In June of 1938, Katharine Hepburn was 31 years old and obsessed with her failure. Hepburn was box office poison. She had no offers of work, though five years earlier she had won an Academy Award for her performance in Morning Glory. She had also starred in Little Women, one of the most successful films ever.
The spirited independence that endeared her to movie fans worked against her. Her trousers and casual tailored clothes cut against the grain of what a Hollywood star was supposed to wear. She was rude to reporters, giving interviews only reluctantly. “Death will be a great relief,” she once said. “No more interviews.”
Over the previous few years she had starred in a series of flops. Some of them were quite good – the screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby is now considered a classic– but they bombed at the box office.
So during the summer of 1938, Katharine Hepburn went to her family’s summer home on Fenwick in Old Saybrook, Conn., where she swam, sailed, played golf and nursed her bruised ego.
She was born in Hartford on May 12, 1907, the daughter of a successful doctor and a wealthy women’s rights advocate. Her father discovered Fenwick when she was five years old. She called it paradise.
Her progressive parents taught her to think independently and to speak their minds, qualities she brought to the silver screen. As a girl she cut her hair short, called herself Jimmy and played a lot of sports, excelling at golf and swimming.
She starred in her first film role at the age of 25, and the critics praised her performance. Morning Glory and Little Women established her as a major Hollywood actress.
But then came the flops. And so she retreated to Fenwick in the summer of 1938. (That fall, the 1938 New England Hurricane would demolish her Fenwick house.)
During that summer, her friend Phillip Barry, a playwright, telephoned her from Maine to say he had an idea for her. She told him to come on down. The next day they sat on the pier and Barry said he had two plot ideas. One was about a father and daughter, the other was The Philadelphia Story. She thought The Philadelphia Story was the better idea.
She was right. Barry wrote the leading role of Tracy Lord for her, she was convinced. It was a role she would reprise through the rest of her career: A smart, rich, strong-willed character is brought down by a cataclysmic situation or by a man from a lower class who exposes her vulnerability.
The Philadelphia Story
The Philadelphia Story is a witty comedy about Tracy Lord, a wealthy socialite who learns the truth about herself when her ex-husband and a tabloid reporter turn up just before her wedding to a self-made millionaire. Hepburn backed the play on Broadway, where it opened on March 28, 1939 and ran for more than a year.
At the time, Hepburn dated Howard Hughes, who wanted to marry her. He was rich, adventurous and interesting, and she liked him. But after one failed marriage, she didn’t intend to get married again.
“Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other,” she said. “Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then.”
The Philadelphia Story’s success on Broadway drew interest from film studios, but not in casting Hepburn. Hughes felt strongly that she couldn’t lose the part of Tracy Lord tailor-made for her. He advised her to buy the film rights. She hesitated, unsure she could raise the money quickly enough. Hughes bought them for her – for $30,000.
Hepburn turned around and sold the rights to Louis B. Mayer for $250,000 and veto power over cast, screenwriter, producer and director. When Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy weren’t available, she settled on Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. The film was a box office hit. It was also nominated for six Academy Awards and won two, one for Jimmy Stewart and one for screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart.
Her career revived, Hepburn would go on to win three more Academy Awards. She would star in such classic films as The African Queen (1951), Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968) and On Golden Pond (1981).
She met Spencer Tracy on the set of Woman of the Year, released in 1942, and they fell in love. They then starred in nine movies together, but lived apart and kept their affair private. Tracy was estranged from his wife, but neither sought a divorce.
In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked her the top American screen legend of all time.
She once said, “Without The Philadelphia Story and Phil and Howard, my life would have been very different. It would have gone on, but maybe my career wouldn’t have.”
Katharine Hepburn died at Fenwick on June 29, 2003 at the age of 96.
With thanks to Me: Stories of My Life by Katharine Hepburn and I Know Where I’m Going: Katharine Hepburn, A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler. Images: Katharine Hepburn house By Elisa.rolle – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57794800. This story was updated in 2023.