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
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
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
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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Turtle Bay Association is a nonprofit (501c3) community
224 East 47th Street, New York City 10017
Fax (212) 751-4941