Katharine Hepburn: She Gave Full Value, Tolerated No Nonsense

She had this thing about brownies. She liked ‘em chewy. Hated ‘em if they had the texture of cake. Like everything else that crossed her path, Katharine Hepburn wouldn’t tolerate any nonsense from brownies.

Imagine my surprise, then, to find myself on a rainy January afternoon in 1979 sitting on the floor of her old townhouse in Turtle Bay, after years of explaining how I was not the kind of old-fashioned journalist who asked movie stars for their brownie recipes, while she dished brownies out of a battered old pan and shared the secrets of her kitchen. She was 71 then, an elegant old trout of boundless energy and surging spirit who made the young film stars of the day look like a pile of dead sea moss. The occasion was a TV special of The Corn is Green , and the interview was her idea. She was at an age when work was scarce and one appearance took on the status of a major event. Right up to her death last week at 96, millions of people still cared very much what she said and did because she represented precision, order, character, taste, standards, integrity and determination-qualities as rare as Christmas bluejays.

I am not presumptuous (or lucky) enough to pretend we were close friends, but we met several times through the years, once at George Cukor’s house. Again one night after the curtain fell on Coco , when Angela Lansbury and I drove her home and sat in front of the fire while she poured tea. On weekends, she chopped her own wood in Connecticut on the same land where she was born and raised, lugging it back to Manhattan in the trunk of her car, and kept the fireplaces blazing all winter. When the sparks flew out on the rug, she shoved them back into the hearth with her bare hands between mouthfuls of tiny toasted sandwiches filled with oozy butter and orange marmalade. Once in Spain where she was filming The Trojan Women in a godforsaken dump called Atienza, I drove three hours north from Madrid past hydroelectric plants and empty gas stations until the road hit the parched and open plains, arid and dead as the Dakota badlands. Following a lonely telephone cable in the Castillian mountains, the car began to climb. Up past the castle walls of ancient Roman ruins, through dwarfed Hieronymus Bosch villages where crones draped in black raised sunburned arms to chase the ravens from their granaries. When the exhausting trip ended, I was on the top of a mountain surrounded by a herd of bearded goats, a band of gypsies from the nearby caves leaning against a rock and eating a stolen melon, and Katharine Hepburn, bent over a washtub, shampooing Vanessa Redgrave’s hair. She charged the film company $5.00 for doing it. Nearly blinded by the rubber tire smoke from the burning of Troy, she hobbled up and down hills between scenes like a rabbit collecting fossils, and learned Spanish, which she flunked at Bryn Mawr. Everyone in the cast suffered from sunstroke, diarrhea, nausea and every kind of local disease imaginable, except for Kate, who nursed them all. “I’m working as hard as any human being can,” she said, wiping bloodshot eyes. “The climate hates me, and there is no money, but I am hired to deliver the goods no matter what the circumstances, so I’ll do the best I can. I owe it to the people who have supported me through the good years and bad. Spencer taught me to play the material, come hell or high water, never jazz it up. He never even seemed aware of whether the role was good or not. Life was difficult but acting was his relaxation. For me, life is a thrill, but acting is difficult. I come to it with a driving anxiety and I am very hard on myself, so who needs critics? Spencer never read the reviews, he’d just hear about them from friends, the way I do. Also, I am mad about the business but I refuse to assume the responsibility of selling the damn thing. When I started out, the press knew nothing about me, where I came from, who I slept with, why I wore trousers. I made up a lot of stories that were absolutely loony. Now they know a little more, but I still don’t do interviews. The questions are idiotic. I know what makes a good story or a funny photograph, I am not a fool. But I cannot divide my concentration, and I hate talking about myself. It’s a bore.”

A few years later, in Turtle Bay, she was an easier, softer porcupine, but just as prickly. This is what I remember: “It’s a wonderful thing to have a high aim in life, a real ambition. Today all you see is self-pity and ‘I’m so misunderstood, poor little me, I’m such a failure.’ No humor in anything. And everyone getting kicked around by society with an excuse. I will not accept excuses and I will never give one. You’re either on time or you’re late. You either remember your lines or you don’t. You either pay your bills or you go to jail. I’m sick and tired of a whole generation of kids who say ‘I’m tired’ or ‘I’m nervous’ or this and that. If you’re tired, give yourself some gas and climb that hill. Why you can’t do something is of practically no interest at all to me, unless you say you’ve got a size-eight foot in a size-five shoe and can’t take another step. To this I say take off your shoes and hop on my back and I’ll carry you the rest of the way. But it’s a poor habit in life to blame anyone but yourself for anything.

“I was brought up by two freedom-loving parents, the eldest of six children, and we were taught to express ourselves as long as we were interesting and could hold the floor. But if we were bores and there were other fascinating people in the room, we damned well learned to keep our big mouths shut. My parents were funny, vigorous and right on top of all the new thinking, but I was mightily snubbed as a kid by many, many people, which put a good chip on my shoulder to get ahead and show that I was worth something.”

George Cukor said she swept through Hollywood in 1932 like a typhoon, insulting everyone in sight-a freckled snotty eccentric who wore men’s clothes and fought senselessly with everyone in sight. She was an immediate star. “I had to or they would have had me playing whores or discontented wives married to weasels and bores. I have now lived long enough to watch women go out of style and all that’s left is moron sex. Maybe they’ll get tired of men committing violent, brutal acts and have the women commit them too, but that’s not much of an ambition. I wouldn’t play hatchet murderesses or alcoholic mothers or loonies when I was young, and I won’t play them now. So the parts aren’t there for a woman my age. What happened to Bette Davis’ career is heartbreaking. If you’ve been on the screen for 100 years you shouldn’t show your face too often.”

On Golden Pond was still to come along and win her a fourth Oscar in 1981, but for the last 30 years, she mostly retired to Turtle Bay and stoked the fire. “Either you’re a fireplace person or you’re not and I’ve never trusted anyone who wasn’t. Stephen Sondheim, who lives next door to me, complains because the smoke gets into his living room. A most disagreeable man. I don’t think he’s a fireplace person.”

She was not a vitamin or health-food nut. She ate a lot of sugar and “anything else I damn well please. I deny myself nothing. I think what you should eat is perfectly obvious. I just don’t care to eat those things, so I don’t. We live in an era of making a great deal out of very little. They make a big deal out of diets. I’ve never been on a diet in my life. They make a big deal out of acting, and I’ve never found it that complicated. Spencer used to say, when they get too high and mighty about actors, remember who killed Lincoln.”

She didn’t smoke. She was a strong believer in ice baths, played tennis, walked a lot, never watched any of her old movies on TV because she ate dinner at 5 p.m., went to bed at 7, and got up at 4 a.m. A starchy, no-nonsense New Englander who loved snowstorms, she dove into a Connecticut lake every day that was eight degrees above zero. “I used to do it just to irritate people. Now it’s become sort of a lunatic ritual.” Money? “I didn’t come from money, but I’ve made enough to be independent. I can tell you honestly it means absolutely nothing to me. I give most of it away. I only keep enough to live comfortably and keep myself from having to borrow. I mean, a year from now I won’t have to come up to you and say ‘Look, I was nice to you and gave you a good interview once-can you spare a thousand dollars?’ I’m protected from that in my dotage. But what I’ve done with my life has never had anything to do with money. You are defined by who you are inside, not by what you’re worth at market value. Spencer Tracy and Laurette Taylor, my favorite actors, were like baked potatoes. One look at them and you just knew they’d taste as good as they looked. Me, I’m more like the Flatiron Building. All I can say is I could never be anyone else, I don’t want to be anyone else, and I’ve never regretted what I’ve done in my life even though I’ve had my nose broken a few times doing it.” The last time I saw her was at Radio City Music Hall in 1988, when we both appeared on the last of those Night of 100 Stars TV specials produced by Alexander Cohen. I had just finished an awkward dress rehearsal that required me to descend a staircase and goose-step my way off the stage in a chorus line of Rockettes. The crowded stage parted like the Red Sea as Kate the Great, wearing tennis shoes and supported by a cane, made a beeline straight for me! “I knew if I lived long enough,” she said in the voice of Alice Adams, “I’d see it all. You dancing with the Rockettes! Now I’ve seen everything!” That was the day she pulled me aside and gave me the best advice I’ve ever had: “Watch your back, kid. You’re opinionated and truthful and they’re not always gonna like it. I repeat what my father told me. ‘Kate, you’re stubborn as a horse with blinders on, ignoring trends, true to your own beliefs no matter what anybody says, and you’ll probably end up alone. Pause. And thank god for that. Because in the end, when all is said and done, you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that in this life, you at least made one person happy’!”

Audrey was the Hepburn women wanted to look like. Kate was the Hepburn they wanted to be like. Nobody really knows why, although whole books have tried to analyze her strange and powerful influence on her own time. “Lies, all lies. I never read them because they would just make me mad. All I have to do is make seven phone calls and there’s nobody left for these writers to talk to who knows anything at all about me. So they write terrible books about me anyway, and make the whole thing up.” I think the thing that made her special was her daring, giddy, fearless mix of humor and horse sense. By remaining intensely guarded about her privacy, she got standing ovations when she entered a theater. The press hounded her in the street with cameras ready, as though she were Garbo. After Joan Crawford’s death, a fan who obviously had not read the papers approached her and asked, “Aren’t you Joan Crawford?” Hepburn snorted. “Not any more, I’m not!” and stalked away.

Katharine Hepburn, a first edition in an age of Xerox. Gone at 96, but still stalking.