“I want to live here. Her spirit is in this room,” I told Chris Kaltenbach, a reporter from the Baltimore Sun Times who asked to speak to me in June at the Sotheby’s viewing of items from the Estate of Katharine Hepburn. I had my sights set on “anything ... that brought her happiness.”
When I was 13, I went to the movies and was abducted by the force of nature otherwise known as Katharine Hepburn. The movie was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and she was its backbone, its heart.
I spent the next 37 years in her thrall, making it my mission to see all of her films and her late stage work, during which time she evolved from that unknown (to me) woman in the Sidney Poitier movie into idol, icon, actress, artist, woman.
I turned 50 this year, and when she died over a year ago, on June 29, 2003, I cried as though I’d lost a loved one. Odd, since my only meeting with her had been 27 years earlier. She had been touring in Enid Bagnold’s play, A Matter of Gravity, and I somehow summoned up enough courage to write to her to ask if I could come backstage after a performance. “Fine. Come back,” came her terse response. “P.S. After the evening performance.” I did. Trembling. It was the most sensational 15 minutes of my then young life.
Don’t ask me to explain the pull she has had on me ever since that day all those years ago when she battled once again—gloriously onscreen—with her beloved Spencer Tracy. I could say it was because she was beautiful. I could say it was because she was smart and funny. I could say it was because she wore pants and chose not to marry. I could say it was because she was an artist whose film work is among the most sublime of the past century. I could say it was because she was so damnably thin! Or, I could say it was because she lived unquestionably by a set of rules and principles that guided her life. “Live for others, and you will be happy,” she had said in an interview. She was the total paradox: a person whose enormous ego was exceeded only by her loving heart. Or so I’ve discovered from the volumes written about her.
Others upon whom she had the same effect will know just what I mean. The woman was a sorceress, and I still become enormously sad when I think that she’s gone.
Then a year after her death I learned of her Estate’s plan to auction her belongings, her paintings, her life, at Sotheby’s. Prior to the auction, there was to be a week’s viewing where one could wander among galleries to examine the items to be auctioned. I was beside myself with worry at how this would affect me. How could this be? Kate the guarded? Kate the private? How would it be for us mere mortals to peer into glass cases at a lock of her baby hair or her school notes from Bryn Mawr or her love letters to and from an infatuated fly boy named Hughes or to touch a fireplace mantel she had designed for the residence she shared with Tracy? (Okay, we were not supposed to touch, but honestly, how could one resist the urge to run one’s hands across the wormy chestnut that was perhaps once leaned upon by two of the greatest actors in the history of the movies?)
One minute in the rooms devoted to her extraordinary self, however, and my concern subsided as I felt her spirit permeate the place. It hovered over the people milling about oohing and aahing (while it, no doubt, was laughing its ass off at the idea of an anxious crowd jockeying for position in front of the glass to examine her newspaper hair rollers). It filled the atmosphere. It sat in the chair she called her “throne.” It seeped out of the glorious black and white photos of her in her gorgeous prime. It hung on the walls next to the paintings that had been so much an expression of her private self—some amateurish, some sweet, some enormously skilled.
And suddenly we were not unwelcome trespassers. We were invited guests. And all the sadness I’d felt at her passing turned into something else. This was the great Hepburn giving something back to the people she’d late in life admitted had given her nothing but love and respect—as an actor and as a human being.
After the auction, I stepped into the Ladies Room and a middle-aged woman came to stand in line behind me. She was positively beaming. I didn’t know her, but I could tell she was bursting to talk to someone. I said, “Hi.” She said, “I got something!” “What?” I asked. She said, “The small figure of a mother and child that was on one of Kate’s fireplace mantels.” The woman was in the stratosphere. Positively flying. And, honestly, it made me so happy to see that. She was not from the bridal dress company that bid a fortune on Kate’s wedding dress, nor was she a celebrity like Wayne Newton who got the canoe named Gertrude, nor was she a millionaire who could bid $316,000 for the tiny sculpted head of Spencer Tracy. She said she just loved Kate. Came in from North Carolina. First time in New York.
I suspect that a lot of the things went into homes where they would be cherished. At least that’s what I want to believe. This ebullient woman gave me hope.
Judy Samelson, editor of Playbill magazine, is the honored caretaker of a Katharine Hepburn painting of the California hills and a cherished chestnut fireplace mantel. She hopes everyone got to touch it.
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