Leading Lady

'The Kate I Knew': One Writer's Friendship With Legendary Actress Katharine Hepburn

What follows isn't a tell-all, but a tell-some, a portrait writ small and portioned out in the tiny and bullet-pointed remembrances of the day-to-day life of one of this country’s most fascinating women and certainly its all-time greatest leading lady.

By Adam Davies July 1, 2011

When I was 13 years old, my father informed me that I’d be spending Christmas with his new girlfriend and her elderly pal, a Katharine something-or-other, at her estate in some fancy annex of Old Saybrook, Conn., and that I would likely be pressed into service as a cookie-making sous-chef or a helper elf assisting in the manufacture of holiday knickknackery, all of which sounded about as appealing as attending a lecture on the history of the thimble. I should have known something was up, however, because my father was fairly agog at the prospect of the visit, and I had never known his pulse to register much above a flatline. So it was with a sense of foreboding that, on that December day nearly 30 years ago, I arrived at a magnificently ramshackle mansion looking panoramically over Long Island Sound and was introduced to the luminary in question.

“Adam,” my father said, “this is Katharine Hepburn.”

Don’t laugh, but I didn’t get it. It simply didn’t compute. I was a kid and my interest in the history of Hollywood didn’t extend much beyond Daryl Hannah in a prosthetic fishtail. So despite a flickering semi-recognition and a burgeoning sense of shame—I felt as if I were the punch line to a joke that only I failed to comprehend—I couldn’t place her. I still didn’t get it when my father repeated the name, at double volume and half speed, as if to an imbecile or foreign tourist (“Kath-a-rine Hep-burn”) nor when I was stationed atop an apparently historically significant artifact (“That stool is from the set of The African Queen,” I was told, “The A-fri-can Queen”) during the insufferable wreath-making with which I had been charged.

It wasn’t until she went to the closet for some festive ribbon that I realized the demoralizing depth of my ignorance:

In the closet she ferreted busily through a mound of clutter so deep that it had nearly archaeological significance, tossing over her shoulder antique wooden tennis racquets still straitjacketed in their wingnutty frames, eroded croquet wickets, retired garden implements, shuttlecocks that had been stripped of their rubber noses, forlorn winter woolens distended with age, and one last item—something whose ker-chunk of impact with the floor indicated some serious mass—until she finally found some ribbon and happily installed it in the wreaths.

That last kerchunky item? It was shiny; it was golden; it was literally and metaphorically weighty.

It was—as you have no doubt surmised—an Oscar.

I was an awkward kid back then. My face was a moonscape of acne and fretted with self-doubt and I spent most of my spare time nurturing a finely honed terror of being publicly wrong about anything. I would do scads of extra-credit reading, but when class rolled around I was about as talkative as one of those Easter Island heads. Once I tried, in front of all the cool kids, to bluff a bartender into serving me a drink by asking, with my best sunglasses-on-nosepoint suavity, for a Scotch “straight up, neat, without any ice.” Another time, in Bio 2, I inspired explosive public ridicule when I told the teacher that “myoblast” was the clinical term for “orgasm achieved by masturbation.”

These things still haunt me.

And I had hitherto considered them senior deities in my personal pantheon of gaffes, but this—failing to recognize in whose redoubtable presence I now stood—was big. This was mondo. I might as well have said, “So you are the most Academy-Award-winning performer of all time and one of this century’s most important cultural figures? Ah. Nifty. I’m Adam Davies. I like Pudding Pops and Duran Duran.”

But Kate didn’t care. I think she found my ignorance refreshing. Her world was circumscribed by people mothing around her, fussing and trying to give things (free meals, admission to shows) or take things (autographs, photographs). If she had to go to a party with guests who were outside her inner circle, she would inevitably be under pressure, sooner or later, to be quippy or performative. To talk Hollywood or Film or Life. To dispense the Hepburnian nugget, a screwbally line of dialogue or a poignant bon mot for which the awe-struck were always hankering. Most of this activity was innocent—people just want to get close to the magic—but Kate hated it, and I think she saw in me a compatriot who wouldn’t annoy her with effusions or demands or other tiresomeness. With me she didn’t need to engage in the ritualized nonsense of celebrity-centered social interaction. With me she could be comfortable. And grumpy.

To her I think I was a kind of well-meaning squire, a novice whose unskilled laboring included things like securing seats and toting snacks and fetching coats and refilling tumblers of Famous Grouse.

And to me Kate was a . . . well, a what? She wasn’t a mentor, precisely, or even a close friend. We didn’t see each other more than a handful of times each year, and there was always something hermetic about her, something essentially unknowable and in which pride and tenderness were involved—like someone hiding a wound. Biographers will say this is due to the tragic aspect of her love affair with Spencer Tracy—their estrangements, his refusal to get a divorce, the pain of his diabetes and alcoholism, the grief of his last years—and that might be true. I wouldn’t know. At best it seems like psychology-by-numbers to me; at worst it seems irresponsible. But either way, I never talked to Kate about that kind of thing. It would have been a violation of our unspoken pact. It would have been unseemly.

Anyway, call it what you want, but over the years Kate and I became strange pals. Yet I never wrote about her. It always seemed self-promotional and precisely the kind of thing she would disapprove of when she was alive; after her death it seemed downright predatory and ugly. But it’s been years since she passed, and living for the past four months in Sarasota as the writer-in-residence at New College has reminded me so often of her love for the Gulf Coast of Florida, where she routinely vacationed, and of Kate herself, that here I am, remembering her in print.

What follows, however, isn’t a rehash of the most Googleable greatest-hits of Kate’s life—if you’re interested in all the quotable intrigue of the Hollywood-Broadway nexus and its most boldface names, they are just a click away; knock yourself out—and neither is it a tell-all. It’s a tell-some, a portrait writ small and portioned out in the tiny and bullet-pointed remembrances of the day-to-day life of one of this country’s most fascinating women and certainly its all-time greatest leading lady.

The grandness of the estate in Fenwick was strangely augmented by its decrepitude. It was disheveled and unkempt in the charming manner of a mad scientist’s laboratory; you got the impression that its inhabitants weren’t slovenly but just so busy with fascinating projects that quotidian matters such as cleaning and routine maintenance were forgotten. There were cracks in walls and a cobwebby haze that dimmed windows; the floors creaked and groaned like the hull of a doomed galleon; and the whole place felt as if it was always leaning shruggishly into the gusting ocean wind.

The house also served as a nifty visual metaphor for Kate’s separateness: She drew a chalk line down the middle of the kitchen, demarcating her territory from her brother Dick’s, which was always neat and tidy and more or less devoid of flies. Kate’s side, however, always looked like some kind of cupboard Armageddon had occurred, and her sink was constantly full of bad meat and dishes with igneous-grade encrustations of food attended by swarms of gleefully hovering insects. 

Kate would swim in the ocean every day of the year. When I marveled at this, she said, “Not everyone knows how marvelous it is to suffer.” To my father, however, she gave a different explanation: “I do it to irritate people.”

Kate was just as athletic as everyone said. Yes, she was an accomplished figure skater and golfer and performed her own pratfalls in Bringing Up Baby and so on, but what really impressed me was how we would play tennis when she was still in her 80s. True, we played by the “Fenwick Rules,” which meant that she got as many bounces as she wanted, and no matter how well I played she won, but she still had the balletic grace of a natural athlete and the unerring instincts of a riverboat gambler. She didn’t blast any topspin screamers past my (gauche carbon fiber) racquet, but she did wrong-foot me sometimes, and her shots routinely exhibited the clean angles and deceptive pace that result from hitting the racquet’s sweet spot—pow!—right in the kisser, and I am pained to admit that she didn’t always require the Fenwick Rules to take a game from me. 

The Fenwick tennis courts would, years later, become the site of another one of my gaffes. When my father married Kate’s great friend, Cynthia McFadden, the ceremony took place at Kate’s estate. It was the summer before I went to college, and my brother and I were young enough to be made uncomfortable by the ceremony, and so we stripped off our rent-a-tuxes and went to go play tennis in our bare feet and underwear. Unfortunately, there was some big deal photographer there—from Life, I think—who was documenting the event. Well, you can imagine the trouble we found ourselves in when it was discovered that there might be pictures taken of two young and nakedish boys playing tennis at Katharine Hepburn’s place on the occasion of her best friend’s wedding. Luckily for everyone involved, the photographer was so drunk that he forgot to put film in his camera until the cake-cutting, a moment which became the central spread in The Private World of Katharine Hepburn.

Kate had an unusual canon of personal laws to which she would—like a cranky Hammurabi—make everyone, including herself, steadfastly adhere:

It was forbidden to use any electrical appliances before 9 a.m.

She would never sleep in anything but white linens because “it could change your personality.”

For what I uncertainly presume are olfactory reasons, she would always dry sheets and pillowcases by laying them flat down on the grass.

She didn’t like wind at the beach. If she stepped out the door of her place in Boca Grande, and it was windy, she would turn around and go back inside. This, in fact, is a funny factoid for me to reconcile with my memory of Kate. She wasn’t fussy or precious about her appearance, and was always tomboyish and outdoorsy and game. I can only speculate that she found it distasteful to be speckled or lashed with sand, but who doesn’t?

She told me that when she was walking somewhere from her apartment in Turtle Bay, she would make it a point to take a different route every day so that she could get to know New York in the most intimate way—as a pedestrian.

When driving back to Fenwick from New York—when her chauffeur-cum-cook hadn’t gone suddenly AWOL, as was his mysterious wont—she would always stop at a store to buy some candy items called Turtles.

And if she found herself stuck in one of the more snarly traffic jams on I-95, she would also instruct her driver to make unlawful use of the breakdown lane, which she termed “Pig Alley.”

Dinners were invariably served around the thermonuclear blast of the fireplace, even in the most sweltering days of August, and people would eat from trays that seesawed vertiginously, and sweatily, on their knees.

She would retire every night at 8 p.m., regardless of the disposition of her guests. She would also never drink until 5 p.m. sharp, a rule that made houseguests constellate around the clock and eyeball it murderously. My father, in fact, was often one of the would-be clock killers, and he learned from Kate to drink Famous Grouse, a taste that I in turn took—like an heirloom—from him.

Kate’s longtime assistant was Phyllis Wilbourn, who had previously attended to the English actress Constance Collier, one of Kate’s friends, but in later years it was Kate who mostly took care of Phyllis. What I remember most clearly about Phyllis is her kindness, but also, in later years, her frequent forgetfulness. She had a bracelet that she claimed was given to her by the Kaiser but which she could never find.

Sometimes Kate would ask her to bring in some finger sandwiches and then, half an hour later, when nothing arrived and Kate inquired about it, Phyllis would say, huffily, “Well, if you wanted finger sandwiches, all you had to do is ask!” before wafting creakily into the other room like an aged and beleaguered fritillary.

Kate, who never understood that other people don’t have her immunity from prosecution, was always pressuring my father to make nighttime raids on the gardens of her neighbors for the purposes of stealing their flowers.

Despite her pride, which could be Cleopatran, Kate was playful and, when on the business end of a chummy zinger, a really good sport. Once I brought home from college a girl named Candy on whom I had an agonizing crush and who never believed me about being pals with Katharine Hepburn. Kate happened to be visiting that weekend, and I was giddy about proving Candy wrong and thought that my octogenarian pal might prove useful as a matchmaker. I thought maybe she would intuitively start praising me, or make indirect reference to my boyish charisma, or tell charming stories of ribaldry and derring-do and deviltry starring none other than me me me.

What I got was a sequence of questions machine-gunned at poor Candy in that iconic voice of Kate’s: quavering but full of New Englandy I’ll-brook-no-foolishness-from-you gravitas.

“What is your name?” she barked.

Candy, still stupefied by the moment, told her. But not well enough.

“Enunciate clearly!” Kate said.

Candy repeated herself. Kate seemed only somewhat mollified.

“And what do you do, young lady?”

“Well, I’m a student, but this summer I’m working at NIH in the endocrinology lab.”

“The endo-crin-o-lo—WHAT?!”

Cynthia, who was standing nearby, offered some helpful clarification.

“Endocrinology,” she said. “That’s the study of hormones. You remember those.”

Amazingly, Kate didn’t sturm and drang about it. Her face just assumed the unhappy expression of a family pet that has been forced to sit for pictures while sporting a degrading Yuletide outfit—think bendable velvet antlers and Santa-themed woolens—but she offered no retort, mainly, I think, because she appreciated the wit.

She knew a scene-closer when she heard it.

But she also starred in of one of the saddest real-life moments I’ve ever seen.

In the mid-90s, a handful of years after my father and Cynthia were married, Kate visited us in Baltimore. When she was getting ready to leave she addressed me in one of her more stentorian tones, the kind that used to make me feel scolded but which I had grown to accept as being simply her natural manner.

“Adam! Bring me a snack for the road!”

“O.K. O.K. O.K.,” I said. “Sheesh. What do you want?”

She knew we didn’t stock any Turtles—in fact, I’m not sure they were available in Maryland at all—so she had to settle for something far less exotic.

“Bring me a banana!”

After an uncomfortable beat, Cynthia said, “But Kate, you hate bananas.”

This time Kate’s response was different. This time she was stricken, because it was true:

Kate hated bananas.

Kate had always hated bananas.  

And as I stood there, in the driveway of our old house, just minutes before Kate’s driver would whisk her away in the Town Car and fly up I-95, Turtleslessly and, possibly, making productive use of Pig Alley, it occurred to me how very sad this was, because after all what you love makes you who you are, but in another way, you are also defined by what you hate.

And Kate had totally forgotten she hated bananas.

Which means: she had partially forgotten herself.

It was the first time I had ever been a witness to any signs of her burgeoning mental disintegration. I had seen her tennis game become slow and erratic, I had seen an increase in the amplitude of her essential tremors, I had seen her frustration at being hobbled by her ankle injury, but I had never seen any diminution of mental faculties. She had been always so sharp that it was as if she had already read life’s script and had all the lines memorized, all the beats perfected.

This was different, though. This was time’s-winged-chariot time.

And Kate was mortified.

Still, she managed to insist, “No, I don’t! I LOVE BANANAS!”

She had the volume, she had the projection, but there wasn’t any feeling. It was an unexemplary performance, and Kate knew it. But she was so wounded, and so proud, that when I returned with a cluster of bananas she grabbed one, shucked it dramatically, and, while indignantly staring us down, took a bite.

Her face spasmed in a way that made it clear she was battling the urge to gag, but she forced down every last bite of that hateful banana. It was as if she could stave off mortality by the sheer force of her inveterate defiance, as if she were saying:

“Take that, Banana.”

“Take that, Death.”

And in that moment—and for much of the hard decade to come—it worked.

But eventually Kate’s power of self-invention would fail her, and, in the last years, as her health declined and her memory flickered and dimmed, she withdrew, seeing fewer and fewer of her friends, including me, until she was really only visited by close family and Cynthia.

I wasn’t there when she died, and I never inquired very closely about it, or the last days or months or years, because, once again, I think Kate would have considered it indelicate. But I regret like crazy that I didn’t get to say a proper goodbye, and it ranks as one of the chief sadnesses of my life that Kate was never able to see me attain any success as a writer, and that I never got to tell her what she meant to me.

If I were to have the chance—if Kate happens to read Sarasota Magazine backstage during whatever grand ethereal production in which she is now starring—these are the things I would say: You were not only one of the very first people who encouraged me to become a writer but you also became, years later, one of the heroines of my life and the model for virtually all the women I write about in my novels.

Many of your arcane personal rules and predilections and superstitions affected me so deeply that I have adopted them myself. Nowadays, whenever I drink Famous Grouse, or purposefully walk a different route in a familiar city, or pitch a battle with my girlfriend over buying blue sheets or using her Clarisonic before 9 a.m., I feel you there. It’s like a Kate-communion. Or time travel.

It feels like you are still alive, and still showing me how to live.

The last thing I would say is that even though I wasn’t exactly a family member, or even one of your closest intimates, your friendship made my world larger. It made me feel special, approved of, believed in, singled out by some benevolent cosmic invigilator—elect.

And less alone.

Adam Davies is the author of three novels, The Frog King, Goodbye Lemon and Mine All Mine. He’s has been a guest on many radio and TV shows, including NPR and the A&E Channel’s Breakfast with the Arts. He has also worked as an editor at Random House, an eggbreaker, and as the writer-in-residence at New College of Florida.

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