Katharine Hepburn: One of the Greatest Screen Legends of Hollywood’s Golden Era

HOLIDAY, Katharine Hepburn, 1938
Everett Collection

Katharine Hepburn, born to a prominent doctor and a fervent feminist and suffragette, was raised to be an unapologetic free thinker. Launching her acting career at Bryn Mawr College, the patrician beauty fearlessly managed her Hollywood career, buying out her RKO Radio Pictures contract after a series of failed films and signing on with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where she was partnered with Spencer Tracy to great on- and offscreen success. Refusing to play the ingénue worked in her favor, and along the way she would pick up four acting Academy Awards (a record) and 12 Best Actress nominations.

BRINGING UP BABY, from left: Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, 1938

Everett Collection

Fiercely independent, athletic and scorning fashion norms, Hepburn was truly Hollywood’s “modern woman.” Her film career spanned six decades, with some of the best pairings in classic Hollywood — Bringing Up Baby (1938) with Cary Grant, Adam’s Rib (1949) with Spencer Tracy, The African Queen (1951) with Humphrey Bogart and On Golden Pond (1981) with Henry Fonda, to name a few.

American film actress Katharine Hepburn (1907 - 2003) on her arrival in London to play the lead in GB Shaw's 'The Millionairess'.

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Hepburn began the trend of women wearing trousers, and in 1986 was recognized by the Council of Fashion Designers with a lifetime achievement award for her influence on fashion.


That Secret Tracy And Hepburn Romance

265724 02: Actress Katharine Hepburn Embraces Actor Spencer Tracy. Hepburn Received Four Oscars For Best Actress In The Span Of A Sixty Year Career.

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Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn costarred in nine films, from Woman of the Year (1942) to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). With their fast repartee and meaningful looks, the screen chemistry between the two was undeniable. So it’s not surprising that the two pulled considerable double duty in their offscreen romance. But like any good screwball comedy, there were complications — Tracy, a strict Catholic, was married, and Hepburn was highly independent — so they managed their lifelong love for each other at arm’s length. Tracy kept his affair with Hepburn secret, and she in turn never asked him to divorce. Still, Tracy lived largely apart from his wife, and he and Hepburn saw each other discreetly.

103936 05: Katharine Hepburn And Actor Spencer Tracy Ride Horses In USA. Actress Hepburn Won Four Of Twelve Oscar Nominations For Best Actress And Starred In Such Classic Films As "The African Queen" And "On Golden Pond."

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It was an arrangement that apparently satisfied all the parties; as Tracy told Joan Fontaine, “I can get a divorce whenever I want to, but my wife and Kate like things just as they are.” Tracy’s lifelong habit of drinking and smoking caught up with him in his early 60s, and Hepburn moved in with the ailing actor to care for him in the last years of his life. After Tracy died of a heart attack at age 67, Hepburn did not attend the funeral out of respect for his family. Hepburn was once asked why she accepted such rigorous conditions for their affair. “I honestly don’t know,” she replied. “I can only say that I could never have left him. [We] just passed 27 years together in what was to me absolute bliss.”

In Her Downtime

(Original Caption) Babe Didrikson, foremost woman golfer, has a tip or two for Katharine Hepburn (R). But Katharine, ready to be shown, is herself remembered as a one-time finalist in the Connecticut Women's Golf Tournament. Photo filed 5/25/1952.

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When she wasn’t working, Hepburn stayed steadfast to her independent nature, preferring casual menswear-inspired attire and was an avid golfer. And though she refused to conform to Hollywood norms rewarding youth, beauty and a very public persona, Hepburn never lost the public’s support, giving Oscar-winning performances in her 60s and 70s. Following the passing of Tracy and his wife, Hepburn softened her aversion to publicity, giving public interviews and championing feminist causes. The icon died at age 96 on June 29, 2003, but her motto has inspired generations of women: “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.”

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Hollywood Glamour

May 2020

Celebrate the most glamorous leading ladies from the Golden Age of Hollywood

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