Katharine Hepburn, one of the most accomplished and celebrated actresses of the 20th century, never forgot the Connecticut roots that continually pulled her back home. Even as she gained fame and fortune in Hollywood, she regularly returned to her family’s retreat, Fenwick in Old Saybrook, a place she called “paradise.”
Katharine Houghton Hepburn was born and raised in Hartford and West Hartford, the daughter of Katharine Martha Houghton, a suffragist and champion of women’s rights, and Dr. Thomas Hepburn, a prominent surgeon. The second of five children, Hepburn was bright, independent and excelled at athletics; both parents encouraged her to speak her mind and develop her talents. She became interested in the theater at an early age, and at eight, she dramatized Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, cast it with neighborhood children and presented it in the tiny theater her father had built in the backyard. In 1918, Hepburn attended the Oxford School in West Hartford, and in 1924, she enrolled at Bryn Mawr College. Although she did not excel at either academic or extracurricular pursuits in her first two years at Bryn Mawr, Hepburn determined during this time period that she would become an actress.
Two days after her graduation from college, and over the strenuous objections of her father, she began to work in a stock company in Baltimore. It was here that she began her long and illustrious acting career. Her breakout film role was that of the Amazon princess Antiope in A Warrior Husband in 1932. She was signed by RKO after starring in A Bill of Divorcement opposite John Barrymore in 1932. She starred in four films in two years, earning her first of four Academy Awards for Morning Glory in 1934.
Hepburn’s unconventional style of wearing pants and no make-up, as well as her anti-Hollywood attitude, soon caused her difficulties with both the studio bosses and the movie-going public. After several commercial flops, Hepburn became “box office poison” and, as a consequence, returned to Broadway. In 1938, she starred in the smash hit The Philadelphia Story and made a triumphant return to Hollywood after buying the film rights to the play. After the hit movie version of The Philadelphia Story was released in 1940, Hepburn went on to star in films for several decades. In addition to her Oscar for Morning Glory, Hepburn also received the best actress Academy Award for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968) and On Golden Pond (1981). In total, she received 12 Academy Award nominations, as well as numerous nominations for Tony, Emmy and Golden Globe awards. Hepburn also co-authored and narrated a documentary entitled Katharine Hepburn: All About Me (1993), as well as a book entitled The Making of The African Queen in 1987.
After retiring to her beloved seaside retreat in Old Saybrook, Hepburn continued to be active, swimming regularly and riding her bicycle until her death at age 96. In 2009, the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, formerly the Old Saybrook Town Hall, was dedicated and nicknamed “The Kate.”
During This Time
1946 - 1965: Women’s Activism in Conservative Times
The Cold War in the 1950s between the Soviet Union and the United States produced fear of domestic subversion. The McCarthy Era purged suspected Communists from government, the entertainment industry, and universities, and labeled gays and lesbians as un-American security risks. General anxiety contributed to a popular conception of the family as a source of social stability, and reinforced traditional notions of women’s place at home. In 1963, Betty Friedan called this promise of fulfillment through the domestic arts the “feminine mystique,” and advocated instead that women seek personal careers.
For two decades, a burgeoning economy and a growing consumer culture had expanded the availability of jobs for women. Notable was the increase in the workforce of married women, especially middle-class white women and educated women, though they were viewed in the media as working less for a career than to assist their families with needed income or desirable amenities for the home.
Some working-class women in labor unions challenged traditional cultural norms, such as the United Electric, Radio and Machine Workers who achieved non-discrimination clauses in local contracts. Middle-class women moderated their interest in women’s issues, promoting instead advancement through the League of Women Voters, YWCA, and the American Association of University Women. More radical women in Women Strike for Peace demonstrated against the nuclear arms race and were summoned to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1962. Many activists would join the Civil Rights Movement.
The movement against segregation following World War II dates from the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregated schools are inherently unequal and thus a violation of the 14th amendment. African-Americans were given new hope, and in 1955 Rosa Parks, a black seamstress who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, triggered a bus boycott of critical importance. Black women and white women took part in boycotts, sit-ins, demonstrations, and marches. A culminating achievement in 1965 was the Voting Rights Act pushed through by President Johnson.
Mexican-Americans in the southwest also fought to improve their life and work conditions. In 1962, Dolores Huerta, co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers, played a leading role in organizing a national boycott of grapes that forced growers to sign a contract with the union.
Other ethnic groups were soon to come to America, enriching its diversity. The Immigrant and Nationality Act of 1965 established an immigration system based on family preference. Half of the new immigrants came from Mexico and Central and South America, while a quarter were from Asia. Two-thirds of the immigrants were women and children. While poverty and acculturation were issues, for many the time-honored American process of upward social mobility had begun.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.