To generations of students and alumnae, Katharine Houghton Hepburn '28 epitomized the independent spirit, uncompromising standards, and work ethic of the Bryn Mawr woman.
Hepburn wanted to attend Bryn Mawr because of her mother, whom she adored, Katharine Houghton Hepburn, A.B. 1900, M.A. 1900, a leading social activist for women's suffrage and birth control. (Her aunt, Edith Houghton Hooker, also received her A.B. from Bryn Mawr in 1900.) "It was a part of my mother's life and it was a part of my life," she told seniors in 1973. "I was enormously lucky to come here.I am very proud when I see the name, very proud. It isn't plastic, it isn't nylon, it's real pure gold that they are presenting to you here."
"She led a wonderfully rich, successful and fulfilling life, and she lived it on her own terms," said Dean of the College Karen M. Tidmarsh '71 in a television interview on the evening of Hepburn's death, June 29, 2003. "She still has tremendous power as a symbol for students."
A May Day screening of The Philadelphia Story has been a Bryn Mawr tradition for years. The character of Tracy Lord and many others portrayed by Hepburn-Jo March, Rosie Sayer, Eleanor of Aquitaine-are manifestations of the Mawrter type.
Not a navel-gazer, Hepburn had no need of a T-shirt printed with the Delphic oracle's injunction, "Gnothi seauton" ("Know thyself"). This leopard had found its spots.
Bryn Mawr alumnae have shared their reminiscences about Hepburn and what she meant to themon an electronic bulletin board created by the Alumnae Association. Among the postings, Mary Macomber Leue '40remembers seeing, at age 8, Hepburn perform as Pandora in "The Woman in the Moone" at Grand May Day: "My memory of that lovely girl all curled inside the big cardboard crescent moon is as clear today as it was in 1928." Jessica Tracy '81, Elizabeth Carmody '81 and Sandra Waugh '81, fled in embarrassment when they encountered Hepburn on Wyndham's terrace in 1977; she was at Bryn Mawr to receive the M. Carey Thomas Award. They received a reply, signed "K. Hep," to the note of apology they left for her: "Well! You had more business being there than I did. What a night!" Hepburn also wrote back to the many students and alumnae who sent her letters telling her that they admired her choices in life and she had inspired them to apply to Bryn Mawr. (Alumnae may read and contribute to the bulletin board.)
Hepburn was the subject of some 20 books and wrote an autobiography, Me; numerous reflections on her career and private life have been published since her death. She speaks for herself here in excerpts from her talk to Bryn Mawr seniors in 1973 and her convocation address at the College's Centennial Commencement in 1985.
|'My attention was divided'|
"The studies and the individual professors had an enormous effect on me, because the professors were kind and interested in kids' finding their way. There was Professor James Leuba, who was the head of the psychology department when I was going to major in psychology, and he had a daughter who was interested in dancing, so he was in as bad a spot as my father. He suggested the courses that I take. At that time, I wanted to study medicine but I was really absolutely absent in the head in chemistry; I didn't understand what it was all about because I didn't concentrate. ... Ihad something [acting] I was awfully anxious to do, so my attention was divided.
"Samuel Arthur King taught speech and Greek. He was a hangover from the days of M. Carey Thomas who cared desperately how people sounded, and I think she was right. It is a very sad thing, especially in this country, for people who want to go into the acting field but don't speak English decently. Most of them make an unattractive noise when they open their mouths. I learned here to speak out loud with a certain amount of confidence. Of the plays that I did here, Samuel King supervised certain ones and was an enormous help to me.
"Acting is a funny kind of a career to go into. There's a point at which, if you don't have any luck, you are stuck. ... You are constantly worried about it because you are selling yourself. You are presuming to say: 'I am a fascinating thing.' I think that by necessity it is an unhealthy profession.
"My advice for a kid today about going into the theater? I wouldn't listen to somebody my age or even 20 years younger. When I went into the theater, I would have thought, 'Oh, you poor old thing, you don't know what the hell you are talking about.' Times have changed, and the styles change enormously. It's something you have to feel for yourselves.
"... I had parents who gave me a tremendous amount of confidence and a sort of freedom from fear. They had a great zest and zing for life, some new ideas on things, and a belief in and enthusiasm for what I was doing. ... I was very, very lucky there. But if you don't have that confidence, if you have parents who think you are unattractive and a dithering idiot, and they are sorry they ever had you, you still have to live with yourself. Now in my era, if you did something stupid or wrong, you had to blame yourself. Today you say, "You poor thing, look at your upbringing," and then you blame mama, papa, grandma, it doesn't matter whom you blame. There's one person to blame for whatever you do. Don't look for a scapegoat, go right to yourself-I'm giving you my brilliant philosophy of life-because if you blame yourself, you can change yourself, and you cannot change anybody else unless they love you tremendously."
(March 20, 1973 conversation with Bryn Mawr seniors.)
|'Bryn Mawr was my springboard into adult life'|
Whenever I come to Bryn Mawr, I feel rather solemn. I feel that I should express my gratitude to President M. Carey Thomas, who decided that women were worth educating. She was an extraordinary and distinguished woman. She had It and she gave It to this institution. We've all benefited. She was still living in the Deanery when I came here as a student, and she was actually the President of the College when my mother was here at the turn of the century.
Mother's mother died at 34. On her deathbed she said, "Get an education, get the best. Go to Bryn Mawr." Mother did. She was a brilliant student and had a wonderful time. But she also enjoyed smoking. She and some friends used to go to the little cemetery down there on the corner to have a smoke. M. Carey Thomas sent for her-"You know, Miss Houghton-I don't blame you at all for want-ing to smoke, but we are trying to convince people that educating women is going to improve them as women-not make them run wild." Mother was fascinated by M. Carey. The "You can do it" philosophy became her battle cry-she taught it to me.
... I graduated from Bryn Mawr-by the skin of my teeth-as a matter of record. ... My studies-well, how can I describe my state of mind. I was simply flying through the air-life-opportunity-excitement-rattled through my brain and through my frame. The concentration for studying was totally lacking.
At the beginning of my sophomore year, I missed 10 days because of an appendix operation. My marks sank. Dean Helen Taft Manning wrote Dad and suggested that I might do better elsewhere. Dad, a surgeon, wrote back that if he had a patient in the hospital and didn't know what dto o for her, he would not send her home. She agreed to keep me. I stayed and I studied-I pulled myself up by my bootstraps-got on the road and kept going! I finally graduated-the result of real labor-I learned to force myself to keep at it-It was an act of total desperation. Bryn Mawr was my springboard into adult life.
... You can't have it all-you have to make choices-win here, lose there. This is where a woman has a much more difficult life than a man-she has motherhood. What are you going to do about that?
I was brought up and am a product of a gloriously secure and happy home, with my distinguished mother at home. She was doing a lot of work on suffrage and birth control, and liberal causes. She was not being paid, but she was living in an era of plentiful and cheap help. She had a happy life. So did we six kids. So did Dad. She sat on the right of the fireplace. Dad sat on the left. It was home. It was-is the most honorable job. It is the future.
Now here I am-I opted for myself-without children. I didn't feel I could do a great job on the kids if I worked. Right? Wrong? Who can say? But I do know, you just can't have it all. So I chose for myself, and I think I chose correctly.
(1985 Bryn Mawr College Centennial Convocation address)
One of the 20th century's most prominent film and stage actresses, Katharine Houghton Hepburn '28, died on June 29, 2003. A four-time Academy Award-winner, Hepburn had long been a symbol of women's independence and autonomy, especially during the years when there were no active feminist movements (1920s-mid 1960s). Her mother, also a Bryn Mawr alumna, Katharine Houghton Hepburn, A.B. 1900, M.A. 1900, was a leading social activist for women's suffrage and birth control. But the younger Hepburn did not choose the role of militant public crusader in making her opinions known on civil rights, human rights in living and dying, issues of equality-especially for women-and statements on behalf of those involved in the arts and in political life. The exception was for Planned Parenthood, for which she lobbied and composed cogent appeals. It was in her acting profession, especially in the 43 often-saluted films, that the actress gave character, depth and stunning immediacy to an array of the social issues of our own and other times.
Hepburn majored in history and philosophy at Bryn Mawr. As an undergraduate, she played parts in several College productions, crowned by a tremendous success as Pandora in John Lyly's "The Woman in the Moone," at Bryn Mawr's Grand May Day celebration in 1928. "I don't remember being stage struck, but I obviously was-wildly," she told The Washington Post in 1990. She performed briefly at a stock company in Baltimore the summer after graduating; then it was on to New York, and in 1932, Hollywood. Her first movie role was in the 1932 "A Bill of Divorcement," starring John Barrymore. The following year, she won her first Academy Award for Best Actress in "Morning Glory." She went on to win three more Oscars for Best Actress in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," co-starring Spencer Tracy, "The Lion in Winter," and "On Golden Pond."
In 1977, Hepburn was awarded Bryn Mawr's highest honor, The M. Carey Thomas Award. At the age of 84, she wrote her biography, Me, an often poignant book of stories about the life behind her performing personality, which she called "The Creature," and her "real" self, whom she named "The Private Secretary." In this book, she described the tragedy of finding her brother dead when she was a teen-ager and her long relationship with actor Spencer Tracy.
At Bryn Mawr's Centennial Commencement Convocation on May 18, 1985, Hepburn addressed the rumor that she used to swim naked in a fountain pool in the Cloisters of Bryn Mawr's Thomas Library. "The truth is that I was desperately trying to study and retain what I'd studied," she said. "I'd spend the night in the library, get exhausted, then dip into the Cloister pool in a mad effort to stay awake. It was an act of the greatest virtue. And a fact that I had no bathing suit." She lived in Pembroke West dormitory, but her greatest friend was classmate Alice Palache Jones and a group of others in Merion Hall, who tried to help her study. "I was not a good student," Hepburn told Bryn Mawr undergraduates in 1973. "Bryn Mawr isn't plastic, it isn't nylon, it's pure gold. ... I came here by the skin of my teeth; I got in and by the skin of my teeth I stayed. It was the best thing I ever did. Bryn Mawr was my springboard into adult life. I discovered that you can do anything if you work hard enough. I feel that I was enormously lucky to come here. I am very proud when I see the name, very proud."
Over the years, she often said that she would have preferred to be a writer or artist. Marriage and motherhood were out-at least on any terms she found acceptable. In the theater and Hollywood, however, there was "complete equality between men and women," she observed in 1942. In the late 1920s, Hepburn married Philadelphian Ludlow Ogden Smith, whom she persuaded to change his name to Ogden Ludlow, so that she would not be called "Kate Smith" like the well-known singer. After their amicable divorce in 1934, "Luddy" remained a member of the Hepburn family.
Hepburn loved to paint. She began in the 1930s: "I was on a boat, a great big yacht, with Howard Hughes," she told Barbara Auchincloss Thacher '40 during an interview in 1992. "We were down in Nassau, and I just thought it was rather boring. I saw some paints, bought them and began. I still have my first two paintings. I still love to paint. Find it relaxing."
Asked what film she enjoyed making the most, she told Bryn Mawr undergraduates, "The film I enjoyed making most is a very difficult thing to answer because it's always the last one! ... I loved working with Spencer. He was a great actor. A great, great actor. And in the first scene I ever played with him, we were sitting at a table and I was very nervous because I thought he was wonderful, and I knew he thought my nails were dirty. And I knocked over a glass of water in the scene. Now ordinarily I would've stopped and said, 'Oh, God damn it.' And he just took his handkerchief out of his pocket, handed it to me and went on with the scene. His concentration was so total, you see, and I thought, 'That's really the way to do it.' "
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