While making her first film, “A Bill of Divorcement,” in 1932, Katharine Hepburn wrote a letter to her mother: “That’s such a cry. … I’m collecting so many interesting and amusing facts about this case I can’t wait to get back to knock you all unconscious.
As the world knows, Hepburn has made this interesting and fun profession her life’s work, starring in more than 50 films and winning a record four Best Actress Oscars. The Hartford native, whose family spent summers in the Fenwick section of Old Saybrook, is the subject of a museum that opened Monday in Old Saybrook.
This letter is on display at the Katharine Hepburn Museum, which is a new addition to the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center’s performance hall. Many letters are on display, along with photos, film clips, posters, some of Hepburn’s outfits – many, many pairs of pants – and even a bathtub salvaged from the wreckage of Hepburn’s summer house after the hurricane of 1938.
Monday’s dedication ceremony brought together local and national dignitaries, including U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, who said the museum “preserves and enhances an icon of Connecticut, not just the person Katharine Hepburn, but the values, the tradition , the patrimony”.
The funny and frank letters to his doting mother – suffragist and co-founder of Planned Parenthood Katharine Houghton Hepburn – are at the heart of the exhibits. The handwritten missives lend complexity and depth to the visually flashier elements of the show.
In this 1932 letter, Katharine tells her mother that “Barrymore was very pleased with me—mentally—physically—and acting.” Her co-star Billie Burke – better known to today’s audiences as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North – is “very, very pretty and I hope she does well although she can’t play at all”.
While making “Little Women” in 1933, Hepburn complained of a crew strike that caused the production to “draw out”. She praised the other ‘Little Women’, played by Joan Bennett, Frances Dee and Jean Parker, but was less impressed with the ‘very annoying’ Douglass Montgomery, who played heartthrob Laurie. “[Director George] Cukor… tells me quite often, ‘well, he’s not as offensive as I feared.’ ”
In 1935, after directing ‘Alice Adams’, Hepburn wrote “The director – George Stevens, was excellent. It was his first feature film and many people thought we were crazy to have it made. The skeptics were wrong and Hepburn was right. Stevens went on to direct the legendary films ‘A Place in the Sun’, ‘Shane’ and ‘Giant’.
The chatty tone is shared by the Hepburn sisters. In 1937, when fan magazines speculated that Hepburn might marry Howard Hughes, Margaret wrote to Marion. “The hotel lobby was packed with journalists, so she had to escape through an emergency exit. … Six armed police officers had to intervene to clear the hallways. … Katy seems to like it immensely!
Despite her annoyance at union woes during “Little Women,” Hepburn appeared in 1947 at a political rally of the Progressive Citizens of America, a pro-union organization. At that rally, she said, “I speak because I am an American and as an American I will always resist any attempt to restrict freedom.”
The 1,150 square foot gallery space was built with approximately $500,000 in donations, Kate executive director Brett Elliott said. Previously, there were offices and storage areas in this space, with a few movie posters and photos on display.
Five things you need to know
We provide the latest coronavirus coverage in Connecticut every weekday morning.
Newly hired museum coordinator Elise Maragliano worked at the American Museum of Natural History and taught anthropology at Southern Connecticut State University.
“I’ve always been a fan of Katharine Hepburn. I remember seeing ‘The African Queen’ when I was sick. I was 10 or 11,” she said. “To me, she was a different representation of woman, strong and independent, not just a wife and a mother, but her own person.”
Construction of the museum space began in 2021, when the Kate was still closed due to the pandemic.
“We took lemons and made lemonade,” Maragliano said. “We could never have done this as long as there were people walking around, because this area leads directly to the toilets. People would have passed through a construction zone.
Maragliano said she hopes future exhibits will feature loans from other institutions with Hepburn memorabilia.
The Katharine Hepburn Museum, 300 Main St., is open Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. In July and August, it will also be open on weekends from noon to 4 p.m. It is also open before shows, for people with show tickets. Admission is free but a suggested donation of $5 is requested. thekate.org.
Susan Dunne can be contacted at [email protected].