Bringing up a Star: the Hepburn Family of Hartford

Aug 29, 2014

In addition to being a well-known actress and a fashion icon, Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003) was also known for being outspoken and fiercely independent. Her outlook on life was influenced by her remarkable parents who valued speaking one’s mind and acting boldly.

Hepburn’s mother, Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn, believed getting a college education was crucial for women seeking independence. Both of her parents died by the time she was sixteen, and she worked hard so that she and two of her sisters could attend Bryn Mawr College and become self sufficient. In 1907, after starting her own family, she worked for women’s right to vote, eventually becoming president of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association. She took her daughter Katharine to rallies where she would hand out Votes for Women flags. Hepburn’s mother later campaigned for women’s access to birth control.

Hepburn’s father, Thomas Norval Hepburn, attended Johns Hopkins University, where he trained as a surgeon, specializing in urology. He worked at Hartford Hospital, had his own practice, and helped establish the New England Social Hygiene Association to educate the public about venereal disease. He also brought his children to work, and allowed them to observe surgeries at a young age.

As a young girl growing up in Hartford and Fenwick, Katharine Hepburn was a tomboy with boundless energy. Her father, an accomplished athlete, encouraged her athletic pursuits and never told her she couldn’t do something just because she was a girl. He built a two-story zip line that ran across the yard of the family’s Hawthorne Street home and at Fenwick he built a diving board and organized track races for the children.  Hepburn took pride in the fact she could run faster and jump higher than anyone.

Hepburn’s parents told their children not to dwell on the past, overcome their fears, and never feel sorry for themselves. They never shielded the children from their public activities and discussed controversial topics openly at family gatherings. All of this undoubtedly contributed to Katharine’s self-assured attitude that was evident throughout her life and career.  To find out more about Katharine Hepburn’s life in Hartford with her family, visit Katharine Hepburn: Dressed for Stage and Screen which remains on view at The Connecticut Historical Society through September 13.