Hepburn majored in history and philosophy at Bryn Mawr. As an undergraduate, she played parts in several College productions, crowned by her role 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 Hollywood.
Hepburn made her New York stage debut in “These Days” (1928), but made a name for herself in the 1932 Broadway hit “The Warrior’s Husband,” in which she starred as Antiope, an Amazon princess. She made her entrance by bounding down a flight of stairs with a stag over her shoulders. The role won her a Hollywood screen test, but Hepburn had the audacity to turn down a contract offer from Paramount Pictures.
Her first film role was in A Bill of Divorcement (1932), starring John Barrymore, for which she demanded a contract paying $1,500 per week, an outlandish salary for a beginner at the time. 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 (1967, co-starring Spencer Tracy), The Lion in Winter (1968, co-starring Peter O’Toole), and On Golden Pond (1981, co-starring Henry Fonda).
Unconventional in all things, Hepburn was anti-Hollywood, defying stereotypes of the day in behavior and fashion. A shrewd businesswoman, she convinced Howard Hughes to purchase for her the film rights to The Philadelphia Story, in which she had played Tracy Lord to rave reviews on Broadway. She sold the rights to MGM and Louis B. Mayer on the condition that she would star in what would become one of her most successful motion pictures. Off-screen and on, Hepburn epitomized the strong, independent woman who speaks her mind — a trademark that mirrored her own life.
In a 1973 visit to the College, Hepburn told Bryn Mawr undergraduates, “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.” In 1977, Hepburn was awarded Bryn Mawr’s highest honor, The M. Carey Thomas Award.
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.”
Over the years, Hepburn often expressed a desire to be an artist or writer rather than an actor. “I’d rather have been a great painter or a great writer,” she said. “It’s a minor art, acting. The trouble with it is that you have to do it with other people. I think depending on yourself is much more satisfying than being part of a great big machine.”
She began painting in the 1930s: “I was on a boat, a great big yacht, with Howard Hughes,” she recalled in a 1992 interview with Barbara Auchincloss Thacher ’40. “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.” Hepburn later became a best-selling author, at the age of 80, for The Making of The African Queen: Or, How I Went to Africa with Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind (1987) and again at age 84 for her autobiography Me: Stories of My Life (1991).
Hepburn married Ludlow Ogden Smith of Philadelphia in 1928, but marriage didn't suit her. She observed in 1942, after finally divorcing Smith, “I don’t believe in marriage. It’s bloody impractical to love, honor and obey.” In the theater and Hollywood, however, there was “complete equality between men and women,” she said..
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!” Her last film was in 1994, Love Affair, in which she played the aunt of the lead, Warren Beatty.
Hepburn won an Emmy Award in 1975 for her lead role in Love Among the Ruins, co-starring Laurence Olivier, and was nominated for four other Emmys and two Tony Awards. In 1999, the American Film Institute named Hepburn the top female screen legend of the 20th century. And her trademark pantsuits, which she’d worn since the 1930s, led to a lifetime achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1986.