Upon hearing of Katharine Hepburn’s death in June 2003, I wrote this piece, hurriedly, as an op-ed for The Day, New London CT’s newspaper, while I was executive director of the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in adjacent Waterford. They accepted it and ran it almost immediately, as Miss Hepburn’s home in Fenwick was part of the paper’s distribution area on the eastern Connecticut shoreline and her passing, while international news, held special meaning for those who lived near her for so many years.
By the winter of 1991, six years into my tenure as the public relations director at Hartford Stage, the prospect of meeting a celebrity had lost its allure. Starting when I was in college, I had many opportunities to pass in and out of the celebrity sphere – interviewing Ian McKellen for the school paper, attending small readings by Isaac Asimov and Jerzy Kosinski, exchanging pleasantries with Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly at a fundraiser. At Hartford, we had famous people in our shows and other famous people attending our shows.
Proximity had brought a realization: while I might stop a conversation by saying, truthfully, “Grace Kelly put her hand on this shoulder,” the story really had nowhere to go after that. These encounters were so fleeting, that I know I didn’t register with these idols, nor could I claim any knowledge of them beyond what I knew before. Simply meeting someone for a moment meant very little.
So I was nonplussed – if not mildly put out – when my bosses summoned me to ask a favor.
Sam Waterston (pre-Law and Order) and Cynthia Nixon (pre-Sex and the City) were appearing in Ibsen’s The Master Builder and Sam had a special request. He had a guest coming to the Saturday matinee whom he wanted to have “looked after,” but both of my bosses had immovable prior commitments. So would I come in on my day off and attend to the needs of Katharine Hepburn?
In light of her passing this week, it is perhaps inconceivable to that I viewed this as an imposition. Mind you, I admired Miss Hepburn as much as any self-respecting film buff would, particularly for The African Queen and The Lion in Winter. But the fact remained that I was going to give up a whole day to say hello as she breezed into the theater, offer her a drink at intermission and make sure she got to see Sam after the matinee. What a way to waste a Saturday. And after all, this was the famously blunt and aristocratic Katharine Hepburn; one wrong word and she’d probably take my head off. Nonetheless, I agreed.
On the designated day, my first surprise came at 1:30, a full hour before the performance, when a member of the house staff rushed up to me to say, “She’s here.” I hustled out to the box office just as Miss Hepburn – alone – advanced to the box office. I quickly introduced myself.
“Who do I pay for these?” she demanded. “I insist on paying.”
In a moment of consummate tact, I responded, “That’s fine. We’re happy to take your money.” So much for savoir faire in the face of celebrity.
I offered to escort her directly into the theater, where the seats were comfortable and she would not be on display for everyone who entered. A companion joined her, and I took her to her seat.
Once she was seated, I expected our perfunctory tete-a-tete to be at an end. But no: could I tell her about the production? Could I tell her about how Hartford Stage was doing? What other shows would we be doing this season? And thus three-quarters of an hour went by, with her questions and my answers ending only once it was clear I was blocking seat access for other patrons.
Well, that was pleasant enough, I thought. Now I’ve got to kill three hours until the show is over.
But at the first intermission, when I went to offer her a drink, the questions began again, specifically about Cynthia. Who was she? Where did we find her? Isn’t she marvelous? Doesn’t Sam respond to her so well?
Now, to be honest, I’m charmed. Here is this 83-year-old icon of cinema, and she enthusiastically wants to hear whatever I can tell her. She’s oblivious to the audience around her – she’s simply a consummate fan, and we spoke until the lights went down again.
At the second intermission, she was content to chat with her guest. Since I noticed that the audience members were leaving her alone (giving her the same respect and distance I had seen people give to John Houseman a few years earlier), I let her be.
At the play’s conclusion, the plan was to let the theater empty out, and Sam would come down from his dressing room to see her. “Nonsense,” said Miss Hepburn, “Let’s go see him.” And she insisted I lead her immediately to her friend.
When they connected, I watched Sam, who had been very reserved with me throughout his time in Hartford, light up with what could only be joy. He leaned down and she kissed him, like an aunt, or even a parent. He glowed with evident delight as she praised him and the production. I watched as a patrician icon and an imposing actor of a younger generation basked in the pleasure of seeing each other.
For all her famous candor, her single-mindedness, her independence, her privacy, Katharine Hepburn revealed in those few short hours her vitality, her intellect and her capacity to take pleasure in plays and people. She transformed my afternoon into a great experience, a singular encounter. And how did she insure that?
As she parted from Sam, and I walked her back to her waiting car, she was quiet, moving slowly. But as we approached, this legend suddenly turned, took my hand, and said, “Well, you’ve been pretty goddamn nice, haven’t you?” I imagine I smiled, beamed, grinned, just as Sam had minutes before, absorbing the full effect of her warmth. I can’t even remember replying.
Tough, feisty Katharine Hepburn thought I had been nice. Well, who would have thought it? So was she. So was she.