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The Fascinating Life of a Silver Screen Legend

The Fascinating Life of a Silver Screen Legend

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Katharine Hepburn (1938) Ernest Bachrach / Contributor / Getty

Classy and fiercely independent, Katharine Hepburn was not just an actress but an icon who carried herself with unmistakable elegance. Unapologetically true to herself, Hepburn was a phenomenal talent whose punctuality was legendary, declaring, “I’ve never been late once in all my years in the theater.” It’s no wonder she is celebrated as one of Hollywood’s most acclaimed actresses.

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Katharine Hepburn (1935) Ernest Bachrach / Contributor / Getty

Born Katharine Houghton Hepburn on May 12, 1907, in Hartford, Connecticut, she was the daughter of Thomas and Katharine Hepburn. She graduated from Bryn Mawr College in 1928 with a degree in history and philosophy, a feat driven largely by her passion for acting, which required maintaining solid grades to participate in school productions. College itself may have been underwhelming for her, but acting was her true calling.

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

During her senior year at Bryn Mawr, Hepburn landed her first lead role in the Elizabethan-era play The Woman in the Moon. The positive feedback she received from the audience solidified her determination that acting, particularly stage acting, was what she was meant to do.

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

Hepburn’s professional career began on the stage in 1928 with a Baltimore production of The Czarina. She went on to perform in 17 different shows by 1934’s The Lake. It was her 1932 performance in The Warrior’s Husband, portraying the Amazon Antiope, that caught Hollywood’s attention. Walter Brown, the dramatic editor for The Hartford Courant, raved about her performance, calling it “a glowing performance [that] has brightened the Broadway scene.”

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

Nonetheless, she faced setbacks. Her performance in The Lake was harshly criticized, and poet Dorothy Parker commented scathingly that Hepburn “ran the gamut of emotions—from A to B.” The failed show led to Hepburn being labeled “box office poison.”

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Katharine Hepburn in the 1930s Getty Images: Bettmann

But failure was only temporary for Hepburn. By 1936, she was back on stage with the title role in Jane Eyre, followed by critical acclaim for her portrayal of Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story from 1939 to 1941. She frequently returned to the stage, with performances spanning decades, including roles in Without Love (1942-1943) and The West Side Waltz (1981-1982).

Transitioning from stage to screen, Hepburn’s role in The Warrior’s Husband impressed George Cukor, who cast her in the film adaptation of A Bill of Divorcement. The successful movie led The Hollywood Reporter to dub her “a new star on the cinema horizon.” Hepburn and Cukor collaborated on seven more films.

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Katharine Hepburn & David Manners in ‘A Bill of Divorcement’ (1932) Bettmann / Contributor / Getty

In 1933, Hepburn won the Best Actress Academy Award for her role as Eva Lovelace in Morning Glory. She repeated this achievement with roles in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), and On Golden Pond (1981).

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Katharine Hepburn in ‘The Holiday’ (1938) Screen Archives / Contributor / Getty

Over the next 60 years, she starred in nearly 40 more films, earning Best Actress nominations for roles in films like Alice Adams (1935), The Philadelphia Story (1940), Woman of the Year (1942), The African Queen (1951), Summertime (1955), and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1962).

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

Hepburn was also known for her 25-year love affair with married actor Spencer Tracy. Although never publicly acknowledged until after Tracy’s wife passed in 1983, Hepburn wrote about their relationship in her autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life. She said, “It was a unique feeling I had for him. I loved him. I would have done anything for him.”

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

The chemistry between Hepburn and Tracy was evident on screen, and they appeared in nine films together, including Woman of the Year (1942), Adam’s Rib (1949), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).

Katharine Hepburn was married only once, to Ludlow Ogden Smith, but they divorced in 1934. She embraced her independence and was unfazed by societal expectations of marriage and motherhood. “I’ve lived my life as a man, since I had no child-rearing responsibilities. I wanted adventure,” she noted.

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

Hepburn’s relationship with Tracy remained steadfast until his death in 1967. She lived a full life and passed away on June 29, 2003, of cardiac arrest at the age of 96. In a 1993 TNT documentary, Katharine Hepburn: All About Me, she expressed her pragmatic view on death: “I have no fear of death. Must be wonderful, like a long sleep.”

Indeed, Katharine Hepburn faced life — and death — with unmatched grace and pragmatism.

Source: Getty Images