Katharine Hepburn Biography

Katharine Hepburn katherine-hepburn (1907 – 2003) Multiple Oscar-winning American actress, Hepburn starred in many successful films including The African Queen (1951) The Rainmaker (1956) and On Golden Pond (1981)

“Life is to be lived. If you have to support yourself, you had bloody well better find some way that is going to be interesting. And you don’t do that by sitting around wondering about yourself.”

– Katherine Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn is one of the most famous actresses of the twentieth century. In a career lasting several decades, she landed four Oscars – a record even today.

She was an unconventional Hollywood actress, fiercely independent and often displaying a standoffish attitude to the media. However, her wide variety of roles and acting skills made her famous on screen, and she was ranked the greatest female film star by the American Film Institute.

Early Life Katharine Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn Katharine Hepburn was born on 12 May, in Hartford, Connecticut, US. Her mother, Katharine Martha Haughton was a suffragette, and her strong views and independence influenced the young Katharine. As a teenager, Katharine was free-spirited getting involved in sports such as swimming, skating and gymnastics; she also had a fearless streak and was suspended from school for smoking and breaking curfew. She later admitted to going swimming naked in the middle of the night. As she later was quoted

“If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.”

One incident that had a strong bearing on her early life involved finding her dear brother hanging from a rafter by a piece of rope. Her family tried to deny it was suicide, but it looked as if it was and the incident had a lasting impact on Katherine.

Aged 21, Katherine married for the first time to socialite Ludlow Ogden Smith. The marriage did not last a long time, and they divorced six years later. However, they remained friends, and Katherine remained grateful for his support in her early years.

Early acting career

Katharine Hepburn Katherine’s early acting career developed on stage, and from the theatre, she graduated to film. By 1933 she had won her first Oscar for her performance in Morning Glory, a story about a woman who rejects romance for her work.

There then followed a series of successful films such as:

  • Alice Adams – earned her a second Oscar nomination
  • State of the Union – directed by Frank Capra. Hepburn plays opposite Spencer Tracy in a film about an idealistic industrialist’s foray into politics.

By the late 1930s, her acting career had started to decline, and she was once even labelled as ‘toxic for the box office’ along with people like Fred Astaire and Marlene Dietrich. In addition to a string of forgettable films, she also displayed dismissiveness towards other female actresses and had a reluctance to sign autographs or give interviews. She always retained a reluctance to give interviews to the press until she was much older. Hepburn nearly gained a prominent role in the Oscar Winning film – Gone with the Wind. But, she wasn’t keen, and the role was given to Vivien Leigh.

After the war, Hepburn’s career picked up. She gained an Oscar nomination in 1951 for her portrayal of a stern missionary in the film – African Queen – starring alongside Humphrey Bogart. The film was a great success, though she ended up becoming quite ill with dysentery and malaria due to the water. She later wrote about this challenging experience.

Notable Films of Katherine Hepburn

  • Summertime (1955)
  • The Rainmaker (1956)
  • Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) winner of two academy awards including Katherine Hepburn as best actress. Starred alongside Sidney Poitier and Spencer Tracy. It tells of a groundbreaking interracial marriage which set against the backdrop of the civil rights movements of the 1960s
  • The Lion in Winter. Katharine played Eleanor of Aquitaine.
  • On Golden Pond (1981) – another Oscar-winning performance by Katharine Hepburn

Oscars for Best Actress

  •  1933: Morning Glory
  •  1967: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
  •  1968: The Lion in Winter
  •  1981: On Golden Pond

Oscar Nominations

  •  1935: Alice Adams
  •  1940: The Philadelphia Story
  •  1942: Woman of the Year
  •  1951: The African Queen
  •  1955: Summertime
  •  1956: The Rainmaker
  •  1959: Suddenly, Last Summer
  •  1962: Long Day’s Journey into Night

Fiercely independent, Katherine Hepburn was pioneering in providing a role model for women beyond the dutiful Hollywood blonde bombshell. Revealingly she speaks of her own self-image

“Everyone thought I was bold and fearless and even arrogant, but inside I was always quaking.”

– Katherine Hepburn

Katherine embodied feminine beauty but also an inner strength and reserve. She was an important cultural icon and a forerunner for women of the Twentieth Century who lived with greater independence and freedom of action.

Citation: Pettinger, Tejvan. “Biography of Katherine Hepburn”, Oxford, www.biographyonline.net, 24th November 2008. Last updated 9 February 2018.

Katharine Hepburn: Rebel Chic

Book Cover


Remembering Katharine Hepburn 

Book Cover


Ann Nyberg delves into the long, extraordinary life of Katharine Hepburn through personal remembrances from people whose lives she influenced

Related Pages


Famous Americans – Great Americans from the Founding Fathers to modern civil rights activists. Including presidents, authors, musicians, entrepreneurs and businesspeople.

Mariecurie Women who changed the world – Famous women who changed the world. Features female Prime Ministers, scientists, cultural figures, authors and royalty. Includes; Princess Diana, Marie Curie, Queen Victoria, and Catherine the Great.

actorsFamous Actors – Famous actors and actresses, including Alec Guinness, Katherine Hepburn, Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly.

Related people