The stuff of one remarkable life was spread out on 10 large library tables.
There were letters, telegrams, scrapbooks, movie scripts, scores of photographs and other memorabilia — all meticulously collected by Katharine Hepburn during her classic 65-year career.
Truckloads of the material had been arriving in recent days at the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — a gift from the estate of the four-time Oscar-winner, who died last year at age 96. And more mementos were on the way from Hepburn’s New York and Connecticut homes.
In the months to come, curators will painstakingly review and catalogue the papers before making them available to qualified researchers next year.
But Hollywood has always had a penchant for previews, so on this particular afternoon, The Associated Press was getting its own sneak peek at the life and times of an American original.
“She seemed to have saved everything,” said library director Linda Mehr. “We think it’s an extraordinary treasure.”
Private person makes collection public
During her Hollywood era, interviewers quickly learned that questions about Hepburn’s personal life evoked a reproving stare. Astonishingly, though, she directed that all of her papers be made available to the public after her death.
This included correspondence with close friends Cary Grant, Tennessee Williams, Laurence Olivier, John Wayne, Henry Fonda and of course Spencer Tracy, as well as numerous exchanges with directors such as George Cukor, John Huston and David Lean.
“I talked to her about this many, many times,” says Cynthia McCormick, a 30-year friend of the actress and co-executor of the estate.
“Were there things that she wanted to destroy or wanted me to destroy? Her answer was no,” McCormick said. “She thought that what she had saved was the truth of her own experience, and it was OK after she was gone to let people know the truth. Nothing has been tampered with.”
Hepburn herself didn’t choose a repository for the collection. The estate considered a number of museums and universities before deciding that the academy’s library was the most appropriate site.
Hepburn’s four acting Oscars remain a record, and her 12 acting nominations were topped only last year by Meryl Streep. But Hepburn was no regular at Oscar ceremonies, appearing only once.
'A record collection'
The academy library also houses the collections of Gregory Peck, Cary Grant, Mae West and many other stars, but none matches the size and scope of Hepburn’s.
“This is a record collection ... and the most comprehensive,” said Mehr. “She was such an articulate person and one with whom people loved to correspond.”
- A handwritten letter from Jane Fonda after the Oscars for “On Golden Pond” had been awarded to Hepburn and Henry Fonda, who was dying: “Your notes to him have lifted his spirit and moved him deeply at a time when spirit is about all he’s got going. That is the nicest gift one can give him.”
- A note to Hepburn when she was in a New York play: “I just wanted to tell you I enjoyed you last night. Eleanor Roosevelt.”
- A missive from Hepburn’s father urging her not to break her movie contract so she could do a Broadway play. She followed his advice.
- A long letter to her father telling him of a meeting with MGM bigwigs about whether to make a film version of “Without Love,” a play she had done in New York and to which she owned the film rights. She even made a drawing of the table and its occupants, including studio boss Louis B. Mayer. Although she quoted one producer as saying, “I think it’s a bore,” Hepburn prevailed and “Without Love” became one of the better Hepburn-Tracy films.
- A letter from Hepburn to Laurence Olivier trying to change his mind about turning down a television movie she would also be in. She succeeded.
Among the thousands of photos: Hepburn in a boyish bob for her first starring role on Broadway, “The Warrior’s Husband”; Hepburn and Tracy watching Cole Porter at the piano playing “Farewell Amanda” for “Adam’s Rib”; Hepburn famously falling into a Venice canal for “Summertime”; Hepburn in the jungle checking her costume for “The African Queen” in a frameless mirror that was leaning against a bush.
Younger generations who view the Hepburn collection may be surprised by the large number of telegrams. Before fax and e-mail, wires were the common mode for fast correspondence, especially by Hollywood types.
One of the telegrams was sent from Los Angeles to the Hershey Theater in Hershey, Pa., where Hepburn was appearing in a play:
“You may forget all them things about underplaying, but please remember the rest. The next voice you hear I hope will be my own. Old Pot.”
Old Pot was Hepburn’s endearing nickname for Spencer Tracy.