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Cutting the Cake for Kate
By Linda Colonna

"Each is given a bag of tools,
A shapeless mass, a book of rules;
And each must make, ere life is flown,
A stumbling-block or a stepping-stone."
- R.L. Sharpe

On Saturday, May 11, friends and neighbors gathered in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza Park to celebrate Katherine Hepburn's 95th birthday. Although the ailing guest of honor did not attend, her presence was palpable - in the garden bearing her name and the twelve engraved stepping-stones within it.

In nearly a century of life, Hepburn has done a lot to make her bag of tools into stepping-stones. As a stage, screen and television star, in a career that spanned 60 years and earned her four Oscars and 12 nominations, she dazzled audiences with her dramatic depth and comedic flair. She is also the author of two best-selling memoirs.

Kate's birthday party, sponsored by the Friends of Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in cooperation with the Turtle Bay Association and New York City Parks & Recreation Department, was held on a warm, sunny day. The band played, and a crowd showed up to sign the birthday card the Association had made for her, hear the talks and enjoy the event.

A dedicated gardener, Hepburn joined the TBA in 1957 and for more than 30 years fought to halt the destruction of trees and defend the sidewalks from encroaching development.

On the day after her 90th birthday, community members gathered in Hammarskjold Park to dedicate the future Katharine Hepburn Garden, a lush oasis covering the unpaved park area near the gate at the Holocaust Memorial Wall.

Now, five years later, the fund-raising, clearing, planning, design, planting, and community support has yielded a colorful mixture of birch, dawn redwood, dogwood, mountain laurel, witch hazel, rhododendron, and various annuals and groundcover. Visitors enter through the iron gate at the First Avenue end and step on a series of 18-inch-square stones that mark the path through the garden. A number of these are engraved with examples of Hepburn's own dry wit, such as, "If you always do what interests you, at least one person is pleased." And "If you survive long enough, you're revered, rather like an old building." Another reads, "Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then." And, of course, there is, "Enemies are so stimulating," (rivaled only by Liz Taylor's famous quote, "Scandal is a public service: It gives people something to talk about").

Anne Saxon-Hersh, President of Friends of Dag Hammarskjold Park, introduced the speakers. First up was TBA President Bill Curtis, who used to live across the street from Hepburn's 49th Street town house. He related an anecdote about Kate's battle with tour operators who tried to make her home a stop on their itineraries. "We always knew if she was home or not according to how long the bus parked," he said. He also discussed Hepburn's many contributions to Turtle Bay and the environment.

Other speakers included recently elected State Senator Liz Krueger and U.S. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney. "I've always admired Hepburn," Maloney said. "She played such strong women. And she gets things done. She's a model for us all."

One light note was the Hat Parade. Mary Beierle won the prize - a gift certificate to Café Blue - for the best hat, and several people appeared in a selection of floppy chapeaux. The single male entrant in the lineup sported a huge tower of straw weighed down by a brimful of chunky blooms, topping a light green jacket and yellow slacks with sneakers. He was a garden all by himself.

As a native New Yorker, I've grown accustomed to seeing famous faces around the neighborhood. But there are celebrities, and then there are icons. So when, a decade ago, I was walking up 49th Street and spotted Miss Hepburn standing on the sidewalk, about to hop into her limo, I stopped short. This was a completely different kind of encounter. A new level altogether.

Oh, Miss Hepburn," I breathed. "You've made my day!"

The legendary lips curved in a slight smile. "Well," she replied, as the chauffeur opened the car door. "That was easy!"

I walked away in a trance. Although in subsequent years I had several other Hepburn sight-ings, this one was the standout.

"I remember walking as a child," reads one of Hepburn's stepping-stones. "It was not customary to say you were fatigued. It was customary to complete the goal of the expedition." Katharine Hepburn can truly be said to have accomplished this.

Kate resides permanently at her home in Connecticut these days and no longer pops up unexpectedly on our streets or in the garden named for her. Nonetheless, celebrating her birthday each year seems like the perfect way for the Turtle Bay community to let her know it remembers her and thanks her for her contributions to the neighborhood. We hope she had a fabulous party of her own, and that she blew out every one of her cake's 95 candles.

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The Turtle Bay Association is a nonprofit (501c3) community organization.

224 East 47th Street, New York City 10017
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