- Katharine Hepburn had difficulty finding love throughout her life.
- She finally married, but it ended in divorce. Nonetheless, she remained optimistic.
- Eventually, Hepburn met Spencer Tracy, and the two fell in love. They had a deep connection and stayed together until his death.
Hollywood has shaped countless beloved icons. Numerous unforgettable actors have graced our screens, with their legacies persisting in television to this day. One of these influential entertainers was the legendary actress Katharine Hepburn, who stole the hearts of many an audience with her heartfelt acting.
Hepburn has always captivated audiences with the ease with which she could bring a character to life. From the naive yet brave and passionate Miss Rose Sayer in “The African Queen” to the hilariously no-nonsense Susan Vance in “Bringing Up Baby,” Hepburn never failed to seize the audience’s attention.
Katharine Hepburn in 1900 | Source: Getty Images
While audiences adored her, Hepburn also stood out among her professional peers. She holds the record for having the most number of Academy Awards for Best Actress, winning a total of four Oscars throughout her career. Hepburn won her very first Oscar for “Morning Glory” in 1934.
Besides her anxiety over her skills, Hepburn had also lost her brother, Tom Hepburn, when she was a little girl.
In 1968, Hepburn took the golden statue home for the second time after winning Best Actress for her performance as Christina Drayton in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” The very next year, she bagged her third.
Katharine Hepburn in the USA, 1970 | Source: Getty Images
For the second year in a row, Hepburn was called to the stage to accept the Academy Award for Best Actress alongside Barbra Streisand. While Streisand won for her role as Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl,” Hepburn took the award for playing Eleanor Aquitaine in “The Lion in Winter.” This was the only tie in Oscar history.
Finally, Hepburn’s fourth and final Oscar win came in 1982, when she won the sought-after Best Actress award again, this time for her portrayal of Ethel Thayer in “On Golden Pond.” The winning actress’s name was called out to much applause, but Hepburn couldn’t receive the award herself, since she was starring on Broadway that night.
Instead, John Voight accepted her award on her behalf. Although she couldn’t be there, her peers celebrated her win with roaring applause, and Voight made a short yet endearing speech about the Oscars and Hepburn’s win. Besides holding the most wins, Hepburn also had the most nominations until Meryl Streep broke her record.
Katharine Hepburn, 1900 | Source: Getty Images
Hepburn wasn’t merely revered for her acting prowess but also became an icon for the feminist movement in Hollywood. Dressing comfortably in slacks and wearing her hair up, Hepburn had a strong personality, and it translated to the characters she played. She left an impression on everyone she met and on the industry itself.
But even though Hepburn was an icon of confidence and always portrayed strong female characters, the actress wasn’t without worries and insecurities. Her on-screen personas often walked away with the man, but in real life, Hepburn’s romantic endeavors rarely ended as happily.
Hepburn’s nephew, Mundy Hepburn, recalled how nervous she was whenever she performed, often grabbing him by the shoulders afterward and demanding to know if she had done her job well. Before every show, Hepburn reportedly had great trouble calming herself down, often wondering whether she would be any good.
Katharine Hepburn, circa 1957 | Source: Getty Images
Katharine Hepburn in 1965 | Source: Getty Images
Besides her anxiety over her skills, Hepburn had also lost her brother, Tom Hepburn, when she was a little girl. Although the tragedy shook her, she moved on with her life, something she would do regularly in adulthood as well. One thing that seemed to elude Hepburn throughout her life was a love story of her own.
Hepburn’s First Marriage
Although Hepburn had trouble truly finding lasting love, she did have a few romantic connections. The actress was married at one time in her life, meeting a young man in her college during a school dance, Ludlow Ogden Smith. It was during the same year that she still fought for a place in a few minor plays.
Gene Kelly recalled how Hepburn and Tracy would often take lunch breaks apart from the rest of the cast, preferring to sit on a bench, hold hands, and enjoy each other’s company.
In 1928, Hepburn made her Broadway debut and spent her first year in New York. Here, she found a number of roles but was fired from many of them, eventually becoming frustrated with the industry. She also reconnected with Smith, a college classmate, and in an unexpected twist, she agreed to marry him.
Katharine Hepburn, circa 1900 | Source: Getty Images
Smith worked as a stockbroker, while Hepburn continued to look for the role that would send her into the annals of Hollywood. Eventually, in 1932, she caught the eye of critics with her role in “The Warrior’s Husband,” eliciting praise from almost anyone with a pen and a place to post their opinions.
The show ran for three months, and by the end, Hepburn got an offer from Hollywood to star in “A Bill of Divorcement” with John Barrymore. Hepburn also built a close relationship with the director, George Cukor, and they worked together often throughout her life. Despite her growing success, Hepburn also had to swallow a bitter pill.
In 1934, a few years after marrying Smith, Hepburn and her husband went their separate ways. Hepburn rarely commented on her personal life, but she did insist that she still thought of Smith fondly, and it seems she bore no hard feelings. That said, the actress never married again, preferring to live independently.
Katharine Hepburn in 1932 | Source: Getty Images
After her marriage to Smith, Hepburn took a chance on a few men, notably her agent, Leland Hayward. The situation with Hayward was tenuous, however, since he was a married man. Following this relationship, she also fell for the director John Ford, who promised to leave his wife for her.
In the end, Hayward and Hepburn weren’t to be, although they reportedly never even slept together, with Hayward swearing they would only sleep together after they were married. Hepburn also had a brief fling with Howard Hughes, but in the end, she spent most of her life in a quiet relationship with another married man.
Hepburn met the man who would play a significant role in her life at the age of 36. She starred opposite actor Spencer Tracy for the very first time in the film “Woman of the Year,” in 1942. The two had a natural chemistry in front of the camera, and although they came from two different worlds, they would continue to appear together.
Katharine Hepburn and Clark Gable in 1940, in Hartford, Connecticut | Source: Getty Images
When Tracy and Hepburn first met, the two apparently didn’t see eye to eye, although Hepburn would later deny this. The actress reportedly first commented to her co-star, “I fear I may be too tall for you, Mr. Tracy,” although she later denied this. While Hepburn was a modern woman, recently divorced, and willing to speak her mind, Tracy was a conservative Catholic.
Needless to say, the two seemed to be at odds from the start, although they were undeniably in sync when they started to act together. They made witty remarks, their banter flowed with ease, and they shared smoldering looks. Both the producers and the audiences loved to see the two starring together.
Their on-screen chemistry soon thawed their relationship in real life, and the two started growing closer. There was an undeniable attraction between them, but Tracy was married. What’s more, the actor was dedicated to his faith, and although he loved Hepburn, he couldn’t get a divorce.
Katharine Hepburn in Stratford, Connecticut, 1957 | Source: Getty Images
Katharine Hepburn, 1930 | Source: Getty Images
Nonetheless, Hepburn and Tracy started to have an affair, which lasted for almost 30 years, almost as long as other Hollywood marriages. They largely tried to keep their relationship a secret, mostly managing to do so, although anyone who worked with them surely knew. They starred in a number of films together and remained close throughout their lives.
The Love of Hepburn’s Life
Gene Kelly recalled how Hepburn and Tracy would often take lunch breaks apart from the rest of the cast, preferring to sit on a bench, hold hands, and enjoy each other’s company. The public knew very little about the two lovers, and Tracy wanted his wife to know even less, but their co-workers were definitely aware.
But after the film, Tracy’s health was looking bleak.
The true story of their love affair only later became public knowledge, but it became clear that the two had really been fascinated by each other since the moment they met. Although they were different people, Hepburn had felt an instant attraction to Tracy. A close friend noted, “It was one of those love-at-first-sight things.”
Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in “Pat and Mike,” 1952 | Source: Getty Images
Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in “Woman of the Year,” in 1942
Hepburn instantly fell for Tracy, and while she seemed like his complete opposite, he soon noticed how impressive she was as well. However, as their relationship developed and they grew closer over the years, Tracy always thought about his family, hoping to keep them from being publicly humiliated and hounded by the press.
So, the actor and his mistress agreed to keep things between them quiet. Hepburn seemed to have no problem with the way they kept their relationship. She may have been the mistress, but she apparently had no intention of marrying Tracy and didn’t want to start a family with him. So, they kept things a secret.
Nonetheless, they had a profoundly devoted bond with one another. One biographer, Christopher Andersen, explained that the two seemed to share something akin to what he referred to as “soulmates.” He insisted that they understood each other perfectly and connected on a profound level.
Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in “Woman of the Year,” 1942 | Source: Getty Images
Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in “Without Love,” 1945 | Source: Getty Images
Although their relationship may have seemed like something from one of the films Hepburn was famous for, the pair also faced a number of problems. Yet, despite Tracy’s dependency on alcohol and the darker streak in his personality, Hepburn stuck with him, proving her intense loyalty and love.
Hepburn took care of Tracy when they filmed together, fetching him anything he may need, sitting with him, and praising him endlessly. Hepburn was also aware that she wasn’t the only other woman Tracy was seeing. The actor also reportedly had an affair with Ingrid Bergman, which Hepburn was acutely aware of.
Nonetheless, she stayed by his side. While his married life wasn’t going well, he had Hepburn to comfort and dote over him. Meanwhile, Tracy’s wife, Louise Treadwell, was at home, similarly doting on her son. The boy had become the focus of her life once she realized he was deaf, and later over her and Tracy’s daughter.
Katharine Hepburn in “The Man Upstairs,” 1992 | Source: Getty Images
Katharine Hepburn in 1971 | Source: Getty Images
Over time, Tarcy and Treadwell’s relationship grew colder, and they were living apart at one point. Still, the actor wanted to preserve his wife’s dignity and tried to keep her out of the papers. Hepburn also kept quiet about her relationship with Tracy, preferring to keep her personal life mostly out of the media.
After their booming careers in Hollywood started to wind down, the two spent more time together. By 1963, Tracy was having serious problems with his health. Hepburn happily looked after him, both on set and off. The pair rented a wooden house in Trancas Beach, where they spent some of their last days together.
On July 21, the two prepared to go out for a picnic when Tracy suddenly gasped for breath. Hepburn had been packing the essentials for the picnic when she suddenly saw him flail. Panicking, she ran inside to call the fire department, returning to help Tracy get oxygen from an oxygen tank.
Katharine Hepburn in Manhattan, New York City, May 1987 | Source: Getty Images
Katharine Hepburn in 1981 | Source: Getty Images
Finally, the rescue unit arrived to take Tracy to the hospital. Hepburn stood by as they loaded him into the vehicle, constantly telling him that things would turn out all right in the end. An ambulance took the actor to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Los Angeles, where Treadwell eventually joined her husband.
After the health scare, Tracy returned to his cottage, and Hepburn moved in to take care of him permanently. Despite his failing health, the actor and Hepburn worked on “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” completing the project in May 1967. The actor was overjoyed to have completed the movie.
But after the film, Tracy’s health was looking bleak. He struggled to fall asleep, and Hepburn would put a pillow down next to his bed so she could talk to him as he slowly drifted off. She told him, “I’ll just talk and talk and you’ll be so bored you’re bound to drift off.”
Katharine Hepburn in 1987 | Source: Getty Images
Katharine Hepburn on May 12, 1992. in New York City | Source: Getty Images
On Saturday morning, June 10, 1967, Hepburn was awakened by Tracy’s feet shuffling into the kitchen. She was just about to join him when she heard a loud crash, and rushed out to find him on the floor. The actor had had a heart attack.
Hepburn refrained from attending his funeral out of respect for Louise. Although she couldn’t be at his funeral, she was there in Tracy’s final moments.
Looking back at her life as she aged, the actress commented that, like many other celebrities, it was a good life. She noted, “I’ve been as terrified as the next person, but you’ve got to keep a-going; you’ve got to dream.”