Katharine Hepburn was a pack rat with panache. She saved an amazing amount of material -- letters, annotated scripts, fans’ scrapbooks, photographs of herself in evening gowns as well as in wide pants with anklets and wedgies. She even stored it all in a climate-controlled facility.
The beneficiary of her steadfast personal archiving is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library, which announced Tuesday its acquisition of Hepburn’s collection of photographs, scrapbooks, scripts, press books and private and professional correspondence. The collection, which began arriving from the East Coast 13 months ago, was donated to the library by the estate of the four-time Oscar winner, who died June 29, 2003, at the age of 96.
“She saved a lot of material,” says library director Linda Mehr. “We have old scrapbooks that go back to the very beginning of her film career, even some including her early stage work along with the film work. They are quite unique. She saved a lot of her scripts -- a lot of them have notations that indicate how she worked out the role she was to play. It is really an incredible record of her life -- she is one of the most influential women of the 20th century.”
What makes the acquisition even more “amazing,” says Mehr, is “that we have never gotten a collection where they saved as much that documents careers like this. For an individual performer, it is quite rare. She was probably aware of her life’s legacy and how important it was. She was very smart about real estate, possessions and money.”
The Hepburn collection complements several of the library’s collections on her major collaborators, including directors George Stevens, George Cukor, John Huston and actor Cary Grant. “This will really help fill in the picture of the creative talents behind her,” says Mehr.
None of the material in the library collection is from the Sotheby’s estate sale of more than 600 items that took place in June and earned $5.8 million for the Hepburn family. Though items in that highly publicized auction included photographs and letters, the bulk of that material was more personal -- jewelry, furniture, a bronze of her longtime love and frequent costar Spencer Tracy, film contracts and a wedding dress.
“It was a really small amount,” says Mehr. “Anything that was of potential research value, they photocopied so we have replicas of everything.”
Diving into this treasure trove of Hepburn material is exhilarating and exhausting. On a recent Wednesday -- the day the library is closed to the public -- stacks and stacks of Hepburn photographs lined the tables in the main research area. Tables in the special collections areas of the library were filled with samples of her scripts, thick scrapbooks sent to her by fans, press books -- where she is oddly described as the “screen’s most disturbing star” -- and letters to and from the likes of her father, Thomas; Tennessee Williams; Peter O’Toole; John Ford, Huston and Vivien Leigh.
Though her personal photographs haven’t arrived yet, the academy has received countless publicity stills shot by such glamour photographers as Clarence Sinclair Bull and Ernest Bachrach.
There are pictures of the haughty Kate from the early 1930s, the glamorous but carefree Kate of the early 1940s, Kate the fashion trendsetter in wide-legged pants, white blouses and tailored suits -- she also loved to wear white anklets with her shoes -- and the spirited senior citizen who captivated the set of the “Dick Cavett Show” in the early 1970s. There is only one non-Hepburn file -- a group of miscellaneous Tracy production and publicity stills.
Hepburn also amassed countless photographs from all of her movies. “There is coverage on everything but ‘Stage Door Canteen,’ which she only had a little bit part in,” says Robert Cushman, photograph curator. “Coverage varies from title to title, but usually it’s extensive. There’s even a good file on her first film, '[A] Bill of Divorcement.’ ”
It will be a while, though, before potential researchers will be able to study these photographs. “This is the very first pass,” says Cushman, glancing over the thousands of photographs on the tables. “They need to be archivally sleeved with new labels. They need to be sourced and stamped and put in the database inventory.”
The photographs from her films -- Cushman has broken each film down by scenes -- and off-camera stills are in generally excellent condition.
“There are some instances of yellowing and that’s just from age,” he says. “I didn’t find any insect damage.”
Hepburn didn’t have this material stacked up in her townhouse in Manhattan or the family home in Old Saybrook, Conn., says Mehr. It was housed in a climate-controlled art ware- house.
“For certain scripts where we know there is going to be heavy use, we will make a Xerox reference copy,” says Howard Prouty, special collections archivist, perusing the original, well-worn scripts of “On Golden Pond,” “Summertime” and “Spitfire.”
Though Hepburn may have written notes in her scripts, as well as pages of character analysis for her roles, researchers will have their work cut out for them. Hepburn’s penmanship leaves a lot to be desired.
“It is not the worst we have seen,” says Prouty. “We have deciphered the scrawls of Sam Peckinpah and the like and we made out OK.”
Hepburn’s correspondence spanning six decades offers the greatest insight into her life.
“I have been told the correspondence will be thousands of items from major figures in the entertainment and literary world and individuals,” says Mehr.
And she doesn’t know just what letters the estate will want to be seen by the public. “They may want us to keep it sealed for a period of time,” she says.
The sampling of correspondence displayed on a reference table includes several telegrams she sent to her husband, Ludlow Ogden Smith, in 1932 when she was making “Bill of Divorcement” -- “Who ever said go west. Good night love. Meow.”
In the sole telegram from Tracy, he refers to her as “Dear African Queen” and signs it simply as “Old Pot.”
O’Toole, her costar in 1968’s “The Lion in Winter,” calls her “Old Nags” in their acerbic correspondence and himself as “Pig.”
“The acid dripped from your letter and burned a deep hole in my heart,” O’Toole writes. “You are indeed a blessing.”
Huston sent her a note on her Oscar nomination for “The African Queen,” the 1951 classic he directed: “Even if you don’t get it. I will never forget the way you looked going over the falls.”
There’s an affectionate letter from Jane Fonda, who costarred with her father, Henry, and Hepburn in 1981’s “On Golden Pond,” in which Fonda praises Hepburn for raising the spirits of her ailing father: “I want to thank you for making my dad so happy.”
The letters also illustrate the Connecticut-born Yankee’s playful and even devilish sense of humor.
In the mid-1930s, RKO was contemplating casting Hepburn as Joan of Arc. As a joke, Hepburn wrote producer Pandro Berman a protest letter from an anonymous “practical Catholic.”
“Please don’t commit that sacrilege of casting Katharine Hepburn as St Joan.... You might as well cast Dillinger as our beloved president Abe Lincoln.”
Attached to the letter is Berman’s response: “Kate dear. You’re found out.”
In celebration of the collection, the Academy will be offering a Hepburn film retrospective next month, beginning Oct. 8 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater with the Academy Film Archive’s restoration of the 1955 film “Summertime,” for which she received her sixth Oscar nomination. A panel discussion of actors and filmmakers who worked with her will follow the screening.