Some 300 Bryn Mawr alumnae gathered at Sotheby’s on June 3 to preview one of the season’s hottest auctions—the sizeable estate of Katharine Houghton Hepburn ’28. The four-time Oscar-winner had homes in New York, Connecticut and Los Angeles, and Sotheby’s had expected the 2,500 or so items to fetch around $1 million. They went in the end for $5.85 million at the June 10-11 sale. (Proceeds went to a trust for Hepburn’s family.)
The Mawrters were happy to commune with each other over wine and hors d’oeuvres, while admiring the myriad forms of Hepburniana at the evening gathering sponsored by the College and the Club of New York City.
“I love it. I don’t know where I’d put it, but I love it,” said Denise Lee Hurley ’82, pointing at a wrought iron schooner-shaped chandelier (est. $600-800), hanging from the ceiling. Like most women there, she lusted after many items, not the least of which was “Gertrude,” Hepburn’s faded green, white and crimson canoe (est. $7,000-9,000), which was used in the 1981 film On Golden Pond and by Hepburn and family in the Long Island Sound at Denwick. Hurley thought it would make a lovely planter for the backyard. She also liked an 18th century mahogany secretaire a abattant (est. $800-1,200)—the perfect way to hide the back of a couch in her house in the Hamptons. Although one of the few men dragged to the event smirked at Hepburn’s “ghastly cluttered country house” aesthetic, Hurley finds something earthy, elegant and eclectic in Hepburn’s style.
“Every Bryn Mawrter knows, ‘I got in by the skin of my teeth, and by the skin of my teeth, I stayed in, and it was the best thing I ever did.’ I feel that way, and I think a lot of people do,” Hurley said. “The place really challenges you, and at times you wonder why they let you in, and you think—everyone thinks—it must have been a mistake. And you work hard, and when you’ve left, you feel it is one of the best things you could ever have done.”
Gina Dorcely ’87 considered bidding on some of Hepburn’s furniture, but also found herself gravitating toward some of Hepburn’s paintings. The Montclair, NJ writer was impressed that Hepburn had developed such a talented grasp of line, shape, light and form. Dorcely had come to Sotheby’s to socialize, but also to seek sustenance from one of her great muses.
“I wouldn’t say she was a role model, in the sense of being someone to emulate,” said Dorcely, who saw On Golden Pond with her mom right before freshman year, and The Philadelphia Story with other students after final exams. “But her spirit, her independence, her strength—it all inspired me to go out and do things in my own particular way.”
Hepburn’s time at Bryn Mawr spawned aphorisms, rituals and apocrypha. College President Nancy Vickers, not a Mawrter herself, recalls that when she got her first tour of campus, “every other time we turned the corner, someone would point to a spot and say, ‘Katharine Hepburn used to smoke here’.”
A BBC film crew shooting a documentary about Hepburn came to campus once and fell in with the women’s rugby team. They asked if it were true that Hepburn was the source of the annual group skinny-dip in the campus fountain, and, assured that it was quite true, cajoled the players into demonstrating. Local newspaper photographers captured the scene, and pictures quickly circulated through the internet. “As they say, you can’t buy publicity like that,” Vickers said. “But we feared momentarily that we had embarrassed her, so we sent her a dozen roses. She sent back a note saying that the roses were wonderful, but really, she was quite delighted with the whole escapade.”
One alumna who knew Hepburn well enough to be an occasional visitor—but not well enough to stick around “when Spencer came”—said all these possessions might say something about Hepburn, but nothing deep. “She didn’t care about things, you know. I don’t know if she ever bought any of them. For all I know, they were from her family or were gifts,” said the woman, discreetly declining to give her name. Hepburn did, however, love being driven around in her “wonderful white Packard-like thing” (not available for sale), soaking in the city and reveling in the view from the back seat. Wasn’t it hard to find parking, asked one listener to the tale. “Not for her,” quipped the doyenne.
Karen Blumberg ’95 can’t say she feels an especially kindred spirit with Hepburn, though she likes her movies pretty well and feels “a pinch of pride” at sharing the same alma mater. Blumberg was quite taken with a 19th century pine rope-seat window bench (est. $1,000-1,500)—one that Hurley would have liked for her Upper East Side entrance hall, but which Blumberg says would practically take up her whole apartment. No, Blumberg has what she needs from the movie star: a brownie recipe circulated among alumnae after Hepburn died.
“It actually calls for nuts, and doesn’t say ‘optional,’ so you have to put them in. I even melted the chocolate and butter together. We’re talking about effort and commitment here,” Blumberg says. The brownies were a big hit during an outdoor Patty Smith concert last summer. “You look at her, and you look at all this stuff, and you think: Connecticut WASP meets grunge tag sale. But in the end, what can you say? She was a powerful woman, with a powerful mind, powerful friends, powerful connections—and she had this great brownie recipe.”
Fred Mogul is a reporter for WNYC-New York Public Radio. He is a regular contributor to NPR, and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Time magazine and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is the son of Dr. Harriette Rosen Mogul ’61, MD.
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