Katharine Hepburn was an accomplished athlete: if she hadn’t been an actress, she would have been able to pursue professional sports. Tennis, skating, horse riding… he was good at everything.
Since she was little, she swam almost every day in the ocean, whether it was winter or summer, a habit that she maintained until she was 80 years old. “The bitterer the medicine, the better,” she said. One morning in 1935, she showed up at the exclusive golf club in Bel Air and asked for a rival who could match her. No girls, a man. She was very competitive. Minutes later she was playing against a pro when she heard the rumble of a low-flying plane’s engine. “I thought she was going to land on our heads, but she passed us and landed on the greenright in front of us,” he recalls.
The pilot dodged a couple of bunkers, avoided the lake and managed to brake on the exquisitely shaven grass. «He made one of his typical landings on a foot of land, which I would soon get used to. I knew right away who he was: Howard Hughes. He could not be another ». The billionaire movie producer and accomplished aviator jumped down. He carried a bag with his golf clubs on his shoulder and joined the game. “Club members were furious. But he told them that he would pay the bill for fixing the damage. Howard thought he could buy anything.”
Howard Hughes looked gorgeous in his jacket and pilot’s glasses. And they went to dinner. “We were the perfect age for passion”
That acrobatic flight had one goal: to impress the actress. He had been infatuated with that haughty redhead since a year before. The boast paid off. He invited her to dinner and they started dating her. Hepburn thought he looked gorgeous in her leather jacket and her pilot’s goggles. “He was the best lover of my life,” she summed up.
The actress had many romances in Hollywood (Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, James Stewart, George Cukor, Lawrence Olivier…), but the physical intensity of that relationship, that sincere taste for life, remained a secret.
At that time, Hepburn did not give interviews, or even sign autographs. She had a vitriolic tongue and could be sharp. “I have five children: two white and three black,” she snapped at a reporter who dared to ask her about her personal life. For his part, Hughes was half deaf. He was very quiet. And he already had lunatic mania.
That is why, until today, it is Hepburn’s much later relationship with actor Spencer Tracy that is remembered. The chemistry worked on the screen. But in real life she had nothing to do with glamor. A sordid love between an outright chauvinist and a pioneer of feminism who allowed herself to be overwhelmed.
His brother was found hanged in an attic. As a teenager, she fell into a depression. “Her death of her marked the goal of my life: to be independent”
Tracy, married, alcoholic and sick, did not want to leave his wife. They met secretly. Hepburn was always second; more a nurse than a lover. “Spencer never told me he loved me,” she lamented. She couldn’t even attend her funeral and mourned her at home so as not to inconvenience her widow. With Hughes it was the opposite. She enjoyed in a pure state. Physical fullness. Guilt free sex. And most importantly: Hepburn was herself; a free spirit. With Tracy it was a shadow. The embodiment of her own inner demons.
Only in the 1970s, when she was already the great lady of classic Hollywood and for many the best actress of all time, the only one with four Oscars, did she confess to the biographer Charlotte Chandler, who recorded long after-dinner conversations (The real Kate: a personal biography, JR Books). Confidence that Chandler would never have dared to publish during Hepburn’s lifetime.
“Howard was a very sexually oriented person. I didn’t feel self-conscious because he wasn’t at all », she was honest. They were together for two years. “Howard and I shared some character traits that made us very compatible. We educate ourselves at home. We were so spoiled that we didn’t even realize it. And we were two loners. We went for free and did what was convenient for each one.
That they were two spoiled children is evident, but their childhoods were derailed by two tragedies. Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003) was the daughter of a Connecticut urologist and a suffragette. Her parents defended equal opportunities for men and women. Kate even wore men’s clothing for a while and demanded to be called Jimmy because she thought boys had more fun with her. She idolized her older brother, Tom.
“With Howard I realized that something else was possible. My mother, who had raised me to be a woman before a wife, had not told me that”
Hepburn considered that the decisive moment of her life occurred at the age of 14, when she discovered the lifeless body of her brother, hanged in an attic. The coroner ruled suicide, but she never accepted it. «He was a cheerful boy and full of vitality. I’m sure he was trying to do a trick my father taught us, but he backfired. His death marked the philosophy of my life: to be independent, to separate myself from others so as not to experience again the pain I felt when he died». The teenager fell into a depression. She stopped going to school for months. She for decades celebrated Tom’s birthday instead of her own.
As for Howard Hughes (1905-1976), he was born in Texas. His father invented a drill for oil extraction and became a millionaire. His mother was overprotective and suffered from microphobia, a fear of germs. She washed her son at all hours with a bleach soap. She died when Hughes was 17 years old. A couple of years later his father passed away. To the sadness was added the progressive loss of hearing and his obsessive nature.
“I think Howard was most attracted to me by my voice and my diction. Some people find my ringing irritating, but Howard could hear me because I speak loud and clear. Sometimes you had to whisper in his ear, if he was very interested in what you were saying. If not, you could yell at him over a loudspeaker and he wouldn’t hear you,” Hepburn recalled. “He was awesome. Tall, slim. I pretended not to be impressed by him, but I was well aware that he was an extraordinary person. We didn’t feel normal. My mother warned me to be careful, because she was arousing the envy of women who aren’t courted by airmen. I didn’t give a damn. Howard had more charm than Hollywood movies because his life and his adventures were real.”
“We had not talked about the future, although he asked me to marry him several times. I never said yes. I never said no”
The two had been married young and divorced. “From the beginning, our relationship was charged with sexual electricity. Howard was the shyest man I’ve ever been with. But then it was unleashed, the passion unleashed us. We had no inhibitions. And we had plenty of health and energy. I learned more about myself than about Howard. It was something mysterious, surprising. We were the perfect age for passion: 30 years old. Howard didn’t like frail women. And I was almost an athlete. In addition, I had been educated to feel comfortable with my own nudity and that of others. In fact, her ex-husband, businessman Ludlow Ogden Smith, asked her to take some half-naked photos of her during their courtship. “Why do things by halves?” challenged Hepburn, whose academic record at the prestigious Bryn Mawr College was littered with disciplinary offenses for smoking, breaking curfew and bathing naked in a fountain. «I posed without clothes and I loved the portraits. I was proud of my body.”
The marriage to Ogden Smith lasted six years. “I was a disaster as a wife. I didn’t even seriously try. I was selfish and always put my career first,” Hepburn acknowledged. They were divorced twice. The first in Mexico, but they were not sure of the legality of the procedure and, just in case, they divorced again in the United States. “I have no complaints about him. He was very grateful that I gave him my virginity. As a lover, he was considerate and gentle. Going to bed with him was nice, although it seemed to me that people valued sex too much. I was always a know-it-all… With Howard I realized that something more was possible. My mother, who had raised me to be a woman before a wife, had not told me that. Some things you have to learn for yourself. No inhibitions. Without feeling embarrassed or wondering what your partner will think of you after you do them.”
Their relationship consisted of a long honeymoon interrupted only by the filming of Hepburn and the aviation exploits of Hughes, who broke a record by flying around the world in three days and 19 hours. The actress was staying at the filmmaker’s 30-room mansion, where she had a suite room and a chauffeured limousine for her. A cook prepared any dish for them at any time. After making love, they stuffed themselves with ice cream.
Hughes taught her how to fly. “We fly everywhere. With Howard, she wasn’t the least bit afraid. I felt like a bird.” Hepburn loved Hughes’ seaplane, which they splashed down anywhere they liked. Then she would take off her clothes and dive into the sea, jumping from a wing.
“When I wasn’t with him, I don’t know if he was faithful to me. We were not engaged. We hadn’t talked about the future, although he asked me to marry him several times. I never said yes. I never said no”. Hughes kept asking Kate to get married. “It was very serious and very intense. And he chose romantic moments, but he never asked me when we were in bed. He told me: Kate, never trust a man who asks you to marry him when he wants to sleep with you. He will say anything and forget it just as easily. I appreciated his advice, but I didn’t need it. She wasn’t looking for a husband, not even Howard.”
“I was a disaster as a wife. I didn’t even try seriously. I was selfish and always put my career first,” Hepburn acknowledged.
In view of his subsequent descent into utter madness, when he lived for years like a hermit, terrified of microbes and squandering his fortune on productions that went on for months because an actress didn’t fit in a dress, or wasn’t Satisfied with the realism of an air battle (three pilots died on one of its shoots), Hepburn may have gotten off on the right foot. He may have sensed that Hughes had serious problems that would surface and he did not want to take the step of committing himself, although he never reproached him for anything.
«Someone can say that we were both cleaning freaks. While we were together, the matter was always within the limits of reason, even if it was somewhat obsessive. I even thought she was more obsessed than him. We washed our hands for a long time. And the water must have been very hot. Hepburn believes that Hughes’s descent into hell began in 1946, when he was in a plane crash. His plane crashed in Beverly Hills and caught fire. Hughes’s life was miraculously saved, but he suffered severe burns and did not have a healthy bone left. “Since then he lived every minute of his life in pain. And pain, like deafness, isolates you from the world. There came a time when he was trapped and lived inside his own mind ». He also became addicted to morphine.
The love story ended in 1938, after a hurricane devastated Connecticut and a flood destroyed the Hepburn family home. Kate, who was visiting, escaped with her mother by hanging on a rope from a window. The house was washed away. The next day Hughes’s plane arrived, loaded with bottled water. A deceptively generous gesture… “I guess he got tired of hearing me say ‘no’ every time he asked to marry me. I knew for sure after the hurricane. When his plane landed and another person got out of it. I thought it was going to be Howard, but no. He had sent another pilot to bring us the water. When I think about it, it’s like those bottles have a message inside. And the message was that our thing was over.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism