Once upon a time, Katharine Hepburn actually spoke to me. I will never forget it. It happened in the New London Railroad Station about 20 years ago. My daughter, Carol, was coming home from New York, and Peg and I picked her up at the station. As the train pulled out, a convertible automobile moved across the tracks headed for the pier. It was then that I spotted Hepburn sitting in the car.
Excited to see her, I said to my wife, daughter and two nephews, who were with us that day, “We have got to go and say hello to Katharine Hepburn.” My wife, as she always does, said, “Respect her privacy. Leave her alone.” But, it was, after all, Katharine Hepburn. How many times in a lifetime do you see an American icon so close and in person?
The two nephews that were with us were from South Carolina, up for a visit. They were both five or six years old, and there is nothing cuter or more disarming than a small child with a Southern drawl.
New London’s harbor pier has two levels; the main upper level, and then a lower walkway where you can step from the pier to the boat. As I walked along the lower level with those two kids, one on each hand, we came to a tall ship, and there was Katharine Hepburn sitting with a cool drink. There were four or five people and a barbecue grill. We stopped, and the great lady was no more than 10 feet away.
I said to the small children, loudly enough that she could hear me, “That is a pirate ship.” It looked like it might have been a pirate ship, with its tall masts, brass fittings and its wooden, ornate rail.
One of the little boys, with that Southern drawl, said, “Uncle Bill, are those people pirates?” I said, “Yes, everybody on that boat is a pirate.”
Then, to my surprise and delight, Katharine Hepburn, in that very distinctive voice of hers, said, “Are you calling me a pirate?”, which gave me the opportunity to address her through the boys. I said, “Boys, that is not a pirate, but one of the most beautiful ladies in the world.” Having done no damage, she smiled and nodded. So did I. It was an event that I will remember, because she is a great lady.
None Like Her
Some years ago, I worked as a photographer for the Norwich Summer Theater, and there was no shortage of great stars — the greatest perhaps, Charles Laughton, but also John Garfield, Buster Keaton, Burl Ives and Eddie Albert. I was, at that time, used to working with stars, but Katharine Hepburn, like few others, was more than a star. She is a piece of America. Her face, her talent, somehow symbolize more than other actresses.
Some 10 years ago, I was close to Katharine Hepburn once again. She was at Hartford Hospital, and so was I. She had an infection, and I had the most successful spinal surgery you can ever imagine at that incredible hospital. There we were again, but this time there was no way to talk to her. I noticed on the television news that all of the world was concerned for her health, and what a great tribute it was. So much concern for such a great actress. Not a queen, not a princess, not a duchess — just an exceptional woman whom everyone loves.
Connecticut has many American icons. Katharine Hepburn lived in Old Saybrook. No too far away, another great talent, Art Carney, once lived in Westport. He was also known throughout the world. The two of them were bigger than life itself. We think of Art Carney as the clown on the Jackie Gleason show. Was it Shakespeare who wrote, “It takes no fool to play a clown”? Art Carney was a great actor and, in a very real sense, was one of the reasons Jackie Gleason looked so good.
Further down the coast lived Paul Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward. They, too, were giant. Though they may have made bad motion pictures, I can’t remember any. Now regrettably many of these great stars are gone.
Connecticut can boast of so many greats. We can be proud of our citizens, and we have had some outstanding home-grown giants. Why even the former president of the United States, George W. Bush, was born in Connecticut. I am old enough to remember and to have photographed his grandfather, Sen. Prescott Bush, who yielded his set to another great American, Tom Dodd, or was it Abe Ribicoff?
The Barnum & Bailey Circus was born in Connecticut. P.T. Barnum, who coined the expression, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” and Mark Twain, the greatest of them all, lived here.
We can go on for ever and ever about the great people who have lived and do live in Connecticut. But, somehow, in that family of greats, I doubt that there are any who exceed in stature the majesty of a wonderful lady named Katharine Hepburn.