By Tedd Levy
(c) Connecticut Explored SPRING 2015
In 1999 the American Film Institute named Katharine Hepburn one of the greatest American screen legends in Hollywood history. At one of her early performances at Hartford’s Bushnell Theater, she scribbled her autograph on a backstage wall: “Katharine Hepburn. Local Girl.” For this motion-picture legend, Connecticut, and especially Old Saybrook, would always be home.
Born in Hartford to Dr. Thomas Hepburn, a urologist at Hartford Hospital, and Katharine Houghton Hepburn, an advocate for women’s suffrage and women’s reproductive rights, Hepburn (1907- 2003) spent her formative summers in the Borough of Fenwick in Old Saybrook, where her parents had purchased a cottage on Long Island Sound in 1912. Although she maintained an apartment in New York City from the early 1930s, as she recalled in her 1991 memoir Me (Alfred A. Knopf), she spent every weekend she could at her home in Fenwick and then, in her later years, lived there full time among her books, collections, paintings, flowers, and a crackling fire fed by driftwood she retrieved off the beach. Fenwick was her refuge, one she called “paradise.”
Her first theatrical performance occurred there on the family’s sweeping front porch, where she and childhood friends presented Beauty and the Beast, to rave reviews. After graduating from Bryn Mawr College in 1928 she got her first stage experience at the Ivoryton Playhouse. “I had done very little at that point in the theatre. But I was known in the neighborhood because of Dad and Mother. … It was only about fifteen miles from Fenwick,” she wrote in Me. “I discovered what it was all about there. I was Henry Hull’s leading lady in The Cat and the Canary and The Man Who Came Back in 1930. And the year after that I played a very sophisticated star in Let Us Be Gay.…They had a great audience and were almost always sold out.” She made her New York stage debut as an Amazon princess in the 1932 Broadway hit The Warrior’s Husband. Her performance earned her a Hollywood screen test. In a remarkable career that spanned more than 60 years, she received four Academy Awards for Best Actress, five Emmy Awards, and two Tony Awards and was honored at the Kennedy Center.
Her life in Old Saybrook allowed her to escape the demands of stardom. She swam throughout the year in Long Island Sound and enjoyed tennis, boating, painting, and working in her garden. She also played golf; she scored a hole in one on the morning the 1938 hurricane destroyed her family’s home (which she promptly rebuilt).
She said on several occasions that “people in Fenwick respect my privacy. I’m nothing special to them, you know.” Local residents conspired to guard her desire for, and sometimes demand for, a “normal” existence.
Long time friend and former First Selectman Barbara J. Maynard recalls that Hepburn “was very generous to the town but did everything anonymously.” Hepburn contributed funds to develop Fort Saybrook Monument Park and a community home for the elderly. When the fire department needed a new truck, she bought a used one for them—but when Fire Chief Coleman Bushnell had “Thank You KH” painted on the side door in gold letters, she quickly made him take it off.
“The only thing we got her to take part in was the 375th anniversary celebration in 1985,” Maynard recalls. Hepburn’s sister Marion and Marion’s husband Ellsworth Grant persuaded her to attend the American Wind Symphony Orchestra concert at Saybrook Point on that occasion. In the midst of the performance, Maynard recalls, “Hepburn got up from her seat, walked up to the dock, kind of jumped over the little space between the dock and the barge [on which the orchestra was performing]. The maestro gave her the baton…. The orchestra played all the better. She got a standing ovation, cheers, and whistles.”
Her visits to Main Street were often hurried. At Walt’s, a local grocery store, she occasionally cut a waiting line and showed owner Walt Kozey how to slice meats to the thickness she wanted. At the James Pharmacy she had her prescriptions filled and scooped her own ice cream. At Patrick’s Country Store, she bought the same clothes year after year: turtleneck, red sweater vest, and khaki pants. Owner Barry Maynard, Barbara’s son, told new employees not to ask for her autograph and to keep an eye on what she picked up because the bill would be sent to her in New York. On one occasion she was in the dressing room and a photographer came into the store. After he was asked to leave, Hepburn emerged to thank Maynard and say, “Good for you.”
Reminiscing about the town in Me, Hepburn wrote, “I’m like the girl who never grew up, you see. I just never really left home, so to speak. I always went back there almost every weekend of my life when I wasn’t filming. I kept my life there, my roots…and when I went back there, I didn’t go for my atmosphere; I went for their atmosphere—of which I was a part. I was going to my father’s house…. That’s very unusual, isn’t it? Very, very unusual that someone who’s sort of made it in the big world could still want to go home to their father’s house.”
Reminders of Hepburn remain in Old Saybrook. The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center has a small museum of Hepburn memorabilia and features a “Kate Classic” film each month. The town clerk’s office showcases a bronze bust by local sculptor Kara Knobelsdorff, and the Old Saybrook Historical Society Archives has a portrait of her by Myfanwy Pavelic that formerly hung in her Hepburn’s New York City apartment.
Tedd Levy is the author of The Remarkable Women of Old Saybrook (History Press, 2013) and a history columnist for the Shoreline Times.
The Ivoryton Playhouse, 103 Main Street, Ivoryton. Ivorytonplayhouse.org, 860-767-7318
The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center, 300 Main Street, Old Saybrook. 860-510-0473 katharinehepburn.org. The museum is open Tuesday – Friday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., and one hour prior to show times. Docent-led tours are available by appointment.