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Hartford, Connecticut, Honors Katharine Hepburn - 2002-03-20


Hartford, Connecticut, has long celebrated novelist Mark Twain, who lived in the city for much of his life. Now, Hartford is also saluting its "favorite daughter," the legendary actress Katharine Hepburn, who was born in the city and still lives in Connecticut. Hartford Stage recently presented the world premiere of Tea at Five a one-woman play starring Kate Mulgrew as Ms. Hepburn. It shows two slices of her career: as a young, 31-year-old "struggling" actress; and later, as a 76-year-old Hollywood icon. Now, Hartford residents would like to see more recognition of the city's role in shaping one of America's finest actresses.

Katharine Hepburn's performance in the comedy Philadelphia Story is just one of the four films for which she won an Academy Award. University of Hartford President Walter Harrison says the feisty movie star helped transform the depiction of women in film.

"I think she is one of the pivotal, female figures of the 20th century. She took on leading roles that women before her had not taken on a more assertive, masculine role," says Mr. Harrison.

Katharine Hepburn was born in Hartford near a hospital where her father was a doctor. When the Hepburn family chose a larger home, they moved to a 20-room, brick house in the city's west side and next to the University of Hartford. After Dr. Hepburn died and Katharine went off to college, the house was given to the university, where it has been used as a residence for faculty or staff. It has also occasionally been used to hold symposia for "Hepburn scholars" studying the actress' life, as President Harrison explains.

"For most of us, the house is a reminder of Katharine Hepburn. But for them it was almost a living, representation of her: They went around from room to room, saying this is what happened in this room ... she was married just outside the windows here in the backyard," he says. "They would sit on the back porch, which was configured differently in those days where they'd have cocktail parties and so forth."

Although there are no original, Hepburn family furnishings in the house, university president Harrison says the basic home has remained the same over nearly a century.

"The house as it stands now is how, more or less, the way it was when her family lived here," he explains. "We're sitting in their living room as we speak with a stone fireplace and dark wood paneling of the era. You can almost see Katharine Hepburn and her father sitting here talking over tea instead of you and I talking over a tape recorder."

Norm Young, director of facilities at the University of Hartford, currently resides in the "Katharine Hepburn House," along with his wife and kids. He says he enjoys climbing the same spiral staircase that young Katharine did but hasn't encountered any "ghosts" of the Hepburn family in the house.

"I actually tried to sense that more than once," says Mr. Young. "The funny thing is that this house does not have an eerie feeling at all. It has a lived-in feeling - a homey, friendly, just-fun feeling. I have done it many times after midnight, walking around to see if it felt eerie or if I could hear strange noises. But no, not in this house."

The house does have some unusual features, which give insights into Katharine Hepburn's teenage years in the home. The family enjoyed inviting intellectual guests to the home to have "tea at five" as the new Hartford Stage play is titled. And caretaker Norm Young says sometimes Dr. Hepburn carried his love of conversation a bit far.

"There is a fairly large master bedroom upstairs with a bathroom that is, I would say, about 3.6 sq meters, much bigger than most bathrooms," explains Mr. Young. "Dr. Hepburn used to receive people in that bathroom. He would sit in the tub with water in the tub, I imagine. He had a couch and a few chairs. And he would have people come up and have discussions - coffee, tea, things like that - while he was in the tub.

"One story I've heard is that Katharine, at the age of around 16, came up and was asked to bring up a friend that she was bringing over for the first time to the bathroom to meet her father. And her father had a conversation with this person that Katharine had brought. Apparently she was so distraught by the [experience] that she never came back to the [Hepburn] house again. And when [the young lady] told her family, her family wouldn't let her come back to the house."

Another "tradition" in the Hepburn household was started by one of Katharine Hepburn's brothers.

"'Bobby' as he called himself when I met him about six years ago in this house, told me that on the third floor where he and his siblings had rooms- he would frequently take out his .22-guage gun and shoot squirrels out on the yards and in the trees," says Mr. Young. "He would do that so his parents would not see or hear him. I'm not sure how he accomplished that, but that was his fun: he was able to shoot squirrels from his bedroom window."

Mr. Young says he and his family are constantly discovering new things about the Hepburn house, including some devices that were ahead of their time.

"Around the perimeter of the backyard here - which abuts the Hartford golf club - used to be some perennial plantings, which I'm slowly trying to grow back. If you take a close look, you'll see some old plumbing. I imagine it was not a typical thing for a sprinkler system to run along the exterior, all along the walls. But it was there," he explains. "The valves are in the basement too. And if you could turn them on, I'm sure [it leads to] some automatic watering system. I wonder how it worked; it certainly doesn't work anymore."

The University of Hartford's "Hepburn" house is not open to the public because it's in a residential area and Katharine Hepburn is still living in the state. Officials are hesitant to turn the house into a tourist attraction like the nearby Mark Twain House. But university president Walter Harrison says he hopes some steps will be taken soon to honor Katharine Hepburn. "I certainly think that we ought to celebrate her life and make it clear to people that this great woman called Hartford her home. One of the things we'd be smart to do is capture some of the memories that people have of her who were her contemporaries who are still alive but who won't be here 20 years from now," he says.

University of Hartford President Walter Harrison, one of many city residents considering ways to celebrate the life of actress Katharine Hepburn. Ms. Hepburn, who is 94, lives in the tiny Connecticut coastal town of Fenwick and reportedly still comes to Hartford hospitals to receive medical care.

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