One of the great discoveries of my life came as a result of a personal disappointment. When I was a sophomore in high school searching for my niche, I decided to audition for the school’s production of The Philadelphia Story. To prepare, a friend and I rented the movie version.
Two hours after pressing ‘play’, I was in love, in the way one falls in love with an idol. My heart was not skipping beats for the dashing Cary Grant or the charming Jimmy Stewart. It was captured by their co-star and leading lady, the inimitable Katharine Hepburn.
In the movie, Ms. Hepburn plays Tracy Lord, a wealthy Philadelphia socialite preparing for her at-home wedding to a man whose only remarkable character trait was that he adored Tracy. The event takes a complicated turn when her ex-husband arrives, bringing in tow a tabloid reporter and photographer to document the wedding. There are fights, there are drunken hook-ups, there are jilted lovers.
The movie was released in 1940, after a down-turn in Ms. Hepburn’s career. Despite the times, and despite the spectacle of a divorcee choosing from among three suitors, Ms. Hepburn was able to endear herself to a public that had all but written her off. She sparkled, sparked, and in some scenes, almost spat. She symbolized the themes of many a Beyonce song, all the way back when women had just won the right to vote.
The Philadelphia Story was the perfect introduction to Hepburn. Although she was playing a character, it was a character that shared many of her own personality traits: headstrong, opinionated, brave and impulsive, but also vulnerable, idealistic and fundamentally good. And, incidentally, strikingly, captivatingly beautiful.
I auditioned for all three female roles in the play, and I didn’t land one of them. It stung, but ultimately did not matter. I began reading every Katharine Hepburn biography I could find. I hung two posters of her in my bedroom. I listed her as one of my greatest influences in my yearbook. Inspired by her, my favorite quote became – and still is – “True strength is delicate.”
Strength and delicacy were, to my mind, the hallmarks of Hepburn’s 96-year life. She grew up in a progressive household in Connecticut, with her father pioneering public education on venereal disease and her mother heading the Woman Suffrage Association and campaigning for birth control access with Margaret Sanger. When she was just fourteeen-years-old, Hepburn discovered the body of her older brother, Tom, who had hung himself.
She attended Bryn Mawr College, which she disliked and from which she was once suspended for smoking in her room. As soon as she graduated, she struck out for Baltimore, befriended Edwin H. Knopf, and got herself cast in his play. Three years later, after performing with various stock companies, she was fired from a production. When she asked the director why she’d been fired, he answered: “Well, to be brutally frank, you weren’t very good.”
Undeterred, she accepted the lead role in another play, which called for her to enter by leaping down a narrow stairway wearing a short silver tunic. It was hailed as a break-out performance. The next time she appeared before an audience, it was in a movie directed by George Cukor, and she starred opposite the legendary John Barrymore.
By her third movie, she had earned her first nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actress. She was then cast as one of the most beloved fictional characters in history: Jo March, in Little Women. That film, too, was a hit.
Then she entered the multi-year period during which she was considered “box office poison.” The Philadelphia Story revitalized her languishing career, and she went on to star in classic films such as Woman of the Year, Adam’s Rib, The African Queen, Pat and Mike, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Lion in Winter, and On Golden Pond. She won a total of four Academy Awards, all for Best Actress, the most of any actress or actor in history. All this, despite criticism that she lacked versatility (a criticism with which she agreed).
Ms. Hepburn married once: she was 21-years-old at the time, and she divorced her husband six years later. She went on to have several high-profile relationships, including one with her agent that began while she was still married. After that, she dated Howard Hughes. The defining love of her life, though, was Spencer Tracy. Their pairing is often cited as one of Hollywood’s most legendary love affairs, and an affair it was: Mr. Tracy was married for all the years he carried on with Ms. Hepburn.
After her divorce, Ms. Hepburn resolved that she would never marry again, and that she did not want to have children. “I would have been a terrible mother,” she is quoted as saying, “because I’m basically a very selfish human being.”
While I am no proponent of adultery, this personal history is the sum of all the parts of Hepburn that I adore. She lived life on her terms, undeterred by the strictures of convention. She was forthright and honest, as much about the world as about herself. When I picture her in my mind’s eye, I see her wearing her hair down, big curls at the end and pulled back off her forehead, marching forward in trousers and a sleek blouse, pausing only to let fly a pointed commentary. I picture her tongue to be, quite literally, sharp.
“Life is hard,” she said. “After all, it kills you.” When life killed her, the lights of Broadway were dimmed in tribute. “If you obey all the rules,” she observed, “you miss all the fun.” By her own measurement, then, she closed out her near-century on Earth having had plenty of good times.
I closed out my high school career by auditioning for, and winning, the role of Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter. It was the same role for which Hepburn won her third Oscar, and I played it mimicking her unique voice. I’m not sure everyone appreciated my selfish attachment to her portrayal, but I didn’t care. As she would have reassured me, “If you always do what interests you, at least one person is pleased.”