Q: The great Katharine Hepburn was born and raised in Hartford. Can you name the two places she lived in the area? D.O., Hartford
A: Hartford never had a poster girl quite like Katharine Hepburn. From the moment that she struck it big, Hepburn served as the city's head cheerleader, generous philanthropist and cultural icon. She never, ever forgot her roots on Hawthorn Street.
"Hartford is where I learned to grow up," she said in 1988. "It is where I will come home to." And she did. Her remains are buried in the Hepburn family plot at Cedar Hill Cemetery.
Hepburn was born May 12, 1907, to Dr. Thomas Norval Hepburn, a graduate of Johns Hopkins Medical School, and the former Katharine Houghton, who had moved from Baltimore to Hartford. The two were devoted to "bettering" society, with Thomas Hepburn tackling venereal disease, an unmentionable topic then, and his wife leading the fight for women's suffrage and, later, birth control. Little Kathy Hepburn found herself as a child marching in parades and inflating "Votes for Women" balloons.
Life at the Hepburn house at 133 Hawthorn St. was spirited. Hepburn learned to ride a bike in Keney Park when she was 3. She played golf and tennis, rode horses and went ice skating. She hung on tight as her father drove the family car through snowy streets, dragging the children's sleds behind him.
Those early years were indelibly stamped on Hepburn's soul. "Hartford is where I first learned the importance of trying ... of being sure I did the best I could," the actress once said.
Her family later had a home at 201 Bloomfield Ave. in West Hartford.
When Hepburn left Hartford, it didn't leave her. She went off to college outside of Philadelphia and, then, in 1928, moved to New York City to become an actress, a pursuit that took her to Hollywood in 1932. In later years, Hepburn would make it back to Hartford or the family's waterfront home in the Fenwick section of Old Saybrook, stealing any free time she could to check in with her family.
Although Hepburn said that she always went back to Hartford as a person and not as an actress, she would agree to use her celebrity for a good cause. One such request came while she was walking with her father down Asylum Avenue shortly before Christmas 1941. America was at war, and Walter E. Batterson was in charge of the Hartford Red Cross chapter's campaign drive. Batterson spotted the pair and stopped his car. Hepburn agreed to help, and eight months later she purchased $30,000 worth of war bonds to kick off a local bond drive. Notorious for refusing autograph requests, Hepburn visited the Newington Home for Children one day and patiently signed 75 autograph books without complaint.
The state honored the actress in the 1997 State Register. "She is our neighbor and friend," declared Miles S. Rapoport, then-secretary of the state. "She is Connecticut's 'local girl.'" That remark was a reference to a backstage wall at the Bushnell in Hartford on which the actress left her sprawling autograph with "local girl" scrawled underneath.
On a gently sloping westward-facing hill at Cedar Hill Cemetery, in front of a large boulder simply carved with the family name, Katharine Hepburn's remains are buried alongside those of her parents, her brother Tom, and Phyllis Wilbourn, her devoted secretary.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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