On-screen, Katharine Hepburn played a feisty beauty who always walked off with the leading man. But her real-life romances never ended so neatly. In this moving excerpt from her new biography, Barbara Leaming traces the arc of Hepburn’s life; from the trauma of a family suicide to her final days with Spence.
Katharine Hepburn was 13 in the spring of 1921, when her brother Tom’s marked nervousness led Dr. and Mrs. Hepburn to attempt to “divert” him with a five-day trip to New York City in the company of Kathy and his godmother, Mary Towle. Two days after Easter, Aunty, as Towle was known to the family, went with Tom and Kathy on the train from Hartford to New York.
Photographs of Tom in this period show a broad-shouldered, strikingly handsome 15-year-old on the brink of young manhood. He assumed responsibility for his sister at the outset of their Greenwich Village holiday. In New York, he purchased two parlor-car tickets for the return trip.
Downtown at Aunty’s little red brick house at 26 Charlton Street, Tom carried his suitcase up three flights to an attic storeroom. Beneath a sloping roof, a freshly made cot filled a tiny alcove. Kathy slept in a room on a lower floor with Aunty.
On Friday evening, Tom seemed to be in high spirits when Aunty took the young people uptown for a screening of a new silent film based on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. In the dark of the movie theater, however, Tom’s mood shifted violently when the image of a hanging flashed on-screen. Deeply shaken, Tom confided to Kathy that the scene had given him “the horrors,” and she understood perfectly. The year before, she and Dr. Hepburn had discovered Tom hanging by the neck from a noose at home. The boy had insisted he was only trying a mock-hanging stunt Dr. Hepburn had often described from his own youth. Any parent would likely be appalled by the sight of a child playing with nooses—especially a child of Tom’s nervous temperament. In a family with a history of three suicides (Dr. Hepburn’s brother had jumped from a window to his death, and Mrs. Hepburn’s father and uncle had shot themselves), the incident should have set off alarm bells. But the Hepburns tended to avoid speaking of their most troubling thoughts and emotions. Eager to accept Tom’s explanation, Dr. Hepburn instructed the boy not to try the stunt again.
After Tom, Kathy, and Aunty left the cinema, Tom struggled to regain his composure. On Saturday night, he played his banjo and sang with Aunty and Kathy in the living room. To Mary Towle’s relief, “the horrors” appeared to have evaporated. They all went to their rooms at 10 o’clock.
The next morning, Kathy enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with Aunty. At nine, Aunty sent Kathy to see what was keeping Tom. When he failed to respond, Kathy tried the doorknob, but the garret was locked. Alarmed, she forced the door. She brushed against something, turned, and screamed. Tom was hanging by the neck from a rafter. Evidently he had ripped up a bedsheet and braided the strips of cloth to improvise a rope. He tied one end to a large metal bedspring lying on the floor. He fashioned a noose, tossed the rope over a rafter, and fitted the noose to his neck. He climbed up on a packing case and jumped. The rope was too long; his feet hit ground. Bending his knees and pitching his weight forward, Tom applied all his strength to pull at the metal bedspring and tighten the noose. He died of slow strangulation. Since his feet always touched ground, there was nothing to prevent his stopping at any time—except the determination to destroy himself.
Alerted by Kathy’s scream, Aunty raced up the three flights. Hysterical, she sent Kathy to fetch a neighbor, who told Mary Towle to notify the police.
Finally the Hepburns arrived. Dr. Hepburn staunchly denied that Tom could have committed suicide. On Tuesday morning, April 5, his statement appeared in The New York Times under the headline SAYS SON’S HANGING WAS BOYISH “STUNT.”
In the year that followed, it seemed to Bob Hepburn, eight, that his sister Kathy was acting strangely. Now 14, she went to bed early each night and rose at 5:30 A.M. Whenever Bob got out of bed, he knew he would find Kathy bent over her desk, “furiously attacking her studies” with a “great seriousness” she had never before shown for schoolwork. Bob wondered about Kathy’s relationship with their parents. Whatever had happened in New York had created a mysterious bond that seemed to exclude the other children.
The Hepburns had produced their family in carefully spaced pairs: Tom and Kathy, Dick and Bob, Marion and Peg. In Tom’s absence, the dynamics shifted drastically as Kathy formed a new grouping with Dr. and Mrs. Hepburn; they spent time together in ways that set them apart from the rest of the household. Kathy seemed to crave solitude. The gaunt, unreachable, suspicious girl forced most people to keep their distance. Watching his sister, Bob sensed that somehow she was trying to become Tom.