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!
  • The rose petals have settled, and Andi has made her (Jewish?) choice. We look back on the #Bachelorette finale:
  • "Despite the great pain and sadness surrounding a captured soldier, this should not shape the face of this particular conflict – not in making concessions and not in negotiations, not in sobering assessments of this operation’s achievements or the need to either retreat or move forward." Do you agree?
  • Why genocide is always wrong, period. And the fact that some are talking about it shows just how much damage the war in Gaza has already done.
  • Construction workers found a 75-year-old deli sign behind a closing Harlem bodega earlier this month. Should it be preserved?
  • "The painful irony in Israel’s current dilemma is that it has been here before." Read J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis of the conflict:
  • Law professor Dan Markel waited a shocking 19 minutes for an ambulance as he lay dying after being ambushed in his driveway. Read the stunning 911 transcript as neighbor pleaded for help.
  • Happy birthday to the Boy Who Lived! July 31 marks the day that Harry Potter — and his creator, J.K. Rowling — first entered the world. Harry is a loyal Gryffindorian, a matchless wizard, a native Parseltongue speaker, and…a Jew?
  • "Orwell would side with Israel for building a flourishing democracy, rather than Hamas, which imposed a floundering dictatorship. He would applaud the IDF, which warns civilians before bombing them in a justified war, not Hamas terrorists who cower behind their own civilians, target neighboring civilians, and planned to swarm civilian settlements on the Jewish New Year." Read Gil Troy's response to Daniel May's opinion piece:
  • "My dear Penelope, when you accuse Israel of committing 'genocide,' do you actually know what you are talking about?"
  • What's for #Shabbat dinner? Try Molly Yeh's coconut quinoa with dates and nuts. Recipe here:
  • Can animals suffer from PTSD?
  • Is anti-Zionism the new anti-Semitism?
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels.
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • 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.