Katharine Hepburn Remembered
A lifelong fan offers an appreciation of the legend and tells of his brushes with her greatness.
I'm not quite old enough to have seen Coco live on Broadway but I'm a big fan of the original cast recording. Listening to the album -- first on LP and more recently on CD -- I've often wondered what it must have been like to see and hear one of the finest film actresses of the century on stage in a big musical. Despite her limited vocal talent, Hepburn's rendition of the title song has always moved me to tears. And now she has left us.
Hepburn was notoriously shy of the press and her fans for much of her career. She didn't even appear on television until the '70s. And, once, she famously signed a photo thrust at her by a fan -- right across the face! Later in life, though, she mellowed, doing many interviews and becoming very friendly towards her public.
My best girlfriend from childhood was as obsessed with Hepburn as I was with Barbra Streisand -- the link, of course, being their Oscar winning tie for Best Actress in 1968. (Hepburn was honored for The Lion in Winter, Streisand for Funny Girl.) When we heard that Kate not only read all of her mail but also answered it, we started writing to her. Once, I sent her a handcrafted picture of a bird. That brought a reply on "Katharine Houghton Hepburn" stationery: "Thank you for your bird. Very satisfactory."
We were excited to see her onstage at the Broadhurst in A Matter of Gravity, but the play went right over our young heads. All I remember was the debut of Christopher Reeve and the last line of the play: "It's just...a matter...of gravity." We probably won't see a revival anytime soon, but the show was a sellout.
Several years later, I spotted Hepburn a few rows ahead of me at a performance of Hurlyburly -- and she was fast asleep. (I can't say that I blamed her!) She seemed to see every show in town on Wednesday matinees, even shows you'd have thought she wouldn't be interested in. Hurlyburly, for example, had nudity and many expletives. Then again, this was not long after George Cukor had screened Rich and Famous for Hepburn and she had commented: "Why, George, you've made a sexy film!!"
Outside the Barrymore after performances of The West Side Waltz, her last Broadway show, Hepburn would instruct autograph seekers to "mail a self-addressed stamped envelope to the theater and I'll send you a photo." And, indeed, she would. Then, one night, a friend managed to get our names onto the coveted "list' and the impossible was going to happen: A meeting with the legend herself! Ushered into Hepburn's small dressing room, we handed her a huge bouquet of flowers. Her response? "Oh, you shouldn't be so extravagant!"
At the time, Hepburn was featured in a direct mail promotion for Planned Parenthood. My single female friend had received one of the mailings and brought it up. Hepburn was passionate about the subject: "There's too damn many of us! We've got to have birth control." We were in such awe that I think one of us said something silly like, "Yeah, there isn't enough food for everyone." Then off we went into the night, all aglow.
Aside from Coco, Hepburn's career as a singer consisted of the few bars of "Night and Day" that she sang in Desk Set -- not bad at all, she was younger then -- and the three Cole Porter songs she did for a Ben Bagley album in the '80s. Paramount Pictures produced Coco and a film version with Hepburn had been promised. Unfortunately, this was right around the time when movie musicals really began to flop, and the show hadn't gotten great reviews. So, no movie. But a live audiotape of the complete show indicates that Coco was underrated: The score is lush and Alan Jay Lerner's book is sharp and funny. I've always imagined Hepburn doing another musical. (Wouldn't she have been great as Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music?)
As part of my act, I've often included an impression of Hepburn's voice as it deepened through the decades, from the '30s through the '90s. Last year, after one of my performances in Palm Beach, an elegant older woman approached me to say that she was Miss Hepburn's cousin and that Kate would love the impression. She said she was going to tell her about it. I hope she did.