Revisiting the Kate We Wanted to Be

By Jane Eisner

Published August 19, 2009, issue of August 28, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

I don’t remember the first time I saw a Katharine Hepburn film, but I’m sure it was sometime back when I was in what used to be known as junior high school. One of the local New York television stations was airing a classic movie every afternoon for a week, and I rushed home from school to swoon over the likes of Cary Grant, Clark Gable and Paul Newman, and, of course, to cheer for Hepburn. Long before cable, video, DVD and YouTube, you watched what was there. And what was there was worth watching.

Not Just a Philadelphia Story: Katharine Hepburn provided a pan-American touchstone for cool.
Not Just a Philadelphia Story: Katharine Hepburn provided a pan-American touchstone for cool.

Visiting the exhibit from Hepburn’s extensive personal files, open until October 10 at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, reminded me of why her pull remains powerful for women of my generation. She was everything that we were not, but wished we could be.

Katharine Hepburn was the embodiment of cool. She had the straight hair and thin nose that we Jewish girls coveted (and occasionally purchased), the Yankee drawl that seemed so much classier than our New York-ese, the ability to make silly love stories seem grand and then, when she wanted, to star in a groundbreaking film like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.”

Among women, Hepburn was royalty, the feminist leading lady who knew how to get her man, hilarious in “Bringing Up Baby,” winning in “Adam’s Rib,” saucy in “The Philadelphia Story,” spellbinding in “The African Queen.” My own special tie to her is that I was selected as one of three women to inaugurate the Katharine Houghton Hepburn Center at Bryn Mawr College, her alma mater. But I never met her, nor saw her perform onstage. She died in 2003, yet she still inspires.

Her cool prevails.

Cool is defined more broadly today. Cool is a multiracial president who never seems to sweat, and his African-American wife, who makes headlines by planting an organic garden and ordering from J. Crew. Cool is skin of different shades and eyes of different shapes, and the ability both to notice those differences and to see past them.

But cool still requires an incalculable mixture of authenticity and quiet independence. That hasn’t changed. It helps to be gorgeous, of course. Although her early career was filled with troughs and frustrations, by the 1930s, Hepburn became a cover girl, and by the early 1940s, a full-fledged film star. She was beautiful and glamorous, her angular face, high cheekbones, luminous skin and ever-changing eyes gracing the front pages of major magazines. She could be dramatic, coquettish, sly, endearing — the epitome of Yankee charm.

Still, she broke the mold as often as she conformed to it. She wore trousers back when I wasn’t even permitted to wear jeans to school. And she defied convention in even more significant ways: Her long-standing relationship with the married Spencer Tracy signaled that she didn’t need a wedding ring to find love. Nor did she need children to find fulfillment.

Hepburn managed to combine an upper-class WASPyness with a forthright feminism in a way that allowed her to be many things to so many people. She was movie star glamorous, but also vigorously outspoken about war, historic preservation and reproductive rights. From the start of her remarkable career, she happily ignored what others thought of her, and fiercely guarded her privacy.

“Someday I may beg you for publicity, but right now I don’t want it,” she wrote in February 1934, in one of the many pieces of personal correspondence on display in the library exhibit.

The exhibit also contains the curtain speech she gave on May 8, 1970, handwritten on a yellow legal pad. That was the day all the theaters on Broadway committed to a moment of silence to remember the four students killed during a protest at Kent State University, at the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement. “Our generation are responsible,” Hepburn wrote, “and we must take time to pause and reflect and do something.”

She was already in her early 60s by then, aging gracefully, her eyes maintaining their beauty and strength even as her skin softened; she lived for another three decades, dying at 96 years old, her reputation as one of the great ladies of stage and film firmly intact.


Jane Eisner is the editor of the Forward. Contact her at

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach!
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.