Katharine Houghton Hepburn was born May 12 1907, in Hartford, Connecticut, to Katharine Martha Houghton, a suffrage activist, and Dr. Thomas Norval Hepburn, a urologist who sought to educate the public about the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. A liberal-minded family, the Hepburns encouraged young Katharine to speak out, sharpen her mind and engage with the world as fully as possible. The Hepburns’ happy family life took a tragic in 1921, however, when Katharine made the horrifying discovery of her older brother, Tom, dead, hanging from the ceiling of his room. The loss of her beloved brother completely debilitated Katharine. For years, she withdrew almost entirely those around her, for a time even adopting Tom’s birthday (November 8) as her own.
While attending the all-women’s Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Katharine Hepburn fell in love with acting. After graduating from the school in 1928 with a degree in history, she spent the next several years acting in plays in and around New York, appearing in productions both on and off Broadway. She got her big break into screen acting when an RKO Radio Pictures talent scout spotted her in a Broadway performance and offered her an audition for a role starring opposite John Barrymore in the 1932 film ‘A Bill of Divorcement’. Hepburn got the part and never looked back.
‘A Bill of Divorcement’ became a hit, and RKO offered Hepburn a lucrative long-term contract to make films for the studio. Hepburn won the first of her four Academy Awards just a year later, for her performance in ‘Morning Glory’, opposite Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Adolphe Menjou. Soon after, her performance as Jo in the hit big-screen adaptation of the beloved Louisa May Alcott novel ‘Little Women’ won her great acclaim, and Hepburn became known throughout the world as a formidable onscreen presence with a fierce intelligence unique among actresses of her stature.
Though Hepburn made a series of popular comedies in the late 1930s (the most notable being ‘Bringing Up Baby’ in 1938, opposite Cary Grant), she also appeared in a handful of flops, and producers began to label her “box-office poison.” Sensing trouble, Hepburn ended her contract at RKO and returned to the stage.
Back on Broadway, Hepburn appeared as Tracy Lord in The ‘Philadelphia Story’, winning huge acclaim. Playwright Philip Barry had written the role specifically with Hepburn in mind, and critics and audiences alike went wild over the production. Hepburn bought the motion picture rights to the story and headed back to Hollywood, where she sold them to MGM on the condition that she would star in the film. With this move, she single-handedly regenerated her film career and her mass appeal. The 1940 film, starring Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart alongside Hepburn, earned multiple Academy Award nominations.
Hepburn’s Best Actress Oscar for ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ had plenty of company in the trophy case. Over the course of her long and prolific career, she made dozens of films and garnered a stunning twelve Academy Award nominations, winning four. Her credits include many of the most celebrated pictures of all time: ‘The Philadelphia Story’ (1940), ‘The African Queen’ (1951), ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ (1962), ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ (1967), ‘The Lion in Winter’ (1968), ‘On Golden Pond’ (1981). She stole the stage from all the leading men of her era, including Spencer Tracy, of course, but also Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, Charlton Heston and Laurence Olivier, to name a few.
In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked her the top American screen legend of all time.
In the 90’s, Katharine Hepburn developed a progressive neurological disease, but this did not prevent her from keeping up an active lifestyle in her Connecticut hometown and even from acting in select roles. Her last Hollywood film credit came in 1994, more than 60 years after she made her memorable debut in ‘A Bill of Divorcement’. Katharine Hepburn died on June 29 2003, at the age of 96 in the same house in which she had grown up. “Life is hard,” she once said. “After all, it kills you.”