September 12, 1988 12:00 PM

Katharine Hepburn is America’s institution of dramatic art: by turns a sassy socialite, a flouncy flibbertigibbet, a war-burdened Chinese peasant, a smart-ass lawyer, a ramrod survivor, a high-strung tennis player, a lioness of a queen, a woman of independent dreams. Her mind flashes with uncommon intelligence, her eyes with sheet lightning. She can jut a jawbone that Rodin might have chiseled; her voice is a chirrupy flute, a velvet cello. “The loon! the loon!” she cries across Golden Pond, and the melody shames the loon’s own haunting song.

What a creature is she, rarer than the loon. For six decades a happily beguiled public thought her acting was pretending, when in fact Hepburn has always been the sum of all her parts, her collective performances the absolute measure of the absolute woman. How this came to be, how this stringy girl from Hartford, Conn., transformed herself into something approaching sainthood, lies in the chronicle of a unique family.

The story that follows, the first in an occasional PEOPLE series that will explore how family life shapes the personalities of major figures, is from Young Kate, a new book by journalist Christopher Andersen. From hours of conversation with Hepburn, Andersen has produced a lusty portrait of the artist as a young hellion whose life was marked by two powerful factors. The first was her discovery, at 13, of the suicide of her 15-year-old brother, Tom. The second was the profound effect on her of her parents, whose force of personality and intellect Kate Hepburn would reflect time and again in her screen roles. “The single most important thing anyone needs to know about me,” she said recently, “is that I am totally, completely, the product of two damn fascinating people who happened to be my parents. What they did for me is me. I could never repay them.” Young Kate, excerpted in the following pages, is part payment.

As her own mother had been and her movie-star daughter would be, Katharine “Kit” Houghton of Corning, N.Y., was fearless when it came to going after what she wanted. Orphaned at 14, she had fought her wealthy uncle’s fierce resistance to the idea of college for women and attended Bryn Mawr, graduating at the top of her class. (“They said Mother had the longest neck, the tightest collar and the smallest waist of anyone at Bryn Mawr,” says Kate.) When the same crusty uncle, who ran the family-owned Corning Glass Works, refused to finance a post-grad European tour for Kit, she went anyway, on a shoestring. At 23, she displayed the same sort of no-nonsense determination when she set her sights on handsome Thomas “Hep” Hepburn, a medical student in her sister Edith’s class at Johns Hopkins University. The two met in 1901 at an exhibition fencing match, where Kit watched Edith thrust and parry with the husky redhead. “Mother took one look at him,” says Kate, “and said, ‘Boy, that’s for me! He’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen.’ ” Edith pointed out that young Hepburn didn’t have “one red cent” to his name. “I’d marry him,” Kit shot back, “if it meant I’d die in a year—and go to Hell!”

Hep was willing prey. The son of a poor but pedigreed Virginia Episcopal minister, he had grown up speaking his mind on just about anything—from women’s rights (pro) to organized religion (con)—and this feisty, opinionated girl with the upswept Gibson Girl hairdo fascinated him. It was Kit, though, who made the first advances. She moved into Edith’s Baltimore apartment and persuaded her sister to invite Hep to tea on several occasions.

Smitten though he was, the gentlemanly Virginian was exasperatingly polite in his dealings with Kit. It was up to her to force his hand. “The best thing about our relationship,” she wrote in a note to him, “is that whenever one of us marries, it won’t hurt our relationship at all.” Hep’s reply was swift. “How can you say such a thing?” he protested. “I’ll never marry anyone if I don’t marry you!”

In November 1904, Katharine Hepburn’s parents-to-be became man and wife. The young couple decided to make their home in the tight-knit Nook Farm district of Hartford, Conn., where not so long ago Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mark Twain had presided over a flourishing colony of writers and artists. While Tom settled down to a residency in surgery and urology, Kit devoted herself to raising the kids—first, Tom Jr., born in November 1905, then Kathy, who arrived two years later to the day. (The brood eventually numbered six.) Tom had his mother’s coloring, so Kit had prayed for a little girl with her husband’s ruddy face and red hair. When she was born, the baby let out a healthy howl. “Hold her up to the windows,” Kit instructed the nurse. “Hold her up to the light so I can see…. Yes, it’s red!” To the rest of the world, the girl would be Kate, and to her family Kathy or Katy (pronounced Catty). Dad reserved for himself the right to call her “Redtop.”

The Hepburns’ rambling, gabled, red-bricked mansion sat back on two acres dotted with evergreens, maples and birches; a brook snaked along the backyard, its banks sprinkled with daffodils and tiger lilies. “A perfect place for Mother to raise her family,” says Kate. “And that’s all she wanted to do for the rest of her life. At least that’s what Mother thought.”

As it turned out, both Kit and her husband found they wanted much more. Hep, whose practice included many of Hartford’s elite, was discovering to his horror the increasing toll that syphilis was taking on his young patients. Deaths from venereal disease in the U.S. were numbering in the tens of thousands, and in those days, says Kate, “venereal disease was not exactly considered a polite topic. This was something you just did not talk about, period. The medical profession thought it was best ignored. Daddy felt otherwise.” Taking his cue from such activists as George Bernard Shaw and Harvard President Emeritus Charles Eliot, Hep launched a public awareness campaign that led to the formation of the American Social Hygiene Association—so named because any blatant reference to sex or VD was deemed nothing less than shocking.

Kit, meanwhile, was growing restless. “So there was Mother holding on to my brother with one hand and pushing me in my pram with the other,” says Kate. “Suddenly it hit her: ‘Yes, this is all very nice. But is this it?’ ” Kit started by joining Hep’s crusade, expounding on the health risks of prostitution and the clinical manifestations of syphilis and gonorrhea to anyone who would listen—and to many who would have preferred not to. After one dinner party at the home of a staid Republican couple, as Kate tells it, Kit was politely urged to tone down her tirades. “All the Right People have found you and the doctor perfectly charming,” a fellow guest informed her. “But if you persist, the invitations to dinners and dances will stop. You will become social outcasts.”

Kit decided that if being outspoken meant being excluded from boring dinner parties, it wasn’t much of a price to pay. She had, in any case, taken up a burning cause of her own that left little time for socializing. Inspired by a speech given in Hartford by Emmeline Pankhurst, the radical British suffragette, Kit began campaigning for women’s right to vote. She and a friend founded the Hartford Equal Franchise League and crisscrossed the country lecturing. Little Tom, then 5, and Kathy, 3, went along, sitting cross-legged on platform after small-town platform while their mother delivered her impassioned rhetoric. Kathy even marched behind Kit, toting placards and passing out leaflets. “It seemed perfectly natural, because we were always involved in it,” says Kate. “It was just part of the fabric of our lives.”

Her parents’ activism instilled in young Kate the conviction that, as her mother put it, “Things don’t happen unless you make them happen.” Kate remembers running along the beach at her family’s summer home in Fenwick, Conn., one day, “shouting to myself, as I ran, how I was going to save the world. I think young girls have this powerful sense that, somehow, they’re going to change the world.”

Decades later, the world-famous actress would worry that she hadn’t lived up to that challenge. “Sometimes,” she says now, “I think I’m wasting my time in the movies and should be out trying to do something to get us on the right track.”

Belonging to the unorthodox Hepburn family did have its down side. Polite Hartford society never grew completely accustomed to the local maverick couple. “There was a group that thought Mother and Dad were great and a group that thought they were hotheads,” says Kate. “Both groups were right.” Inevitably, disapproval fell on the heads of the younger generation. “Don’t play with the Hepburn brats” was a command often voiced by Nook Farm parents. But ostracism only seemed to draw the family closer and to bolster its pride. “What other people thought didn’t concern us much, anyway,” Kate says. “Most people are raised to believe they are just as good as the next person. I was always told I was better.”

In many ways, she was. A tomboy from the first, Kate excelled at bicycle riding, sailing, and hanging by her toes from a trapeze 30 feet above the gravel drive. “I could outdive, outswim and outrun anybody,” she says, and she made sure people knew it. Once, when Kate was 3 and recovering from a severe bout of scarlet fever, she overheard a well-meaning neighbor refer to her as “frail.” Says Kate, “I headed straight for a big oak. Ran right into it full force. Showed her.”

Being a girl was “a torment,” Kate remembers. “From the age of 9 to 131 shaved my head each summer. I told everyone it was to keep cool, but I really did it so the boys couldn’t grab hold of my hair when we wrestled. I called myself Jimmy.”

“Jimmy’s” mother, for the most part, smiled on her daughter’s boyish antics. When neighbors informed her that Kathy was once again swinging wildly from the tops of birch trees or perched in the upper branches of a hemlock, says Kate, “Mother would say, ‘Well for heaven’s sake don’t frighten her.’ ”

Kit did put her foot down on occasion. Though freedom of speech was the family rule (“At the dinner table, every conceivable topic was discussed—Marxism, Darwinism, even nudism,” says Kate), childish voices were squelched during Kit’s “salons.” Firebrands like Pankhurst and anarchist Emma Goldman gathered regularly in the Hepburn living room to ponder burning issues. “And we kids—how should I put this?—were told to shut up,” says Kate. Serious transgressions received stern punishment from Dad. “Were we spanked?” says Kate. “Beaten!”

More often, Hep served as ringleader in his kids’ daredevil games. It was Dad who each winter let Kathy and her friends tie their sleds to the bumper of his convertible for speedy, risky rides through town. And when Kathy’s headlong pursuit of danger led her briefly into a life of crime, her father proved extraordinarily lenient. One summer, when she was 15, Kathy and her friend Allie took to breaking into Fenwick’s empty homes for amusement. The girls wanted to look, not vandalize, but once, when Allie brought along a boy, they smashed a door, made a mess inside—and were caught. “Dad paid to fix the door and the walls, but he didn’t really punish me,” says Kate. “I think he understood the thrill.”

Dr. Hepburn encouraged toughness in all his children. Kate remembers the morning bathing ritual that started with a plunge in a tub of ice water, then a dash to the fireplace, where Kit would wrap her in a red Indian blanket. Kate still takes several frigid showers a day, reflecting Hep’s theory that “it’s no good for you if it doesn’t make you suffer.” But Hep could deal sensitively with insecurities as well. When 10-year-old Kathy began to fret “that I was totally freckled from head to foot, and nobody would want me,” her father knew just how to respond. “He said, I want to tell you something, Kathy, and you must never forget it. Jesus Christ, Alexander the Great and Leonardo da Vinci all had red hair and freckles, and they did all right.’ ” Kate has harbored a special fondness for her fellow “speckled” humans ever since. “I think people with freckles are sort of sweet and pathetic, like some lovable family pet.”

Kathy’s most cherished companion during those early years was her older brother, Tom. He was good-looking and athletic—the only boy, in fact, who could beat her in footraces along the beach at Fenwick. He regularly looked out for his little sister once they reached junior high at Hartford’s tony Kingswood and Oxford private schools. When Kathy appeared at her first dance in an unstylish secondhand dress, one of Tom’s classmates laughed and gave him a nudge. “Who’s that goofy looking girl?” the boy asked, whereupon Tom hauled off and flattened him. “I was never going to be part of the club,” says Kate. “But being a Hepburn, I was used to that.”

The us-against-the-world alliance between Tom and Kathy made the events of April 3, 1921, all the more traumatic. To reward her two older children for excelling at their schoolwork, Kit took them on a jaunt to New York City. After settling in at the Greenwich Village home of Mary Towle, an old friend of Kit’s, the trio strolled up Fifth Avenue, browsed in museums and even saw the legendary Pavlova dance at the Metropolitan Opera House. Kit was ready to go home after two days of sightseeing, but when Tom, 15, and Kathy, 13, begged to stay the weekend she agreed to go back alone. In the days that followed the young Hepburns toured Broadway, watched the film version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and were guests of honor at a soiree held by their hostess. Before they retired that night, Tom, whose lively banjo recital had been the party’s high point, thanked “Aunty” Towle for “the most pleasant experience of my life.”

Next morning, Kathy and Aunty Towle waited at the breakfast table for Tom to appear. They were to catch the 10 a.m. train home, and the hour of departure was approaching. Finally, Kathy went to the foot of the stairs. “Tom!” she called. No answer. She bounded up the steps, knocked on her brother’s door and pushed it open. There were his trousers, neatly laid out atop the dresser. The double bed had been slept in; one side of the covers had been disturbed. She moved into the room slowly, then shuddered as her shoulder brushed against something in the shadows. Looking up, she saw Tom’s stiffened body, suspended from the rafters by a blue curtain tie.

Her screams brought Aunty Towle running. They fumbled without success to untie the noose. As Towle rushed off to summon help, Kathy grabbed her brother below the waist and held him up clear of the floor. She was still holding him, tears streaming down her face, when the doctor arrived nearly 20 minutes later.

Kit and Hep were shattered and baffled when a telegram brought them the news. Why would a healthy and cheerful teenager, who had so recently expressed his desire to go to Yale and follow in his father’s footsteps, suddenly take his life? An attack of “adolescent insanity” was the only explanation a dazed Dr. Hepburn could offer reporters. But Kathy had another idea. A few years before, she reminded her father, Tom had been fascinated by a stunt that involved tensing one’s neck muscles so that a noose would have no effect. He had practiced this several times until Dr. Hepburn warned him of the danger. The same prank, Kathy said, was featured in the movie she and Tom had just seen. Wasn’t it possible that Tom, who had left no suicide note, was simply the victim of a game gone awry?

Dr. Hepburn agreed. It must have been an accident, he now told the newspapers. The family, grief-stricken, wanted to believe it. “I don’t think they ever really knew what happened,” Kate says today. “It was a terrible blow.”

Life for all the Hepburns was forever altered that bleak April day. “If I felt bad, you can imagine how my parents must have felt,” says Kate. “They were devastated.” Their pain drew Hep and Kit closer to each other and to Kathy, who suddenly found herself shouldering adult-size responsibilities. “It was as if, when Tom died, I sort of became two people instead of one—a boy and a girl,” she explains. “I practically raised the other kids. That’s why there are so many oldest daughters who don’t marry. By the time they’re grown up, they feel as if they’ve already raised a family.”

Hep immersed himself in his work, Kit in a new cause—the fight for a more enlightened attitude toward birth control. Undaunted by federal laws that prohibited the distribution of information about contraception, she established the Connecticut Birth Control League. “When you decide to climb to the top of the mountain,” Kit liked to say about her crusading, “there is no reason to stop midway because you are tired. The world is dominated by power, and you’d better not be weak if you can help it.”

Powerful was the last thing Kathy felt. “My brother’s death flattened me emotionally,” she says. “It was a major tragedy.” She grew suspicious, even hostile—all traits that would eventually help shape her image as one of Hollywood’s most temperamental stars. For escape, she turned to the movies. She would while away whole afternoons at Hartford’s Majestic Theater, gazing up at the images of Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish and Greta Garbo. Kathy dreamed of joining them. “Did Tom’s death push me further into make-believe?” she asks. “Who knows? I think it must have.” For whatever reason, the girl who had vowed to be a surgeon like her dad now had another, more glamorous goal.

Kathy enrolled at Bryn Mawr in 1924 because, she says, “All the girls in our family went there, so I had to go.” Dutifully, she signed up for pre-med science classes, but soon realized she was “totally absent in the head in chemistry.” She majored in English instead and began to think more seriously about acting. “Know what I want to be when I get out of college?” she once confided to a freshman classmate. “An actress.” The other girl sized up the tall, bony figure beside her, then burst out laughing. “You?” she roared. “You?”

Since her classmates were intent on casting her in the role of campus oddball, Kathy willingly played the part. She swam nude in the fountain of the library cloister, stood naked on the roof during a blizzard and had an attention-grabbing habit of bursting late into class. She circumvented the 11 p.m. curfew by scampering up the ivy-covered trellis outside her second-story dorm window. Despite such behavior, she got into trouble only once, when she was caught smoking in a stairwell, and was suspended for a week.

Kathy never forgot her ambitions. After winning praise for her acting in several campus productions, she landed the lead role of Pandora in a 16th-century play, The Woman in the Moone. Her fiery performance—which she insisted on executing barefoot, her sleeveless white gown and firecracker-red mane blowing wildly in the breeze—dazzled a theater buff named Jack Clark, whose friend Eddie Knopf managed a stock company in Baltimore. That was all Kathy needed to hear. Four weeks before graduation she paid a visit to Knopf. “Dad always said if you want to accomplish something, don’t phone, don’t write—go in person,” explains Kate. “They can throw a letter in the trash, but they can’t do that to you!” Nonetheless, Knopf took one look at the “awkward, green, freaky-looking girl” and said, “Well, you write me when you are through with college.” But the indomitable Kate showed up again two weeks later, and this time, though she never knew why, Knopf relented. “Report for rehearsal next week,” he told her. Kate’s career was launched.

“I saw myself as someday becoming a movie star,” she admits. “It seemed perfectly natural for me.” She had always thrived in the limelight, after all, even as a 3-year-old on the women’s suffrage circuit. But what would her parents think? Kit might be understanding, but Dad, who dismissed acting as “a cheesy way to make a living,” would never agree. Kathy dreaded breaking the news.

She delayed her announcement until her graduation day. “I’ve got a job, Dad,” she finally blurted out. “I’m an actress. I start day after tomorrow.” Dr. Hepburn went white with rage. Acting was silly and pointless, he told her. Besides, according to Kate, “he didn’t think I had a prayer of making it as an actress.” Their argument lasted for hours, and Hep held firm. But Kate hadn’t grown up a Hepburn for nothing. The more opposition she faced, the more fiercely she fought to win—and win she did.

The moment of her departure arrived. As Kathy lugged her battered suitcase to the car she had borrowed for the trip to Baltimore, the entire Hepburn clan stood on the porch to wave goodbye. Dr. Hepburn had relented enough to offer her $50—”to last until you recover from this madness.” Kathy guessed, rightly, that he would one day be proud of her choice. But as she headed off to seek her fortune, it was her father who had the last word. “You just want to show off and get paid for it!” he called.

“Of course,” says Kate Hepburn six decades later, “he was right.”

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