Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Katharine Hepburn

Joan and I read a lot of books. We buy a lot of books, in the course of a year—hundreds. When we are finished with them, we save some, give some away to friends and family, and then throw some away. To some people, to throw away a book is sacrilegious, but we know we’ll never read or refer to some of them again, and others are just plain bad books. We have a place in Boston and a house on Cape Ann, and each has a lot of bookshelves. She and I almost never read the same book, and we try to keep them apart. In addition to keeping our books separate, each of us tries to keep together books that are related either by subject or author. I recently decided it was time to clear out some of the books to make room for others, which are piled on desks, tables, and chests of drawers.
I have about three linear feet of books on Katharine Hepburn. These are books about her, for the most part, and a couple written by her. I have this collection not because I was a great fan of her movies, but because she and I were friends for many years, and I liked her and she liked me. How we came to be friends is a story for another day, and perhaps I’ll tell it here at some point. It all started with a book I sent her that I thought would make a good script for her. She didn’t agree, but I kept a copy of the book and put it in the collection with the other Hepburn books. I was looking through the Hepburn collection the other day, and I found one book that stood out from all the others because of its size. Actually, it’s not a book: It’s a catalog of 250 pages. On the cover is a picture of Kate; the title is Property from the Estate of Katharine Hepburn. It is a Sotheby’s catalog, and it also states that the property will be auctioned off in New York on June 10 and 11, 2004. I picked up the catalog, and the same feeling of anger came over me that I had felt when I first picked it up seven years ago. “Anger” is probably not the right word. I was outraged that the property of the most private person I ever met would be pictured and itemized, next to a suggested price for each item.
Katharine Hepburn spent her entire life protecting her privacy and creating the image she projected to the world. She lived to be ninety-six years old, and toward the end of her life trusted some people to manage her estate including the things she left behind. In my opinion, there was a violation of that trust when these items—many of them very personal—went up for auction. The Katharine Hepburn I knew was not the Katharine Hepburn she chose to present to the world in interviews with people like Dick Cavett and Barbara Walters. The Katharine Hepburn I knew was polite, a good listener (would never interrupt), self-effacing, quietly intelligent, very gentle, fun to be with. I never felt that I was in the presence of a big Hollywood movie star. But she was always a very private person. For a long time I urged her to show the real Katharine Hepburn—the one I and a few others knew—to the world. I suggested she write a book in her own words without any ghost writer or editor. She was certainly capable of doing that. We talked about it at some length. She actually made a couple of starts and finished a manuscript. Of course, it was published and was on the bestseller list. Its title was Me, and despite the fact that I had a big interest in Kate as a friend, I couldn’t finish the book because it was more of the same of what she gave Cavett and Walters.
At one point I even sent her a bunch of yellow ruled pads and a dozen sharpened No. 2 Dixon pencils because that’s the way she liked to write, jotting down what she called “bits and pieces.” She wrote me a letter about it, and I am going to reproduce it here. As you will see, she talks about the “personal, personal stuff.”

Well, a lot of the “personal, personal stuff” about Kate Hepburn’s life was revealed in that Sotheby catalog and subsequent auction. It is now in the hands of strangers. What follows is just a partial list of some of the things in that catalog (descriptions beneath each):

·      Katharine Hepburn’s wedding dress from her marriage to Ludlow Ogden Smith, December 12, 1928. The dress is described in detail, is on a mannequin; the suggested price is between $2,500 and $3,500.

·      A collection of Katharine Hepburn’s passports from over the years. We all know about passport photos, and some of the pictures are very unflattering. She was always very fussy about pictures of her and in life had final approval over what pictures would be released; not so in death.

·      Leather-bound address books with addresses of friends, doctors, agents, etc. Incidentally, my name, addresses, and phone numbers were in one of them that was auctioned off, and at one point, someone called me up and asked, “Who are you?”

·      A group of Kate’s hats.

·      A pair of KH’s khaki pants—single pleat, zipper closure.

·      A sculpted bust of Spencer Tracy, done by Katharine Hepburn, which she liked very much.

·      A picture of Spencer Tracy that had sat on a table next to her bed.

·      A picture of Hepburn with no makeup on, her hair in rollers of different sizes made from rolled-up newspapers and used by her on a daily basis.

·      a brush and hand mirror engraved “KHH.”

·      Her cane and walking stick collection.

·      A Victorian needlepoint runner that was noted as having been in the cottage she shared with Spencer Tracy in Los Angeles. There also was a picture of her standing in front of the needlepoint with a picture of Tracy in the background.
 And on and on for 250 pages.

As I said, it made me angry. Even now after all these years, it still does. 


  1. Tom, I have just had a chance to take five minutes for myself to read your blog. Its fascinating. Where did you get all that nostalgic Hepburn material? I really enjoyed meeting you and hope to keep in touch. Danny

  2. Hepburn's 'bits and pieces' certainly do hold a fascination, don't they? I love how you've included her personal jotting to you -- complete with dashes -- one can almost hear her voice saying the words.
    Fabulous stuff.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Alison , Wellesley

  3. Dear Mr. McMorrow:

    In 1967 I went to the movies to see Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. I was 13 and up to that point in my young life, I had no idea who Katharine Hepburn was. When she burst through the door of the Draytons' San Francisco home, the effect on me was profound. I didn't know anything about the public Hepburn nor the private Hepburn. I just knew - from that precise moment - that this vital and vibrant person - the likes of whom I had never encountered - would forever be a presence in my life. Whatever she was selling, I was buying. I still am.

    Most people present different versions of themselves in different arenas. Actors - especially great stars - are no different. So, you see, while I'm one of the strangers out there who harbors great affection for the public Hepburn, I also understand fully that she was a many-faceted, unique individual. I have spent my life learning about the former while trying to absorb as much as an admitted stranger could about the latter. I put little faith in the inventive and oft revisionist spin of so-called "definitive" biographers. Instead, for a better understanding of who she was as a person, I look to those who knew her - some of whom I've met and others like you in this blog - who are generous with their memories and who not only frequently confirm the conclusions at which I've arrived but also confirm the wisdom of a 13-year-old who decided to hitch her imagination and affection to the life force that burst through that door. Thanks for the memories.

  4. Mr. McCann! My sincere apologies for getting your name wrong. I was probably thinking of all the "eees" that Miss H got in her lifetime. Please forgive my gaffe.

  5. No worries, thanks for reading!

    1. How we came to be friends is a story for another day, and perhaps I’ll tell it here at some point.

      I hope you do. Would love to hear/read more.

  6. Like a prior poster, I found Katharine Hepburn when I was 12 -- fifty-three years ago. KH was in my living room because "Summertime" was being shown on one of the Movies for a Saturday Afternoon programs. That day I fell in love with Miss Hepburn and Venice and I've continued loving both of them to this day. Have visted Venice and retraced the paths she walked in Venice and was fortunate enough to see her on stage in West Side Waltz, A Matter of Gravity, and Coco. Just being in the same room and breathing the same air was thrilling.
    I can understand your disappointment that Miss Hepburn's estate auctioned her possessions but even she noted at one point that her family needed money, not things and they fulfilled her notion about them when the estate held the auction and the funds were distributed to her family. I definitely agree that some of the items auctioned showed appallingly bad taste -- I don't think her tennis shorts needed to be included or her phone list taken from her kitchen wall and myriad other items that the executors should have had the common sense to trash rather than sell. But do you really think that she would have been surprised? She was an intelligent woman who was well aware of her impact and the fact that anything associated with her would command a price.

    Like me, I think a lot of her fans were initially dismayed by the auction but from another perspective the fact is that if it hadn't happened much of what was auctioned would have ended in the trash because the truth is that even the families of the famous very often do not want the famous person's possessions. By auctioning, the items did go to "strangers" and sometimes to people who were purchasing solely to re-auction for greater gain BUT in among all of those were people who although "strangers" to Miss Hepburn also were lifelong fans who loved and admired her and who won something at the auction which they prize because of its association with her. I'm not one of those people as I couldn't afford the prices for which items were sold BUT I do not begrudge the other fans who did win something because I know that like me -- they value whatever they won and they will care for it and in so doing, they continue to honor the memory of Miss Hepburn.
    I have to disagree with your comments in regard to her memoir "Me" -- I do think it reveals a lot about her in that the book has the reticence that one assumes was at the heart of her -- she did not have negative things to say about anyone, she did not embarrass anyone or herself, she did not detail her relationships with various men particularly her long relationship with Spencer Tracy and when she did speak of him and their relationship, she seemed quite sincere when she said that he was a complex man and perhaps he, his wife and she should have handled everything quite differently. For a woman who always exuded confidence on screen and most often in TV interviews, i thought it was rather obvious from the book that she wasn't certain about the way that relationship was handled and that she'd thought about it a lot and even as she wrote, still was certain and was still working it through in her mind.

    Would the world be a better place if she'd laid bare her most "personal, personal thoughts" -- I doubt it. I can love Kate just as she presented herself to the world because all of us who watched her perform, saw her interviewed, read her books and letters were able to see that she was a woman of substance and a fascinating person who like a diamond was multi-faceted.