Katharine Houghton Hepburn was an American stage and film actress who was best-known for her strength, eccentricity, and her outspoken nature. Over a career that spanned 60+ years, she appeared in every genre of movie from screwball comedy to literary dramas, winning much acclaim for her performances. She was the embodiment of the modern American woman and is remembered as one of the greatest actresses of all time. Below are 45 facts about the spirited actress.
1. What is that Accent?
Katharine Hepburn was famous for her accent, which is often called the “mid-Atlantic” accent. The accent was a deliberate hybrid of American and British English that was adopted by American Elites and theater and film actors in the 30s and 40s, including Hepburn and Cary Grant.
2. Control Yourself
In 1928 when Hepburn was just starting out, she would often get fired from stage roles because she’d speak too quickly and with a high pitch when she was under pressure—which was basically the entire show. In order to keep her career from going down the tubes, she hired a famous vocal coach who taught her how to use it. Hepburn ultimately became known for the mid-Atlantic accent, and was one of its best-known users.
3. Uber Athlete
As a child, Hepburn participated in a number of sports, even reaching the semi-finals of the Connecticut Young Women’s Golf Championship. She also excelled in swimming and tennis, and played the latter right into her 80s.
4. Think Freely
Hepburn and her siblings were raised to exercise their right to free speech and were encouraged to debate and think about any topic they wanted. Her parents were often criticized for being too progressive, but Hepburn always credited them with giving her the tools to be successful.
5. Reading Lines Together
When Hepburn filmed A Bill of Divorcement she was a naïve young starlet and John Barrymore was well…Barrymore. As she told her friend and biographer Scott Berg, he once called her to his dressing room to “read lines” together, and much to her shock, was greeted by a completely naked Barrymore lounging on his sofa. Perhaps at a later time, she might not have minded, but at the time, she let out a scream and fled. Who could blame her!
6. I Can Do It Better
Hepburn used to do all of her own stunts in her movies because she always felt that she could do a better job than anyone else. She even did her own stunt diving into the frigid water in On Golden Pond, having been used swimming in cold waters growing up. Not bad for a 74-year-old.
7. Katharine of Arrogance
Although she loved acting and loved the advantages that came with being famous, Hepburn did not like being in the public eye. She was an extremely private person who did not like dealing with the press, giving interviews, or signing autographs, which led to her being labeled “Katharine of Arrogance” by the tabloids. Totally unfair!
8. Doing as She Pleased
Anyone who knew her also knew that Hepburn could not be easily molded or controlled. Often described as too rough and too tough, she told Barbara Walters in a 1981 interview: “I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man…I’ve just done what I damn well wanted to and I made enough money to support myself, and I ain’t afraid of being alone.”
9. Call Me Jimmy
Being a girly-girl was never Hepburn’s style and at age 9, she shaved her head, put on her brother’s clothes, and asked to be called Jimmy. As she explained to her biographer Charlotte Chandler, she was going through a phase where she wished she was a boy and chose the name Jimmy just because she liked it.
10. Daughter of a Suffragist
Hepburn came by her feminism honestly. Her mother was a fierce campaigner for women’s rights and led the Women’s Suffragist Association in their home state of Connecticut. Hepburn also participated in several “Votes for Women” events with her mother.
11. What Do We Do with Her?
Despite her incredible talent, Katharine Hepburn was often difficult to cast as a leading lady opposite popular male stars, because she wasn’t the typical female star. Director George Stevens once claimed that he’d had to teach Hepburn how to do love scenes, because she thought it “involved standing up straight and talking to him strong, eye to eye.”
And the problem with that is?
12. Box Office Poison
In 1938, Harry Brandt drew the ire of Hollywood when he wrote an article on behalf of the Independent Theatre Association Inc. declaring Katharine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Joan Crawford, and Fred Astaire (among others) box office poison for receiving huge salaries with little return for their respective studios.
Boy, did he turn out to be wrong!
13. Just Shut Up Kate!
While filming Bringing Up Baby, Hepburn started making numerous “helpful” suggestions to director Howard Hawks, despite not fully understanding the mechanics of comedy. Finally, Hawks having had enough, burst out “Katie, will you please shut up!”
14. Saying and Doing Are Very Different
One night while she and long-time lover Spencer Tracy were having supper with her family in Connecticut, Hepburn and her father got into a discussion about how to help the poor. Fed up with their sermonizing, he stepped outside for a cigarette and to cool off. At that very moment, a sad looking Mexican fisherman wandered onto the property.
Tracy poked his head in and quipped “Hey better get another plate ready in there, the poor are here to collect.” To Tracy’s surprise, the senior Hepburn chased the man off the property and then promptly went back inside to continue the discussion about helping the poor. Um…
15. Differing Opinions
A Bill of Divorcement made Katharine Hepburn an overnight sensation, but if it had been up to producer David O. Selznick, she would never have been cast. He wasn’t keen on her looks and thought audiences wouldn’t take to her. Director George Cukor, on the other hand, was impressed by her screen test so he cast her anyway.
The film marked the beginning of a friendship and professional relationship that lasted a lifetime.
16. Holding the Record
Over her career, Hepburn would win four separate Best Actress Oscars, giving her the record for most wins by anybody, male or female. She was also nominated an additional eight times for films like Philadelphia Story and African Queen, beat out only by Meryl Streep who has 17 total nominations for lead actress.
17. Homewrecking Brownies
In addition to being a great actress, Hepburn was also a terrific baker with a killer brownie recipe. In 2015, the New York Times printed the recipe, leading one reader to post a comment that blamed the recipe for breaking up her marriage. Pretty ironic considering Hepburn’s own affair with the married Spencer Tracy.
18. What Am I Doing?
For about five minutes after coming back from her honeymoon, Hepburn entertained a fantasy of buying a stone farmhouse in Philadelphia. She and Smith started looking at houses, but then she crashed back down to earth and realized that she must have been temporarily insane because New York was where she wanted to be—not out in the country.
19. Too Close for Comfort
While filming Bringing Up Baby, Hepburn had an uncomfortably close encounter with the leopard from the film. The skirt that she’d been wearing was lined with little metal pieces to make it swing. Something about the swinging motion made the leopard lunge for Hepburn’s back, but thankfully the trainer was there and was able to intervene before she was hurt.
After that, everybody was more cautious with the big cat, and they didn’t allow it to wander around the set anymore. Good call!
20. It’s Not Falling Off
Because of her shaking head, many people wrongly assumed that Hepburn suffered from Parkinson’s. In a 1993 interview, Hepburn corrected the record, explaining that she’d inherited her shaking head from her grandfather, and assuring reporters that it was solidly attached to her head.
21. A Conscious Choice
After ending her first marriage to Ludlow Ogden Smith, Hepburn made a conscious choice never to remarry, turning down numerous proposals from both her agent Leland Hayward, with whom she had a four-year affair, and notorious millionaire Howard Hughes. When she turned down Hayward, she explained it was because she “liked the idea of being my own single self,” which she was for the rest of her life.
22. Don’t Need ‘Em, Don’t Want ‘Em
Hepburn also made the choice to never have children, stating her belief that motherhood was a fulltime commitment she wasn’t prepared to make. As she told biographer Scott Berg, she thought she would have been a terrible mother partly because she was basically a “very selfish human being,” and partly because she’d partially parented her younger siblings, and that was more than enough of a taste for her.
23. Was She, or Wasn’t She?
Rumors about Hepburn’s sexuality have been circulating since the 30s, with a 2012 tell-all by Scotty Bowers claiming that both she and Spencer Tracy were gay, and their relationship was merely a cover. Seeing as all of the stars in his shocking biography are long-dead, we’ll probably never know for sure!
24. Splitting the Honor
In the history of the Oscars, there have been six ties for the award, and only one for best actress. The split came in 1969 when both Barbara Streisand (for Funny Girl) and Katharine Hepburn (for Lion in Winter) won. It was Hepburn’s third acting award and tenth nomination, but since she never bothered to come to these things anyway, the 26-year-old Streisand won the evening—or at least her dress did—getting all of the attention.
25. Portraying her Ancestor
When Hepburn portrayed Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine in Lion in Winter, she was actually portraying her own ancestor. She was descended from Eleanor through her marriage to Henry II of England and Louis VII of France, which is fitting, because she was basically royalty.
26. Straighten Up Boys!
Much to the frustration of Hepburn, co-stars Peter O’Toole and Anthony Hopkins would both frequently turn up drunk or hungover during the filming of Lion in Winter, leading both of them receiving an occasional lecture on behavior.
27. She Terrifies Me!
Peter O’Toole, Hepburn’s co-star in Lion in Winter, both worshipped and feared Hepburn. He had no trouble confessing that she reduced him “to a shadow of my former gay-dog self” and joked that she was “sent by some dark fate to nag and torment me.” She even gave him a “love punch” in the mouth once for keeping her waiting.
Hepburn took his jests in good humor and replied “Don’t be so silly. We are going to get on very well. You are Irish, and you make me laugh.” Imagine what she would have done if she didn’t like him!
28. Famous Dig
Dorothy Parker, the famous satirist, writer, and poet, is said to have delivered one of the sharpest and most classic insults of all time to Katharine Hepburn after seeing her Broadway play The Lake in 1933. She said of Hepburn that she “ran the whole gamut of the emotions from A to B.” Ouch!
29. Paying the Price
Hepburn’s time in The Lake was one she later described as a “slow walk to the gallows.” Director Jed Harris was a reported sadist who was abusive towards Hepburn. She tried to stick it out, but between declining ticket sales, poor reviews, and Harris, she just couldn’t take it anymore and needed to find a way to get out of it.
When Harris told her “My dear, the only interest I have in you is the money I can make out of you,” she signed over the contents of her bank account to him in exchange for being let out of her contract.
30. Famous First Words
The love affair between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn lasted a quarter of a century, but you never would have guessed that they would become involved from Hepburn’s first words to the actor. Tracy was only an inch or so taller than Hepburn, and when she saw him, ever direct, she said: “Mr. Tracy, I believe I am too tall for you.” Tracy was reportedly equally unimpressed and believed that she was a lesbian.
31. Off-Screen Enemy
Despite the on-screen chemistry shared by the cast in Stage Door, off-screen was an entirely different matter. Hepburn made no effort to hide her disdain for co-star Ginger Rogers, and Rogers admitted in her autobiography that she would try to avoid the actress for fear of what she might do if she crossed her.
32. First Name Basis
It only took a few days for Tracy and Hepburn to go from Mr. Tracy and Ms. Hepburn to Spence and Kate, but if Tracy was feeling particularly exasperated with her, he’d call her “shorty” or “that woman.” As she was so sharp-tongued, one can only imagine what she would have called him.
33. Hollywood’s Best Kept Secret
Tracy was a Roman Catholic who did not believe in divorce, which put him in an awkward position when it came to Hepburn. Although he was unofficially living with Hepburn, they managed to keep their relationship secret until after his death.
34. It Runs in the Family
Hepburn’s brother Tom wasn’t the only one of her family members to die by suicide. Her paternal uncle Charlie and her maternal grandfather also died by suicide, but her family maintained a “stiff upper lip” kind of attitude about all of them and refused to ever talk about them.
35. Great Sacrifice
Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy kept their long-time love under wraps. When he became sick, Hepburn cared for him and stayed by his side until his death, when she was forced to make a heartbreaking choice. She abstained from attending her life partner’s funeral. Tracy had been a devout Catholic, and as such, had never divorced his wife, although they had been separated for years. Hepburn kept her distance from the funeral out of respect for Tracy’s legal widow and children.
36. I Didn’t Believe You Were Real!
After Tracy’s death in 1967, Hepburn made overtures to Tracy’s wife Louise Treadwell, wanting to “bury the hatchet,” and possibly become friends. Much to Hepburn’s surprise, Treadwell told her “I thought that you were a rumor,” and they never spoke again. That must have stung!
37. A Sad Reminder
On the first day of filming for On Golden Pond, Hepburn gave Henry Fonda a brown fedora that had belonged to Tracy. He was so touched by the gift he painted a still-life watercolor of his three hats from the film and gave the original to Hepburn. She later confessed that after Fonda’s death she gave the painting away, finding it to be a sad reminder of their losses.
38. That’s Not Acting
When Tracy gives his famous soliloquy near the end of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Hepburn is crying in the background. As it turned out, these were real tears, and she was crying because she knew he was dying and was moved by his words about enduring love.
39. They’re All Dead!
Katharine Hepburn lived to the ripe old age of 96, which sadly meant that she also lived to see many of her contemporaries and friends pass away. In a posthumously published interview, she confessed how odd it felt to have outlasted her lover Spencer Tracy by 25 years, and her African Queen co-star Humphrey Bogart by 40 years.
She stated: “They’re all dead. It’s very queer. It’s amazing how many of them have died, isn’t it?” And in a comment that was half funny and half morose, she also added: “I think I’ve lived longer so that they have had lots of time to die! Ha! Ha!”
40. Dimming the Lights
When the world learned of Hepburn’s death, tributes poured in from newspapers and magazines, on television, and even President George W. Bush, who said she “will be remembered as one of the nation’s artistic treasures.” On the evening of June 29, 2003, the lights on Broadway were also dimmed for an hour in her honor, recognizing her many contributions to the stage.
41. A Gruesome Discovery
When she was only 14 years old, Katharine Hepburn found the body of her beloved older brother Tom hanging from one of the ceiling beams at the New York home of her mother’s close friend. Somehow, by herself, she managed to cut the body down, lay him on the bed, and then went to the doctor’s house on the street to get help.
The event had a traumatic impact on Hepburn, causing her to withdraw from everyone around her. Her family denied that it was a suicide and claimed it must have been an experiment gone wrong.
42. I Am Scarlett
The character of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind seemed almost tailor-made for Hepburn. She was resilient, determined, and strong-willed, just like the actress. Hepburn was amongst the legions of starlets vying for the role in the movie, boldly declaring to director David O. Selznick “I am Scarlett O’Hara” at her audition.
Unfortunately for Hepburn, Selznick didn’t agree, and reportedly shot back “I can’t image Rhett Butler chasing you for 12 years.” Harsh!
43. Give Them Back!
While under contract for RKO Pictures, Hepburn would often wear blue jeans in the studio, which was a serious no-no for women of the time. Someone confiscated the jeans from her dressing room while she was on-set filming, but rather than caving in and wearing a skirt, she came back to the set in her underpants with her butt exposed.
She refused to cover it up until they gave her back her jeans. Needless to say, they did.
44. Too Plain
Hepburn was only 21 when she married wealthy businessman Ludlow Ogden Smith whom she met while attending Bryn Mawr. He was so devoted to Hepburn he even changed his name to S. Ogden Ludlow because she didn’t want to be known as anything as boring as Kate Smith.
45. Change of Heart
The marriage between Hepburn and Smith was not destined to end happily ever after. Despite having intended to quit acting, she missed it too much and prioritized working over marriage. She later called the marriage an “impulsive act of convenience” that was unfair to Smith, and in her biography, called herself a “terrible pig” for taking advantage of his love for her.