11 Timeless Facts About Katharine Hepburn
Over the course of her 62-year career in film, Katharine Hepburn portrayed an array of comedic and dramatic characters who were sometimes witty, often independent, and never, ever dull. Hepburn—who was especially well-known for her unapologetic attitude and her proclivity for wearing pants whenever possible—was just as captivating offscreen. Read on to discover fascinating details about the star of The Philadelphia Story and so much more.
1. Katharine Hepburn was a tomboy from an early age.
Aside from her acting career, Katharine Houghton Hepburn—who was born on May 12, 1907—was also famous for her commitment to wearing pants at a time when the rest of Hollywood’s female stars virtually never strayed from skirts and dresses. In 1986, the Council of Fashion Designers of America even honored Hepburn with a lifetime achievement award.
Hepburn, whose mother was a suffragette and early advocate of birth control, was raised to be confident, independent, and individualistic, and her aversion to forced femininity began at a young age. For one memorable summer during her childhood in Connecticut, she sported a short haircut and started going by “Jimmy.” “I thought being a girl was really the bunk,” Hepburn later explained in an interview. “But there’s no bunk about Jimmy.”
Though she stuck with her birth name after that, she never warmed to the idea of long, flowy clothing. “I realized long ago that skirts are hopeless,” Hepburn said in 1993. “Anytime I hear a man say he prefers a woman in a skirt, I say: ‘Try one. Try a skirt.’”
2. Hepburn found her brother dead when she was 13 years old.
While Hepburn’s upbringing was privileged in some ways, it wasn’t without tragedy. In 1921, when she was 13 years old, she found her 15-year-old brother Tom hanging from the rafters, having strangled himself to death. Her family maintained that it was the result of a magic trick gone awry, since Tom had tried a mock-hanging stunt at least once before, but it cast a dark shadow over the rest of Hepburn’s childhood and added to an already-established legacy of suicide in the family: Two uncles, a great-uncle, and her grandfather all took their own lives.
3. She bought out her contract for The Lake rather than finish the run.
Hepburn made her Broadway debut in 1930’s Art and Mrs. Bottle and graced the stage again in 1932’s The Warrior’s Husband. Her third play, 1933’s The Lake, garnered abysmal reviews, including Dorothy Parker’s alleged observation that Hepburn “ran the gamut of emotion from A to B.” Not long into the run, 26-year-old Hepburn was so miserable—and treated so poorly by director Jed Harris—that she bought out her contract and simply walked away.
4. The Lake was the original source of one of her most memorable lines.
One line from the ill-fated play, however, followed Hepburn out that stage door and right into another one. In 1937’s Stage Door, Hepburn portrayed an aspiring actress competing with other boarding house tenants for parts in a play, and director Gregory La Cava gave her the line “The calla lilies are in bloom again,” which he had borrowed from The Lake. Delivered several times throughout the film in Hepburn’s trademark Mid-Atlantic drawl, the line became one of her most iconic, and it’s been referenced in various programs over the years, including an episode of I Love Lucy and the 1988 comedy Big Top Pee-Wee.
5. She once dumped a cup of water on co-star Ginger Rogers.
On the set of Stage Door, Ginger Rogers was flaunting a new mink coat when Hepburn appeared and poured her cup of water on it, explaining that if the coat was, in fact, real mink, it wouldn't shrink. The media speculated that the behavior was brought on by jealousy, since Hepburn’s then-beau Howard Hughes had reportedly shown interest in Fred Astaire's legendary dancing partner. But Rogers herself wouldn’t play into the rumors. “Don’t ask me, I haven’t the foggiest notion why [she did it],” Rogers later said in an interview.
6. For a while, Hepburn was considered “box office poison.”
Hepburn followed her film debut in 1932’s A Bill of Divorcement with an Oscar-winning performance in 1933’s Morning Glory and another acclaimed appearance in Little Women that same year. But she also had enough commercial flops—including Spitfire (1934), Mary of Scotland (1936), and the now-beloved screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938)—in the mid-to-late 1930s that she landed on a 1938 list of actors labeled “box office poison” by the Independent Theater Owners’ Association of New York.
Hepburn was unabashed. “Look, they say I’m a has-been,” she told the Daily News with a chuckle, “Yet Bringing Up Baby already has clicked to the tune of $2 million gross, while Stage Door has grossed better than $2,500,000. If I weren’t laughing so hard, I might cry, but why should I?”
7. The Philadelphia Story was a turning point in her career.
As it turns out, Hepburn was right not to dwell on the poisonous criticism. In 1938, she accepted a starring role—which playwright Philip Barry had actually written for her—in the Broadway comedy The Philadelphia Story, and Howard Hughes bought her the rights so that she could reprise her role in a film adaptation. The MGM-produced 1940 film, which co-starred Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, was a box office smash, and it planted Hepburn right back on her path to greatness.
8. She had a decades-long affair with Spencer Tracy.
Hepburn wed Philadelphia businessman Ludlow Ogden Smith soon after graduating from Bryn Mawr in 1928, but they divorced after six years. Much more significant was her affair with fellow actor Spencer Tracy, with whom she lived for 27 years (though Tracy, who was Catholic, never actually divorced his wife). Over the course of their relationship, Hepburn and Tracy starred in nine films together, including 1942’s Woman of the Year, 1949’s Adam’s Rib, and 1952’s Pat and Mike. They wrapped production on their last one, 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, just a few weeks before Tracy died of a heart attack at age 67.
9. Whisky was Hepburn’s drink of choice.
Though Hepburn didn’t drink much during her years with Tracy (who was an alcoholic), she was known to regularly indulge in a glass of whisky in later life, which she said helped with the head tremor she had inherited from her grandfather. “I discovered that whisky helps stop the shaking,” she said in the 1993 documentary All About Me. “Problem is, if you’re not careful, it stops the rest of you, too.”
But based on what she told fellow cast member Brian Blessed while filming 1971’s The Trojan Women, it seems like she also just really loved whisky, all favorable side effects aside. “When I smell whisky, I go absolutely out of my mind. Whisky is beauuuuuutiful. I smell whisky in a glass and I want it,” she said, according to Blessed’s autobiography. “I’d drink whisky morning, noon, and night until it killed me.”
10. Her brownie recipe broke up a marriage.
Hepburn may have balked at certain societal restrictions on women, but that didn’t mean she had anything against spending time in the kitchen. She was especially particular about brownies, which, in her opinion, should be moist. After The New York Times published her signature recipe online in 2015, a woman named Sydne Newberry revealed in the comments section that Hepburn’s deliciously fudgy dessert had inadvertently ended her marriage. As Newberry told The Cut, she had brought the brownies on a trip to visit her husband while he was stationed at an Air Force base in Germany in the 1980s. While there, she shared the dessert with his friend and his friend’s wife, “a gorgeous Italian woman who was very proud of her cooking and was a real food snob.”
Her new baking buddy loved the brownies, and the two kept up correspondence over the next few years while the woman tried to get the recipe right. After repeated failures, she implied that Newberry had intentionally omitted something. Then, while visiting Newberry in the states, the woman began an affair with Newberry’s husband, who eventually left his wife for her, apparently undeterred by her lack of success on the brownie front. “If you want to steal somebody’s husband,” Newberry told NPR, “You should screw up a brownie recipe.”
11. Hepburn held the record for most Academy Award nominations … until Meryl Streep came along.
With her Best Actress nomination for On Golden Pond in 1981, Hepburn set a new record for most nominations ever earned by an actor: 12. The record went unchallenged until 2002, when Meryl Streep clinched her 13th for a supporting role in Adaptation (since then, Streep’s nomination count has risen to a staggering 21). When it comes to actual wins, however, Hepburn comes out on top: Streep has three, while Hepburn has four.
A version of this story ran in 2020; it has been updated for 2022.