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Saturday, 26 March 2016

Two letters from Katharine Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn didn't win an Oscar for her brilliant performance in The Philadelphia Story. But that film holds the key to her.

Hepburn played the role of Tracy Lord. One scene summed her up perfectly. Cary Grant, as C.K. Dexter Haven, says: "There's magnificence in you, Tracy. I'm telling you . . . a magnificence that comes out of your eyes, that's in your voice, in the way you stand there, in the way you walk. You're lit from within, bright, bright, bright. There are fires banked down in you, hearth-fires and holocausts."
FOR THE RECORD - CLEARING THE RECORD, PUBLISHED JULY 2, 2003, FOLLOWS: In the 1940 film, The Philadelphia Story, James Stewart's character, Macaulay (Mike) Connor, says to Katharine Hepburn's character, Tracy Lord: "There's magnificence in you, Tracy. I'm telling you . . . a magnificence that comes out of your eyes, that's in your voice, in the way you stand there, in the way you walk. You're lit from within, bright, bright, bright. There are fires banked down in you, hearth-fires and holocausts." A column on Tuesday's Op-ed page attributed the quote incorrectly.
"You - I don't seem to you - made of bronze, then," Hepburn/Lord says coyly.

"You're made of flesh and blood - that's the blank, unholy surprise of it. You're the golden girl, Tracy, full of love and warmth and delight," says Grant/Haven.

Those few lines summed up Katharine Hepburn for all time.
Grant's lines added to the already electric Hepburn mystique. I was one of the moviegoers he convinced of how really great Hepburn was. When I heard those words, I was hooked. I closely followed her life and career until it ended on Sunday.

I would come to learn that Grant's words were as true of Hepburn as they were of the character she was playing.

I began collecting copies of her films. I have seen every one of her 36-plus performances, and I've seen several of her movies dozens of times.

In 1974, I wrote a column saluting her versatility, her intelligence, and her stunning wit. Several readers sent the column to her, and, to my surprise, a letter arrived at my home on handsome sun-bright yellow stationary bearing her name across the top in bold crimson letters: "Katharine Houghton Hepburn."
The date on the letter was March 19, 1974.

"Dear Mr. Claude Lewis:
"You must have many friends, as I have received several copies of your lovely piece about me from your section of the world, and insisting that if you feel about me as you say you do, I must see to it that I meet you and thank you.

"So here I am. . . . it's a lovely thing to have a solid, interminable - and totally convinced friend. That certainly makes life worth living. Many, many thanks - Katharine Hepburn."

Under her signature, she wrote: "You make me so proud and happy."

I am a diabetic, and several years later, I experienced serious eye problems. Finally, my eyesight all but vanished, and I wrote a column urging readers who have diabetes to follow the recommendations of their specialists.

I had become slightly depressed by my diminished sight. Readers, who have always been kind to me, sent the column to Katharine Hepburn without my knowledge.

A short time later, a letter arrived at my home in plain envelope. It was dated "VIII 1, 1989":
"Just a word of encouragement to you in your eye battle. I'm so glad to hear that things are taking a positive, hopeful turn. Your column was great, and it certainly was no surprise to me that you have such a vigorous point of view."

And in a palsied handwriting, she added: "God Bless You - Katharine Hepburn."

There's no way I can explain how much that letter meant to me. I was at my lowest ebb, and it did a great deal to lift my spirits and get me back on track. Here was this wonderful woman of great accomplishment and significance, a woman who had considerable health problems of her own - yet she took the time to bolster my morale.

Very often, celebrated stars receive undeserved criticism. Hepburn was no exception. Some complained that she was somewhat reclusive when off the stage. They often accused her of being selfish and charged that she seldom reached out to others.

Her two letters to me prove otherwise. The truth is that Hepburn was a fiercely private person who was shy and surprisingly uncertain of herself. In more than 60 years as a film and stage star, she broke through barriers of time, gender and different cultures. Her very forthrightness - in her career, in her selection of roles, and in her personal life - helped improve many opportunities for women. She was no woman of bronze.

The news of her death at 96 on Sunday was not unexpected, but it brought a new sadness into my life. I have had letters from presidents, politicians, scientists, and sports heroes, but none of them have meant nearly as much to me as my letters from Katharine Hepburn.

One of her most celebrated movies was titled Woman of the Year. I'll always think of her as a woman of the century.

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