywood Cinema.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Leading Ladies, Activists, STEMinists,  Hometown Heroes, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Today’s leading lady was a stage and film actress, famously known for her grit. The American Film Institute named her the greatest female star of Classic Hollywood Cinema. Let’s talk about Katharine Hepburn. 

Katharine Hepburn was born on May 12, 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut. Her father was a surgeon, and her mother was a leader in the suffrage movement and an advocate for birth control access. Katharine later reflected on her socially conscious upbringing, and acknowledged the immense role her parents played in her success.

Growing up, Katharine deviated from gender norms. One summer, she cut her hair short and asked to be referred to as “Jimmy.” She said in an interview that "I thought being a girl was really the bunk, but there's no bunk about Jimmy." Later on in life, Katharine said that she never actually felt like a “Jimmy,” but simply liked the name.

In 1921, while vacationing in New York, Katharine, then 14 years old, discovered the dead body of her older brother Tom. Katharine subsequently dropped out of high school and received private tutoring. Though she rarely discussed the tragedy during her career, Katharine used Tom’s birthday, November 7, in place of her own. It wasn’t until 1991 that she revealed the actual date of her birth. 

In 1928, Katharine graduated with a degree in history and philosophy from Bryn Mawr College, where she had performed in shows. That year she also married a man named Ludlow Ogden Smith, though the pair would divorce in 1934. After school, she appeared in a number of  stock theater productions in Boston, New York and Connecticut.

 Katherine later joked about her self-confidence as a young performer and said: “I am terribly afraid I just assumed I’d be famous.” Despite her confidence, Katharine was fired on multiple occasions for being late, speaking too quickly, and mixing up lines. 

In 1932, Katharine starred in the Broadway production of The Warrior’s Husband, which showcased her athleticism. The performance drew critical acclaim, and proved to be Katharine’s gateway into stardom. 

She was then invited out to Hollywood to do a screen test for RKO. Director George Cukor saw the test and later reminisced saying, “"She was unlike anybody I'd ever seen or heard. I was rather moved by the test, although the performance wasn't that good. But I thought, `That girl is rather interesting.' "

Katharine’s first film role was in a movie Cukor directed called A Bill of Divorcement

Katharine made for an unconventional Hollywood star. She opted for pants instead of dresses at a time when it was uncommon for women to do so, and she often spoke in a frank manner. During her early years in Hollywood, Katharine said: “I have an angular face, an angular body and, I suppose, an angular personality, which jabs into people.”

In 1933, Katharine starred in the film Morning Glory, earning her the Academy Award for Best Actress. She then took the role of Jo in the film Little Women—a performance she considered to be one of her proudest.

Katharine would go on to be nominated for 12 Academy Awards, a record that has since been broken by Meryl Streep. She won three more times for “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “The Lion in Winter,” and “On Golden Pond.”

Still, Katharine wasn’t always applauded by critics. After winning her first Oscar, Katherine returned to Broadway in The Lake. Dorothy Parker famously wrote of Katharine’s performance: “Miss Hepburn ran the gamut of emotion from A to B.”  A few of her films also flopped, leading some in the industry to lose faith in her ability to bring people to the box office. 

Katharine took matters into her own hands. In 1938, she starred in a show on Broadway called The Philadelphia Story. The lead character had been written for her. She played a wealthy woman who was about to marry for the second time when her first husband and a reporter show up to complicate things. The play was a success. Plus, Howard Hughes had bought and given the rights to the show to Katharine. She took them to MGM and sold the movie rights on the condition that she would play the lead. That kind of deal was quite unusual for an actress to pursue at the time. It was remarkable that she was calling shots herself. 

The movie was also a hit, and Katharine kept her foot on the gas.  

In 1941, Katharine proposed the comedy Woman of the Year to MGM Studios and requested that Spencer Tracy be her co-star. The movie was another hit professionally and it had a major impact on Katharine’s personal life, too.

Katharine and Spencer Tracy formed a romantic partnership for the subsequent 25 years, until Spencer’s death, though they never married. They made 9 films together. Spencer died in 1967, less than a month after filming “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” their last movie together.

Throughout her life, Katharine continued to star on screen and stage, wowing audiences and critics alike with her unique charisma. 

Katharine died of cardiac arrest in 2003, one month after her 96th birthday. She requested that no funeral or memorial service be held.  

Katharine Hepburn’s career spanned more than six decades. She exuded strength in her roles and life, serving as an inspiration for those who watched her performances and those who followed in her footsteps. In a TV biography, she said, "In some ways I've lived my life as a man, made my own decisions. I've been as terrified as the next person, but you've got to keep a-going; you've got to dream."

Katharine’s legacy lives on, from film to fashion.  

In that same biography, called “All About Me,” Katharine said of dying, “I have no fear of death. Must be wonderful, like a long sleep. But let's face it: it's how you live that really counts.”

Tune in tomorrow for a special episode brought to you by Care/Of.  

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator. 

Talk to you tomorrow!