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Katharine Houghton Hepburn

Paternal 21st cousin, 2 removed

Stage, screen and TV star, Katharine Hepburn and I share King Edward I "Longshanks" as our common grandparent, with Katharine's family descending through his wife, Marguerite of France, while mine descends through his wife Eleanor of Castile. Edward I was my 22nd great grandfather and Katharine's 20th great-grandfather.

and Katharine Hepburn was born on May 12, 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut. Katharine was the 2nd child born to Dr. Thomas Hepburn and Katharine Houghton. The Hepburn's would have another 4 children after Katharine - Richard in 1911, Robert in 1913, Marion in 1918 and Margaret "Peg" in 1920.

Dr. Thomas and Katharine were both active in social reform in the US with Thomas helping to establish the New England Social Hygiene Association while Katharine (senior) headed up the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association and then worked  with Margaret Sanger to fight for access to birth control in the US.

The Hepburn's encouraged their children to use both their minds as well as their bodies and to push the limits of both. This encouragement clearly shaped the life of the future 4 time Academy award winning actress, who was known not just for her beauty and acting abilities, but for her steely determination.

In 1924, at the age of 17, Katharine was enrolled in Bryn Mawr College, her mother's alma mater. Katharine had not been in school for several years when she started at Bryn Mawr, a fact which caused her some serious self-doubt as she struggled with academic life. Katharine, who was a smoker, was once suspended after she was caught smoking in her room. While at Bryn Mawr, Katharine was drawn to the theatre, but she could not get a role in the plays until her grades were at an acceptable level. Once her grades were good enough, she started acting in plays on a regular basis. 

In Katharine's senior year at college, she played the lead role in a play, which resulted in positive reviews. Katharine decided that acting was her calling, and she pursued the craft after leaving Bryn Mawr.

Katharine's determination to become an actor was set. She set off for Baltimore and met with Edwin H. Knopf, who had become involved in producing plays in 1928, the year that Katharine graduated college. When Edwin produced The Big Pond in New York, he cast Katharine as the leading lady's understudy. Like a scene from a Hollywood movie, Katharine got her big break when the leading lady was fired from the production just a week before the play was to open. Katharine was then cast in the lead. On opening night however, things did not go well for Katharine: she was late arriving at the theatre, she mixed up her lines, tripped over her own feet, and spoke too quickly to be understood. Katharine was fired from the play, and the original actor was rehired.

Katharine was not about to let this setback stop her goal of becoming an actress. She immediately started looking for more acting roles and soon found a small roll in another production. The play closed after only 8 nights. Katharine was then quickly hired as an understudy for the play Holiday. After 2 weeks, Katharine quit the production to marry Ludlow Ogden Smith whom she had met in college. 

Katharine thought that she would leave acting behind after she married, but she soon started to miss the craft and rejoined Holiday in her understudy role for the next 6 months. 

Kathrine's breakout role came in 1932 when she acted in The Warrior's Husband where her acting abilities were noticed by a Hollywood scout. Katharine was invited to test for an upcoming RKO film. The director, George Cukor, was impressed with the unknown actress and offered her the role. Katharine didn't immediately accept the role however, and demanded the outrageous sum of $1,500.00/week to take it. For an unknown actress this was a big risk, but after Cukor encouraged the studio to sign her, they did.

In July, 1932, only 25 years old, Katharine arrived in Hollywood ready to star opposite of John Barrymore, an already well established film actor in A Bill of Divorcement. Katharine handled acting in her first movie with a seasoned Hollywood star with a calm and dignified demeanor that would follow her through her 60 year career.

The movie was a success and Katherine's performance received strong reviews. Katharine was given a role in her next movie, Christopher Strong. The movie was not a commercial success, but Hepburn's performance garnered positive reviews. Her next role in 1933's Morning Glory, Katharine's performance earned her the Oscar for Best Actress, her first of four Academy Awards that she would win during her long career.

Katharine did not attend the Academy Awards ceremony when she won her first Oscar, nor any of the other wins or numerous nominations. She hated the Hollywood publicity machine although she did acknowledge that she was grateful for the recognition. Katharine's relationship with the media was strained at best, hostile and provocative at its worst. She refused to give interviews, answer questions (and when she did, they were not always polite!) or sign autographs. In a time when studios controlled almost every movement of their contract actors, Hepburn refused to be saddled. This gave her a poor reputation in Hollywood.

You may have noticed that I included actor Spencer Tracy along with Katharine Hepburn in the photo at the top of this page, and that was not by accident. Tracy, who was my 9th cousin, 2x removed and Hepburn were teamed together in 9 Hollywood films, and were also partners off of the set. Katharine's first marriage ended when she left for Hollywood in 1932, and she filed for divorce from Ludlow in 1934. Tracy was a married father when he met Hepburn in 1941, but his marriage had been all but dead for years. Spencer Tracy had been involved in numerous affairs and lived separately from his family off and on for years, but once he and Katharine became involved, he never returned home.

Tracy and Hepburn's relationship would last until his death in January, 1967. Katharine had been completely devoted to him, and their relationship had been widely known throughout Hollywood. In an even more interesting twist on my family history, Spencer and Katharine were also good friends with another cousin of mine, Humphrey Bogart, and his wife, Lauren Bacall. The night that Bogey died, Tracy and Hepburn had visited him at his home and said their good-bye's.

Katharine Hepburn appeared in 44 feature films, 33 plays and 8 television movies in her career that spanned 65 years. She is the only actress to have won an Oscar 4 times and was nominated for 8 more. Her last Academy Award was given for her performance in On Golden Pond, a drama in which she played opposite 2 other Hollywood legends, Henry Fonda and his daughter, Jane Fonda.

Katharine passed away on June 29, 2003 from cardiac arrest after several years of dealing health. She was 96 at the time of her death at her family home in Connecticut.

Undoubtedly Katharine Hepburn was a great actress who acted for the love of the art, not for the glamour of being a Hollywood legend. What I have written here is only a fraction of the many accomplishments in the life of a true Hollywood legend.

A very private person who was strong-willed, opinionated and determined to live her life the way she wanted to, Katharine clearly succeeded in her goal to be her own person.