Ms. Hepburn of Turtle Bay

Ms. Hepburn of Turtle Bay

This classic Turtle Bay News article was first published in the Fall 1992 issue.
Photo: Wikimedia

By Patricia Q. McDougald

Having seen her on stage and, I believe, in all her motion pictures—a number of them many times—and having read books and countless articles about her, I could not avoid having preconceptions of my first face-to-face encounter with Katharine Hepburn. Would she be the essence of her roles, or would her roles be the essence of her?

During the two years it took me to get my interview, there was ample time to develop a seemingly permanent state of angst. It was not that she was playing the hard-to-get star. The simple truth was that Ms. Hepburn was and is a very busy lady. My bad timing was exquisite. No sooner had I written to her than her life began throbbing with activity: She was working with John Bryson on his pictorial book, The Private World of Katharine Hepburn, followed by great media excitement and a spate of interviews. She was presented with a Lifetime Achievement award in Washington, D.C., and another special award at Radio City Music Hall, after which she was back to writing her book, Me. Right on schedule, as her secretary, Sharon Powers, had said it would be, the book was completed, printed and in the bookstores. Again, interviews galore—even more than before. Crescendo! Me zoomed to #1 on the nonfiction best-seller list, locking up that spot for four months! Of course, that calmed me immensely. Ms. Hepburn was now ready for the crown of crowns—she would be interviewed by a writer from the Turtle Bay Newsletter, the bugle for the neighborhood gentry. Surely her heart raced at the prospect.

Finally, things were settling down. Katharine Hepburn was again occupying her customary place—on top of the world. Time to write my next request for the interview.

Within a few days Sharon called: “Ms: Hepburn asked that you call her Monday morning; around 9:30 or 10 I think would be good.” That was Thursday. I had been asked twice before to call, so this would be the third time I would feel perilously close to expiring at the thought—this is it! She had simply responded courteously to my previous requests, saying that she had been deluged by interviewers and was struggling for time to write her own book. This time, however, I felt certain that this was it. I had but one weekend left during which to stew.

No alarm clock was needed Monday morning. I beat the whole world out of bed. Then came the moment to call.

“Hello.” I identified myself and stated my business. Ms. Hepburn said she would see me about noon. Two hours to HIGH NOON!

I dressed, choked on toast and coffee, gathered my interview recording gear and my rainwear, and headed out into a steady drizzle toward her house. I stopped by the local patisserie only long enough to pick up a few goodies and to make sure I arrived on time for my appointment.

Katherine Hepburn's previous residence in Turtle Bay: 244 East 49th St

Katherine Hepburn’s previous residence in Turtle Bay: 244 East 49th St

The first of my preconceptions: I would be met at the door by Norah Moore, her housekeeper/cook of many years, and ushered into a room where I would be offered a seat to wait for Ms. Hepburn.

Wrong. Moments after I rang, the door was swung wide, and there stood my welcoming committee of one—Katharine Hepburn. I introduced myself.

“Hello. Yes. Come in, come in.”

She happily accepted my bakery offering, giving it to Norah in the kitchen and inviting me to go on ahead to the sitting room one flight up. She called after me to ask if I would have a cup of soup with her. I thanked her but declined, mentioning having eaten before coming over. Ahead I went, but I swear she got to the top before me. She flies up and down those stairs.

KH: You may put your coat and things here (indicating a chair by the entrance to the room). Don’t like wearing hats and coats in the house (She was wearing her customary attire—a turtleneck top cardigan sweater, and well-pressed, comfortable, white slacks. Her sneakers had reached a condition one spends years working toward—they couldn’t hurt anything they touched, and one wouldn’t part with them for the world.)

Here was what had to be a favorite room, brightened even on this overcast day by enormous south-facing windows overlooking the garden. My first impression was that of warmth, demanding that one be comfortable in this excellent place.

My second preconception: The magnitude of her personality and her achievements would permeate the air. Hackneyed hyperboles would begin flying from my lips. I would lapse into Southern dialect, become victim to body/brain separation: my mouth in overdrive, my brain in neutral.

But no-o-o. It was as if she had peeked at my preconceptions list. She is apart from, yet very much of the world. It may be hard to believe, but to me she was comfort: open, interested, generous. Her eyes were alight, her face ready to smile.

She suggested I sit on the large couch near her magnificent black leather chair that, though not visible, had her name written all over it.

M: It’s so good to sit. I have a back problem, a curvature.

KH: (Chuckling as she eased herself into her chair) I have about a triple curvature. So don’t fuss. And it’s never going to get better, so don’t have it operated on.

M: What do you remember most about Turtle Bay when’ you first moved in?

KH: That I paid $100 a month to rent the house.

M: Unbelievable. And what was it, $27,500 to buy the whole building?

KH: Yes. Isn’t that shocking? And then two or three years ago, I was offered $2 million for it. Yup. It was beautiful in the beginning. What I remember was that there was sunlight.

M: I can imagine your feelings regarding the new residential and business structures that have gone up around here.

KH: I think it’s tragic that we’re losing all our light. I get sunlight from about 3:00 to 4:30, and that’s all.

Katherine Hepburn Place

M: Since the closing of the 48th Street ramp leading onto FDR Drive, the diverted traffic has been choking First Avenue. There is a movement in the neighborhood to get this ramp reopened, but the City is against it. What do you think about it?

KH: I don’t know. I think everybody is struggling to do the right thing. I just get stuck in traffic, with a sense of doom. (Laughter, with her seemingly now characteristic little chortle that may become as widely associated with her as her ‘calla lilies” line) I mean, I don’t know what the hell they’re going to do.

M: And you still go every weekend to Connectiecut?

KH: Yes, but I go early, so the traffic isn’t so bad.

(Phyllis Wilbourn, her personal secretary, appeared with the soup, and I was asked again if I would have a cup with her. Again I thanked her and declined. I wasn’t that relaxed.)

M: Do you try to go out walking or shopping in the neighborhood anymore?

KH: Well, it’s . . . I get stopped every . . . it’s hopeless. I go out to the Park (Central), and I walk un-bothered there.

M: You get there by car, though, right? I know you used to bicycle up.

KH: I used to bicycle all around here. Then that got hopeless.

M: So, you bought your home in 1937. That was about four years after “Little Women,’ right?

KH: Yes, that was done in 1933. I started in movies in ’32.

M: Yes, in “Bill of Divorcement,” with John Barrymore. (It might have sounded as if I were bragging about my knowledge, but I had to know at least that much!)

KH: A charming actor, nice man, very sensitive—nice man, Jack Barrymore.

M: That’s good to hear.

KH: Well, so were Lionel and Ethel—NICE, they were nice. (Believe me, when she said it, “nice’ regained the finest sense of the meaning.)

M: I wanted to ask you about running your home here in Manhattan. Is it something that you like, is it a problem you accept, or . . .

KH: Both. I accept, because I have Norah who’s been with me a long time, and I have Phyllis, who’s also been with me a long time, you know.

M: Yes. When you have someone to take care of things, it’s wonderful. But, aside from the initial expense of owning a home here, upkeep is a tremendous job; always things like leaders and gutters to be cleaned and . . .

KH: Yes. And (smile) leaks.

M: What do you find are the most or least appreciated changes in the area?

KH: The most hopeless is the crowd, you know, and the lack of sun.

M: Is there anything that has happened in the neighborhood that you have liked?

ICH: Good?

(We shared blank looks, then began laughing.)

NH: No. Isn’t that awful?

(Not given to empty answers to great problems, she will not hesitate to say she doesn’t have the answer. And, beware, she is apt to turn it right back to you. She’d like to hear the solution, too)

M: What do you think about the great influx of the homeless into Turtle Bay? What do you think can be done?

KH: What can be done? I don’t know. I don’t know what they represent, really. I think each one represents a different problem, don’t you? I don’t know because I have a car and driver. I suppose if I walked and studied someone that was asleep in my front door, I’d know what I was talking about. If anybody has a solution, that would be fine. But what is it?

M: Can you think of anything the Turtle Bay Association could do?

KH: Not unless they take my house when I die and open it up to the homeless.

M: What a generous thought. Fantastic.

KH: They’ve got to go somewhere. And if they’re hopeless drunks or just poverty stricken . . .

M: Yes. As it is now, the homeless feel the shelters provided for them are so unsafe, they are more afraid to stay there than in the streets.

KH: Give them Central Park. (Drum roll—boom!)

M: I think of you as somewhat of a rebel. I imagine that when you feel strongly about something, and you hear, “Well, that’s just the way things are. You can’t fight City Hall,” I would expect that kind of talk to make you even more determined.

KH: In a way, I know what they mean. One feels, through the years, that New York is going from bad to worse, I think. But I live a totally protected life, you see. I go in my own front door. Very unusual. That’s why I love having a house. And I don’t walk around the streets. Having a car and a driver, I’m protected. I drive to the Park, and then I walk. I’m totally spoiled. Thank God!

M. How about your book? I know it was #1 for umpteen weeks.

KH: I’m amazed, thrilled. That’s just great! I never expected that to happen.

M: I know there must be many offers for movie rights. Are you talking about that?

KH: Well, I just don’t know what they’d do with it.

M: For instance, who would they cast?

KH: Yah.

M: And you certainly would have a say in that.

M: Insist on it.

KH: I shall.

M: Do you have anybody in mind who could possibly do it?

KH: I don’t think it (the movie) can be done and be any good.

M: It depends on who does it.

KH: Certain people think it would make a great movie.

M: I think it could be-terrific.

KH: But who’s going to play it?

M: I was hoping you would have some idea. It seems you would have to have, maybe, two people—from the very early years . . .

KH: No, you can’t do that. I think it would just be a bore. I think certain things are better left as a book.

M: There was no mention in your book of the depression of 1929. It seemed to have no effect on you.

KH: I was lucky. My father had left enough money to give me an easy go of it. And I married, and I made money fast, myself.

M: When you went into the movies?

KH: Oh, yes. Almost right off.

M: It must have made you feel great to know you could be independent.

KH: I was independent, always. It never occurred to me that I wasn’t independent. I think it’s a terrible thing—I mean, it’s true—I’m spoiled.

M: Was writing the book cathartic for you?

KH: Oh, no, no, no no. I thought it was funny—some of it. It never occurred to me that it would be such a success.

M: What was the toughest part about writing it?

KH: Nothing tough. I used to just sit in bed in the morning and write. I’d sit up there, do all the writing, edit, then get up at 12 o’clock.

M: So the most productive part of the day was spent in bed, writing.

KH: Yes, Well, nobody was here.

M: Acting was the only thing, I guess, you thought about doing with your life Did you ever feel humiliated?I mean, acting is like selling yourself all the time and, in the case of getting started, there are usually a lot of rejections. It’s so personal.

KH: But that’s true of life, isn’t it? It’s personal. Sure it is.

M: Do you have something special to fall ‘pack on when you’re feeling enormous pressure? I’m sure you’ve felt great pressure many times. (This somehow gave rise to another of her wonderful chortles.)

KH: All the time! All the time!

M: When things are closing in on you, what do you do about it?

KH: Well, you just have to get over it.

M: Do you have a special thinking process for these times?

KH: I don’t even analyze it (chuckle); I mean if it’s bad, you have to make it good if you can, don’t you?

M: Some people get relief by doing something physical.

KH: I do something physical, anyway. I believe in exercise

M: Would that be what you would do to relieve pressure?

KH: I don’t think that way. It’s obviously a necessary part of life—terrible disappointment, terrible frustration. Everyone has that. You just have to get over it.

M: You don’t have any trouble falling asleep. I believe you said as much in your book.

KH: I didn’t have trouble falling asleep before. Now, I can’t sleep.

M: Is it the noise or . . .

KH Oh, no. It’s not noisy. It’s quiet here.

M: Not anything to do with your book?

KH: No. No. No, I don’t think so.

M: It’s a recent problem, though?

KH: Well, it’s recent (seemingly ignoring the word “problem”). I just don’t sleep Irritating. (Good chuckling) I’ve always been a GREAT sleeper, great sleeper.

M: You also mentioned Spencer Tracy’s inability to sleep.

KH: COULDN’T sleep.

M: So restless?

KH: Yep. Spencer was a pill-taker. I disapprove of that, totally, because there’s no end to it. I mean, you’ve got to figure it out, you know, intellectually or physically or something. And you can’t figure it out through drink.

M: Agreed. My panacea is golf. Just being on a golf course makes me feel good.

KH: Listen, you’re talking to an old golfer.

M: Yes. that’s why I thought you might give my “sedative” a try. I start by visualizing a golf course that I know. Beginning at the first hole, I envision every shot. I start with the intention of completing the entire round. Usually I’m asleep by the third hole Sometimes I get further and then fall asleep. It really doesn’t matter how many holes I have to play, sleep comes, and the waiting is a pleasure

KH: I’ll try it.

Like all good things, my interview had come to an end.

KH: (A heartfelt [or backfelt] groan as she rose front her chair) 0-o-oh, o-o-h! God! (We both chuckled.)

All her life she has been very athletic. Other than betrayal by that one involuntary utterance, I wouldn’t have thought anything was physically awry. She claims her body is now a wreck. You’d never guess it.

M: Thank you so much for your time.

KH: It was my pleasure (For all you Hepburn impersonators, that’s “plezhoor.”)

Because of all that has been said and written about her tremor, I hesitated before deciding to mention the following experience: After my interview I was bombarded with questions from friends. I gave answers to simple inquiries, but begged off talking about my article before I had written it. One question, “What about the head tremor?”, stopped me cold. Only then did I realize that not once, from the moment I was met at the door until the instant the question was asked, did I even THINK about a tremor—obviously, I never saw it. “The Enchanted Cottage”? Maybe. But that is the truth. During the entire interview, I had hardly any thought of her as the star. She was not like that. She has no need to flex mental or emotional “star” muscle.

Nor was I dismissed and waved good-bye to from the sitting room as Norah ushered me out—another preconceived notion happily shot to hell. Instead, Ms. Hepburn walked me downstairs, through the entrance hall by a table covered with an eclectic gathering of knick-knacks that seemed to have come from everywhere. I commented on it. She invited me to take anything there I liked—referring to it as just “stuff!’ (Now I wish I had taken her up on the offer but it didn’t seem right at the time.) She saw me out the door and opened the gate for me.

One of the most extraordinary interviews I would ever have, was done. Again I thanked her, and again she assured me it was her pleasure. She made me believe it. What a great lady—our neighbor—Ms. Katharine Hepburn!

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