Portrait of a lady

She was the epitome of Hollywood's golden age, but Katharine Hepburn, who died aged 96 at the weekend, was as unpredictable as she was glamorous. Philip Hoare recalls a unique and memorable audience with the legendary actress at her home in New York City

Tuesday 01 July 2003 00:00

In the overheated summer of 1992, I arrived in Manhattan and checked into the Gramercy Park Hotel. Overlooking one of New York's only garden squares, the tall brownstones and genteel mansions of the area resembled a bit of Bloomsbury transplanted to the Big Apple. I'd chosen the hotel for two reasons: one, it was cheap; and two, it gloried in a theatrical past, when its wood-panelled cocktail bar and restaurant had a little of the Algonquin's glamour, and not a few of the same celebrities supping its martinis. Indeed, the subject of my current quest, Noël Coward, had stayed there. I was writing his biography and, armed with the official benediction of his estate, I'd arrived in New York to track down those few of his contemporaries who still lived in the city.

Among the letters that I'd fired off in hopeful anticipation, there was one that I was convinced would receive no reply. But then one afternoon, as I walked back into the hotel's reception, the huge, burly man behind the desk - who had previously regarded me with the suspicion reserved for a foppish limey - looked at me with something approaching respect. "Mr Hoare?" he said, hardly able to contain his amazement, "Katharine Hepburn called for you." The look of disbelief was almost as delightful as the service I got thereafter.

The following morning, just before 11am, I pitched up at East 49th Street. The house, like its Upper East Side neighbours, was set back in its own affluence, tall and understated. I remembered being told by Coward's agent, Charles Russell, how he'd once been sent there by his boss to hand-deliver the script of Coward's unpublished Jamaica-set play, Volcano. Coward hoped that Hepburn would take the role of its fiery heroine, Adela (based on Blanche Blackwell, mother of the Island Records boss Chris Blackwell, and a one-time lover of Ian Fleming). "Someone answered the door with a mop and a headscarf," Russell told me. "I didn't recognise Katharine Hepburn for a moment. She lifted up her arm and asked me to put the script under there!"

I knocked at the same door. It was opened by a maid. The interior was dark, almost dingy. In one corner was a huge 1950s fridge. In the other a divan, on which lay a black chauffeur of a certain age, fanning himself in the heat. It resembled nothing so much as a scene from Driving Miss Daisy; still more so when an elderly lady, distinctly English in appearance, appeared. I knew her to be Phyllis Wilbourne, Miss Hepburn's long-time companion and secretary, some years her senior.

At her bidding I followed Phyllis up a narrow flight of stairs and into the house's first-floor sitting room. The room was curtained against the summer heat, as if to shut out what sun had penetrated the man-made Manhattan canyons. There, sitting in the rear bay window in a high-backed armchair, feet up on a stool, was Katharine Hepburn.

Silhouetted by the light behind her, drinking from a goblet of iced water, the legendary profile was unmistakeable. I approached, and Wilbourne introduced me. "Sit down," said Hepburn. "Would you like some water?" The quiver in her voice echoed through a hundred movies. I took my place - appropriately, I felt - at her feet.

The hair was piled up in an unruly bun, almost in blatant disregard for the iconic features below. Her skin looked as if it were stretched over an arrangement of implanted pebbles; it was sun-freckled, and wrinkled like rock valleys at the corner of her eyes. Rheumy and limpid, they looked innocuous at first; but I soon realised that they were as fierce as ever and taking me in. Quite what she made of me - if, indeed, anything at all - wasn't clear. But the impeccable New England manners were clearly not a façade; it was as if she had nothing better to do than to sit down and spend the morning talking to a young English writer. Perhaps she hadn't.

I began by asking if I could tape our conversation. Annoyingly, she refused. I considered secretly pressing the "play" and "record" buttons under my jacket; but then I thought better of this betrayal. There was something about the woman that inspired trust.

We sat there and talked. And talked. She spoke fondly of Noël Coward, but with exasperation, too. In the Fifties she'd visited him at his tropical island retreat on Jamaica, Blue Harbour, arriving, memorably, in an open-topped red sports car with Irene Selznick in the passenger seat. Coward couldn't believe that the two women were so foolhardy as to drive in the blazing noonday sun in a car without a roof, and declared it true madness. A week later he was doing the same, having revised his opinion and considering it the epitome of chic.

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His concrete house on the edge of the Caribbean was a home from home for many celebrities: there were the Flemings, who lived next door, along with the likes of John Gielgud (who liked to strike a pose on the verandah and allow fellow guests to admire his profile) and Laurence Olivier (who liked to smoke the local ganja).

"It was a pretty good house," she remembered. "A lot of people: too many! I don't like a lot of people. We stayed in his guest house, which was next to his home. We used to eat at his house, but not with Noël. He didn't really like to do the things I liked to do. I loved to play tennis, and he wasn't too much on sports. He liked to lie in the sun, he liked to talk. That whole group of people just liked to talk."

She also remembered visiting Coward at his English country retreat in Kent. "It was nice," she said, "but it was Noël in the country, you know." Her head quivered as if in palsy (it was often mistakenly described as Parkinson's disease, but it was, in fact, another condition that made her shake so). "He wasn't interested in the country. It was just like the city, only the temperature was different."

Hepburn also spoke of Coward's lover, Jack Wilson, whom she knew, but was too polite to acknowledge his alcoholism (which ultimately destroyed his relationship with Coward), instead referring to his "shortcomings". "Jack wasn't of Noël's calibre," Hepburn said. "I didn't think that much of him. Noël was a hard worker. He had no patience with weakness. He just thought it was stupid." I got the impression that that was generally her opinion, too.

Then we began to talk about Cecil Beaton, who had dressed her in the 1969 stage musical, Coco, based on the life of the fashion designer Coco Chanel. Beaton, the acidulous diarist, had actually hated her in the part, as was revealed in his recently published and vituperative "unexpurgated" diaries. He wrote of her "rocking-horse nostrils and corncrake voice", saying she was "the type to put on an old oilskin and hare off down the drive in an old battered car and be back in time for the tennis tournament". But Miss Hepburn appeared to harbour no grudges, and immediately proposed showing me the portrait that Beaton had painted of her. "It's in my bedroom," she said, and bid me climb another flight of stairs.

I couldn't believe that I was following Katharine Hepburn to her bedroom; it was almost indecent. Upstairs, she kicked aside a pile of shoes as she pulled back a wardrobe door that was hiding the portrait hung on the chimney breast. I dutifully admired the Beaton picture; and for a minute, or less, we stood there in her bedroom, saying nothing. It was a weirdly intimate moment. But not nearly as odd as what happened next.

As we descended the stairs, I noticed a photograph of Spencer Tracy on the wall. I pointed to it and said that he was my mother's favourite actor. Miss Hepburn looked at the black-and-white picture, and began to cry.

Back downstairs, she summoned Phyllis Wilbourne - who, as a young actress, had also known Coward - to talk to me. "Sit down and talk to Mr Hoare," she commanded, refusing to take the elderly woman's modest demurral for an answer. We chatted for a while when Miss Hepburn left the room, and shortly afterwards she came back.

"Haven't you fed him yet, woman?" she barked. We moved down to the kitchen, where Hepburn opened the big old fridge. "What would you like?" she asked me. I said I'd had breakfast not long ago. She took a half-opened tin of crab meat out of the fridge, and stabbed at its contents with a fork. "No, really, Miss Hepburn," I stuttered in alarm. "Oh, if I eat some of it, you'll be all right," she said. I could just imagine the headlines, straight out of an Andy Warhol screen print via the New York Post: "Katharine Hepburn Poisons Unknown Brit: Crab To Blame".

It was time to leave. Hepburn was off to Connecticut for the weekend, and the chauffeur was stirring himself from the divan for the long, slow drive out of town, over the bridge and back to nature, where the temperature was different. You could almost sense the relief with which she announced the fact.

I asked her to sign my copy of the book that she had written about her experiences filming The African Queen with Humphrey Bogart (which I'd picked up on sale at Strand Books the day before), and off I went. But I couldn't quite bring myself to leave. Still somewhat dazed by the encounter, I walked round the block and came back. Lurking on the far side of the street, camera in hand, I half intended to take a furtive, paparazzi-style shot of Miss Hepburn as she came out of the house.

But once again, my journalistic nerve failed me. Instead, I watched as the weary chauffeur opened the trunk and put her bags inside. Then she climbed into the back, and I saw the car drive up the street, Katharine Hepburn's unruly bunch of hair creating that same unmistakeable silhouette in the rear window.

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