In an acting career that spanned nearly six decades, Katharine Hepburn set the bar for smart, sophisticated roles that seemed to echo the woman that she was— and, in doing so, won four Academy Awards for Best Actress, still a record for any performer, and was nominated 12 times for an Oscar (Meryl Streep would finally beat it with her 13th nomination, for Adaption, in 2002).
A member of the Junior League of Hartford, where she was born, she shunned the Hollywood publicity machine and refused to try to live up to societal expectations of what a woman should be.
And she certainly led an interesting life.
Her father was a noted urologist in Hartford and helped establish the New England Social Hygiene Association, which educated the public about venereal disease. Her mother was a campaigner for women’s issues who headed the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association and later campaigned for birth control with Margaret Sanger. (As a child, Kate joined her mother on suffragist events.)
Her acting career started at Bryn Mawr College, followed by early success on Broadway, where favorable reviews brought attention from Hollywood. She answered the call, winning her first Oscar in 1933 for her third picture, Morning Glory. (Synopsis: When a naively innocent, aspiring actress arrives on the Broadway scene, she is taken under the wing of several theater veterans who mentor her to ultimate success.)
Her career never really stopped. Even with ups and downs, Kate remained active in movies and television until the mid-1990s. Her record was recognized in 1999 by the American Film Institute, which named her the greatest female star in Hollywood history.
Although fiercely private, Kate was outspoken on issues that mattered to her. When the anti-communist hysteria hit Hollywood in the 1940s, she was prompted to speak out, and in 1947 delivered a fervently pro-American speech against the House Un-American Activities Committee. And carrying on her mother’s crusade, she used her visibility to support reproductive rights, and in 1988 she and her late mother were honored by Planned Parenthood at a gala ”Celebrating Two Generations of Individual Courage.”
She once told a journalist “I’m an atheist and that’s it. I believe there’s nothing we can know except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for other people.” Her public declarations of these beliefs led the American Humanist Association to award her their Humanist Arts Award in 1985. After her death, they stated “She was a progressive in an age that embraced tradition and modesty, when women were often expected to smile and not make waves. She challenged such boundaries, and her charm, intelligence and compassion were used to move society forward.”
Married once, briefly, she kept her private affairs to herself, including a long relationship with Spencer Tracy, one of the best-known Hollywood actors of his generation.
She was also quite well known for pithy comments on life and the male sex, which may give hints about how she viewed herself as a person and as an actress. A few examples:
- Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then.”
- “If you obey all the rules you miss all the fun.”
- “As for me, prizes are nothing. My prize is my work.”
At the age of 96, Katharine Hepburn passed away in at the Connecticut shore home where she grew up.