Katharine Hepburn On Stage

Special Features   Katharine Hepburn On Stage
We take a tour of "Katharine Hepburn: In Her Own Files," the first public exhibition of the theatrical papers of Katharine Hepburn at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
Katharine Hepburn in the title role in Jane Eyre (1937)
Katharine Hepburn in the title role in Jane Eyre (1937) Photo by Vandamm Studio. Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts


I have admired Katharine Hepburn (oh, all right, I've been a fan) since... well, I'll only say that nine Presidents have occupied the White House since she insinuated herself into my then-young consciousness. Not only was her work compelling but in her independence, forthrightness, sense of adventure and fairness and loyalty, her personal life seemed to offer a design for living that was particularly enticing to a 13-year-old girl. Decades later, Hepburn's power to captivate — even now, six years after her death at 96 on June 29, 2003 — lives on. So, when my editor asked me to cover "Katharine Hepburn: In Her Own Files" — the exhibition of the actress' theatrical papers on view through Oct. 10 at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (complete exhibition details below) — I jumped at the assignment.

In 2004, the trustees of Hepburn's estate (Cynthia McFadden and Erik Hanson) donated to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences' Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles what the library has called the largest presentation of material documenting a film career they have ever received from a single performer. Subsequently, in October 2007, the actress' estate donated the papers covering her stage career to The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. When one considers the fact that Katharine Hepburn juggled a successful film and stage career by practically commuting between Los Angeles and New York (a given now, but not the done thing in her day), the bi-coastal division of this array of professional and personal material takes on a pleasing symmetry. The Hepburn theatrical papers are housed in the library's Billy Rose Division, and it is from this vast collection that the current exhibition was developed by the library's executive director Jacqueline Z. Davis and curator of exhibitions Barbara Cohen-Stratyner.

"Katharine Hepburn: In Her Own Files" allows fans a privileged peek — via letters, telegrams, journals, photos, etc. — into the support Hepburn received from friends and teachers, the diligence and good humor with which she approached her work and the personal satisfaction she seems to have derived from it. The exhibition encompasses the broad sweep of Hepburn's stage career from its earliest days in college theatrics to her final appearances on Broadway. Items in frames line the walls of the Vincent Astor Gallery, while other more fragile pieces are displayed in glass cases in the center of the space. Enlarged images of Hepburn in various stage roles are hung banner-style from the ceiling. In one corner of the gallery there is a flat-screen TV on which excerpts from videotaped talks given by friends and colleagues at the library in 2008 are played in a loop. Finally, since even an exhibition designed to spotlight her work in the theatre could not completely ignore the movies that made her an icon, Hepburn's film years are also represented with photos and ephemera from the library's general collections.

It may come as a surprise to some to discover that Katharine Hepburn had a globetrotting theatrical career that took her from fresh-out-of-college appearances in stock companies to Broadway, from the West End to the American Shakespeare Festival Theatre in Stratford, CT, — even to Australia with The Old Vic Company. She was one of the few among her Hollywood-royalty contemporaries to return repeatedly to the stage. As she told Dick Cavett in a 1973 interview, she had a theatre clause built into her film contracts from the very start, giving her control over her career and enabling her to leave Hollywood and tread the boards periodically. Something else she said during that interview revealed an unexpected insecurity but also a determination to triumph over it. "I was so tormented in the theatre," she told Cavett. "It frightened me so that I thought I must come back and overcome that. And it took me my whole life."

Katharine Hepburn (right) and Colin Keith-Johnston - in The Warrior's Husband (1932)
photograph by White Studio. Billy Rose Theatre Division,The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

That life in the theatre encompassed everything from untraditional ingénues (The Warrior's Husband) to musical grande dames (Coco) — from Philip Barry to Enid Bagnold to George Bernard Shaw to William Shakespeare. The trajectory wasn't always uphill. The Hepburn career resembled the stomach-churning ups and downs of an E-ticket ride on more than one occasion. In 1934, after having won the first of her record four Oscars for what was only her third role in pictures ("Morning Glory"), Hepburn starred on Broadway in The Lake for producer–director Jed Harris and was famously cut down by Dorothy Parker's scathing critique that her performance ran the gamut of emotions from A to B. What could have leveled a lesser person only served to fuel her fire and her career would ultimately render Parker's potshot obsolete, as Hepburn excelled in exploring and conveying all manner of emotion in the roles she took on. What follows, then, is a walking tour of "Katharine Hepburn: In Her Own Files" — a fan's-eye view of this fascinating exhibition of the theatrical papers of the Great Kate.


Bryn Mawr

  • From 1925 to 1928 Hepburn attended Bryn Mawr, the women's college on Philadelphia's Main Line, and during that time became active in student theatrics. Among the first items displayed in the gallery are Hepburn's map of the college campus alongside a program for The Truth About Blayds, a 1928 production in which she had the male role of Oliver Blayds Conway. A young actress of possibilities

  • The years between her college graduation and Broadway are documented with programs from The Czarina, in which Hepburn appeared for Edwin Knopf's Baltimore stock company in 1928, a photograph of Hepburn in The Big Pond, a play that opened in Great Neck (Hepburn was fired after one night, something that would happen more than once in her early stage career), as well as an Actors' Equity contract, dated Aug. 26, 1928, for a play called Night Hostess, where her part is described as "A night hostess and understudy as assigned" for a salary of $50. Many sources list Night Hostess as her Broadway debut; however, Hepburn always maintained that she got a better job in New York and left the play before it arrived on Broadway in September 1928.
  • Following these items is a 1928 letter of introduction from writer–director David Wallace to director–producer George C. Tyler, in which he writes: "I want to introduce you to Katherine [sic] Hepburn, a young actress of possibilities . . . She's had a variety of experience including summer stock and she played for Arthur Hopkins in These Days."
  • Hepburn's Broadway debut in These Days (Cort Theatre, November 1928) is represented by a Playbill from the production as well as her "sides" from the play. Sides are the pages from the playscript that contain only an actor's lines, stage directions and cues. Each of the sides is stamped on the front with the act and scene and with the name "Veronica," Hepburn's role in the play.
  • Her next Broadway appearance came in Art and Mrs. Bottle (Maxine Elliot's Theatre, Nov. 18, 1930–December 1930), starring Jane Cowl. Hepburn was hired for the play, then fired and then rehired. In her autobiography "Me," she wrote of Cowl's generosity — helping with her makeup, softening her look — and Cowl's encouragement is evident in the displayed opening night telegram to the young actress. It reads, simply: "Be a good girl and act pretty."
  • A fan letter reads: "Naturally, Jane Cowl was the drawing card but for all her kerchief flutters my eyes kept going back to the silent unknown, her back to the audience. No tricks to steal the scene, but what concentration! So when I got home I put the check mark after the name, a memo to me to watch this one, she's going to be someone." Next to the letter is a cast list from an Art and Mrs. Bottle program. The list sports a tiny check mark next to Hepburn's name.
  • After Art and Mrs. Bottle Hepburn joined The New York Players, a summer stock company run by Milton Stiefel. Stiefel, one of her early supporters, was the first to offer her leading roles and she appeared in a number of plays with his company, including Let Us Be Gay. Displayed next to a Christmas card from Stieflel is a program from that 1932 production at the Comstock-Cheney Theatre, later to become Stiefel's Ivoryton Playhouse. A star is born

  • A group of photos, including a banner hanging above, feature Hepburn in full Amazon regalia tussling with Colin-Keith Johnston in her next Broadway outing, Julian F. Thompson's The Warrior's Husband (Morosco Theatre, March 11, 1932-May 1932). Hepburn played Antiope to Johnston's Theseus and intrigued audiences from the moment she stepped onto the stage, leaping down a narrow flight of stairs with a stag over her shoulder. RKO and the movies

    Fan magazine featuring Katharine Hepburn on the cover
    Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
  • The good notices Hepburn received for The Warrior's Husband led to a screen test that brought her to the attention of director George Cukor, who became a lifelong colleague and friend; producer David O. Selznick; and RKO. In the span of one year in Hollywood, she was introduced in her first film, "A Bill of Divorcement," starring John Barrymore and Billie Burke and directed by George Cukor; billed over the title in her second, "Christopher Strong," about an aviatrix's doomed love affair; won the first of four career Oscars in her third, "Morning Glory," co-starring with Adolphe Menjou and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.; and followed that with one of her most beloved performances as Jo March in the George Cukor-directed "Little Women." Hollywood stardom brought with it press coverage in movie magazines, such as the copies of "Picture Play" and "Modern Screen" displayed here alongside studio publicity portraits taken by the famed star photographer Ernest A. Bachrach. The Lake

  • Now a bona fide movie star, Hepburn planned a return to Broadway in the Jed Harris production of The Lake. Displayed are a series of telegrams between Harris and Hepburn concerning the production. Harris — whose Broadway credits as either producer or director included The Royal Family, The Front Page and Our Town — was a talented but difficult, some would say sadistic, man. He had a notorious reputation for either bedding or belittling his stars — or both. Laurence Olivier was said to have based his Richard III on him, and Playbill's former senior editor Louis Botto once told me that George S. Kaufman, who worked with Harris on The Front Page and The Royal Family, had such disdain for Harris that he once said when he died, Kaufman wanted to have his ashes thrown in Jed Harris' face. Harris' behavior with Hepburn did nothing to alter his tyrannical reputation. However, the telegrams on display were all written in April 1933, when Harris was still in the courting stage and Hepburn was still receptive. He wanted her to star not only in The Lake but also in The Green Bay Tree.
  • One telegram, dated April 20, 1933, mentions Hepburn's good friend Laura Harding:
    "Dear Katie — Laura Harding is in my office reading The Lake which I want you to do after The Green Bay Tree STOP After she gets through it I'm going to have her call you up and tell you in great detail what my ideas about these things are STOP Your telegrams are so long and loving I wish you'd send me lots more STOP Love and wonderful personal regards. Jed"
  • Hepburn passed on The Green Bay Tree — and nearly drowned in The Lake. The play opened at the Martin Beck Theatre on Dec. 26, 1933 and closed in February 1934. In her autobiography she wrote of the contentiousness during rehearsals, and the warning she received from Helen Hayes ("Don't let Jed direct you. He will destroy your confidence."). During rehearsals Harris fired the director, Tony Miner, and criticized Hepburn's every move, thereby confirming Hayes' prediction. Why he did this to his star remains a mystery. Harris insisted on keeping the play open. Even as a flop, Hepburn was a draw. But there were some bright spots. Hepburn kept a fan letter from this period that is displayed next to the Harris telegrams. It reads: "The Lake is the only Broadway play I have ever attended. I don't usually allow myself such luxuries, but I couldn't resist seeing you . . ." THEATRE GUILD

  • Hepburn's association with the Theatre Guild, co-founded by Lawrence Langner, Theresa Helburn and Armina Marshall, began in the late '20s. In 1936-37, she toured in the Guild production of Jane Eyre, represented in the exhibition by two striking Vandamm Studio images. One of the banners hanging from the ceiling shows Hepburn in costume as the title character and the other pictures the star decidedly out of costume, sitting cross-legged on the floor of the stage set with the play's crew — in her usual trousers, cigarette in hand. The play had a successful tour but Hepburn didn't think it was the right vehicle for her return to the New York stage. The experience of The Lake had made her skittish, not only for herself but also for the coffers of the Guild. If she were going to tackle Broadway again, she had to come back in the right vehicle.
    Katharine Hepburn and Dan Tobin on Broadway in "The Philadelphia Story" (1939)
    photograph by Vandamm Studio. Billy Rose Theatre Division,The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
  • That vehicle arrived in the form of Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story, which opened at Broadway's Shubert Theatre on March 28, 1939 and ran for a year. Prior to her involvement in the play, Hepburn's film career had been in a slump, and the Theatre Guild and Phillip Barry had not had a discernible hit in a while. Tracy Lord changed that for all of them: Hepburn and the play were a great success. The exhibition features a framed souvenir program from The Philadelphia Story as well as a color photo of Hepburn (as Tracy) in designer Valentina's stunning white gown and red coat. Also included is a telegram from her old Bryn Mawr schoolmate Margaret Barker. Barker, a Group Theatre actress and instructor, befriended Hepburn when they attended Bryn Mawr and in her correspondence uses their college nicknames: Beanie and Kaydiddle. The telegram, dated March 28, 1939, reads:
    "Dear Kaydiddle—I hear you're finally playin' the fiddle and over the moon. Love and rare wishes Beanie Barker"

    Hepburn's reply is framed alongside the telegram:
    April 8, 1939
    "What a wonderful wire. And wasn't it lucky that the fiddle wasn't out of tune. I'm only sorry that you weren't with me. Thank you a thousand times. Love, Kate"

  • After the Broadway run and before she took the play on tour, Hepburn, with the film rights in her pocket, returned to Los Angeles and to a new studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. She had her pick of co-star and director and made what is now considered one of the most elegant romantic comedies ever to have emerged from Hollywood. The film is represented by a framed copy of Hepburn's Life magazine cover (Aug. 6, 1941) as well as a Picturegoer cover of her and James Stewart locked in a moonlit embrace.
  • Hepburn reunited with the Theatre Guild and Philip Barry for Without Love, which opened at the St. James Theatre on Nov. 10, 1942. There are photos of her and co-star Elliot Nugent onstage and a souvenir book from the play. Another small photo shows Hepburn in one of Valentina's costumes for her in the play alongside a notebook page on which Hepburn sketched the dress in pencil and wrote, "Color powder blue, skirt simply floated, made of strips of gray, rose, white and powder blue . . . I don't know whether it was organdy or starched chiffon, but it sure was heavenly." Without Love ran for three months, closing in February 1943. If lightning didn't exactly strike twice for the collaborators, it did give Hepburn another opportunity to transfer a play to the screen, this time as a vehicle for her third pairing with Spencer Tracy in 1945. Continued...

  • A view of the Vincent Astor Gallery featuring banners of Hepburn in <i>As You Like It</i> (left) and publicity photos for <i>Coco</i> (right)
    A view of the Vincent Astor Gallery featuring banners of Hepburn in As You Like It (left) and publicity photos for Coco (right) Photo by Sherry Sauerwine
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