“‘Onliness’ is my word for what I call my philosophy of life,” Katharine Hepburn told me. “It’s a word I made up for myself when my teenage brother hanged himself.
“What I meant by it was that I wanted to be independent, to separate myself from all the others and never again to care so much about another person, so I would never feel the pain I felt when Tom left me.
“I was almost fourteen when Tom, my absolute hero—whom I loved and worshipped—had, what I call in my head, his ‘accident.’ I was the only one who believed it was an accident. I believed it because I couldn’t bear to believe otherwise.
“I had a wonderfully warm feeling in my soul. I felt it so deeply that he would be there for me, that I could always count on him. It made me feel very secure. And then, suddenly, he wasn’t there for me. He wasn’t there for himself.
“If something had made him so unhappy that he no longer wanted to live, why hadn’t he shared his trouble with me? I could have helped him. We were so close, how could I not have shared his pain? I couldn’t bear it. I thought we were like twins, even though he was two years older. It was a nightmare that was real, and I was never going to wake up from it. I understood that now is forever.
“Tom was my best friend from the first moment I can remember. He never regarded me as the little sister he had to drag along. The opposite. At two, two and a half, I remember him holding my hand and showing me the ropes and how to swing on them, how to get along in life. When I was just barely walking, he was running with me. I wanted so to keep up with his long-legged strides. I wanted to run fast into life, not just to walk, and I wanted to run toward life with Tom.
“He had not yet had his sixteenth birthday. For the Easter school vacation, Tom and I were given a trip to visit a dear friend of Mother’s who had been at Bryn Mawr with her. After we celebrated Easter with our family, we went to New York to stay with Aunt Mary Towle, who was a lawyer and had her own lovely little house in Greenwich Village. She wasn’t really our aunt, but we’d always called her ‘Auntie.’ Whenever we visited her, it meant seeing many plays, seeing all the wondrous sights of New York City, and eating in lovely restaurants. We would dress up for our excursions.
“It was a darling house, not big. It was just right for Auntie Mary, who never married. She had her lovely room, and I stayed in the guest room. My brother had a cot in her attic, which was filled with trunks of books and everything she stored there. Sometimes girls have privileges, but I wouldn’t have minded being in the attic. I’m sure Tom didn’t. He was always protecting me, and being chivalrous.”
Although Kate loved her visits to New York City, and so did Tom, she couldn’t imagine herself living in New York. “Tom said he’d love to be right in New York City, especially in Greenwich Village, which we knew best.”
Until then, their mother had always gone with them and stayed. “She enjoyed the visit with Auntie Mary and with Auntie Mary’s law partner, Bertha, who had become a judge and was also a good friend of Mother’s at Bryn Mawr. Auntie Bertha lived next door. This year, Mother had some other plan, and it was deemed we were old enough to make the short trip from Connecticut to Greenwich Village, where we would be chaperoned by Auntie Mary, who had known us since we were born. We’d been going to visit her at her Greenwich Village townhouse since before Tom and I could remember. We found the Village fascinating, walking around for hours. It was so different from where we lived.
“I don’t know which one of us was more excited. It was a tie. I was always the more emotional one, jumping with glee. Tom was more composed, in a masculine, older-brother way. But I could tell how excited he was, because we had an almost telepathic bond between us.
“We went with Auntie Mary to see A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. My brother was particularly taken by the show, and I enjoyed it, too, with my favorite companion, Tom. If he enjoyed something, I enjoyed it more because of that. I know he felt the same way about doing anything with me. Tom told me he liked our visit so much, he would be sorry to have it end. I knew I would be, too.
“The next day, our Uncle Floyd took us out sightseeing. He was my father’s brother, and a bachelor. We had a wonderful time with him, as we always did. Uncle Floyd took the day off whenever we were in New York to show us all the sights and there were so many sights to see. Endless. Our uncle never ran out of places to show. Tom had brought his banjo with him and that last night in New York, he played for us.
“The next morning, Auntie and I were eating breakfast and expecting Tom to come downstairs to join us. Auntie began putting some food together for a package Tom could take on the train because he was late and would be missing breakfast. Auntie was a lovely cook, and Tom and I enjoyed everything she fixed for us. Auntie took great pride in everything she prepared for us. She was not generally domestic, but she was so anxious that we should have a wonderful time.
“She said I should go upstairs and tell Tom that we were going to be late. Tom had bought our return tickets, and it was getting close to the time we had to be at the train station. Auntie said I’d better go up and wake my brother, or we’d miss our train. I knew he was packed, with his travel outfit neatly laid out for the trip.
“I went up. I knocked on the door. There was no answer. I knocked harder, calling, ‘Tom, Tom.’ Tom was not a heavy sleeper, and we were accustomed to getting up early. Tom told me that he had been waking up during the nights because what we were doing was so exciting and stimulating. I felt a little anxious.
“At first, I didn’t see Tom. And then I saw him. He was there next to the bed.
“He was hanging from a rafter with a piece of material around his neck. His knees were bent and he had strangled.
“I took him down and put him on the bed. He felt very cold. I knew it was too late, but all I could think of was to run downstairs and out of the house to the nearby house where I’d seen a doctor’s sign. The doctor wasn’t in. It was no use. I ran next door to Auntie Bertha’s house and I told her, ‘Tom is dead!’ She came back with me, and we told Auntie Mary. We called Mother and Father.
“Mother and Father arrived with Mother’s close friend Jo Bennett. I felt numb. I don’t remember too well what happened. People said I was amazingly calm. I was in shock. I stayed in shock for a long time. It was as if I couldn’t feel anything when I cried. It seemed like the thing to do and what everyone expected of me. I found out that I could cry at will, anytime I chose, on less than a minute’s notice. My crying on the outside wasn’t real. What was real was I was crying on the inside. It was a chaotic time until I could make some kind of adjustment to the reality. But I never really did.
“There were police. There were some reporters. They all called it suicide. Such a terrible word.
“They talked about Tom’s bent knees. The police said he had hanged himself, but he was too tall. Someone said, ‘He would have had to bend his knees to finish the job.’”
Kate said that one night about a year before, her father had told the family at the dinner table about his undergraduate days, when his southern school, Randolph Macon, was playing a northern school. Some of the visiting northern players asked, only semiseriously, if they still lynched black men in the area.
“There happened to be a black man in the area who was known for his very special trick, Father told us. He was famous for being able to constrict the muscles in his neck so that he could fake being hanged. The southern students hired the man to perform his trick in a pretend stunt, a practical joke played on the northern team. The northerners fell for it. Then they were pretty surprised when the joke was on them, and they’d all been fooled.”
Kate speculated that Tom remembered the story and was practicing this stunt. “One year later, seeing A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court during our New York visit might have overstimulated Tom’s active imagination.”
Kate wondered if Tom had experienced difficulty in sleeping, had awakened in the middle of the night in a strange place and in a makeshift sleeping situation, rather than in his own room, and had tried to do the trick. “There wasn’t much he could do in the middle of the night without disturbing the household, and Tom was always considerate of everyone. So, it came to me that what he must have been doing was practicing the trick, so he could show our father and surprise him.
“I told Father, and it seemed to him to be a plausible possibility. Even though it meant that Father had played a sad part in it all, by telling the story of the prank, it was easier for him to face that than the alternative—his son a suicide.
“About a year later I overheard my father, in our house, talking with a friend of his, and the other doctor used the phrase ‘adolescent insanity.’ It was a serious, even grim, conversation. When I walked into the room, they stopped talking. That was unusual, because Father and Mother had always made a point of allowing us children to hear everything. They never stopped talking that way when we appeared. It was so unusual, it gave me pause. I wondered if they could have been talking about Tom.
“One of my most striking memories is of my mother’s tears. I only saw my mother cry once in my life. I don’t know if she ever cried, even when she was alone. Only she knew that. She was a stoic.
“We left New York and went on a boat to New Jersey to a crematorium. Mother was standing off to the side with her friend Jo. Father had his back to her. He was looking forward toward where we were going, not backward toward where we had been. Mother probably couldn’t see me from where she was standing. There were wet tears on her cheeks.
“I didn’t know what to do. I decided to do nothing. I didn’t think she wanted me to know.
“I was sure she did not want Father to know. He didn’t feel tears accomplished anything.
“We took the urn of Tom’s ashes to the Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford. As far as I know, my parents never went back. I never went there, but one day I’ll live there next to Tom.
“My father believed that we had to put Tom’s name out of our house and out of our minds and hearts so that his passing would not ruin our lives. He believed it would keep us from living lives of sadness. ‘Depression is a contagious disease,’ he would say.
“It was so much more terrible because we were not just told not to talk about Tom, but not to think about him. It was to be as if he’d never been part of our family.
“It was to be as if he had never lived. And so it was, I suppose, for everyone except me. It could never be like that for me. He had been a part of our family, and for me, he always would be, not just a part of our family, but a part of me.
“My father had said it, and no one, not even my mother, ever questioned my father’s absolute authority.
“Because no one spoke Tom’s name, I pledged to Tom and to myself that he would live in my heart and mind as long as I lived. I decided I had to live my life for two. It was the only way I could keep my brother alive. I decided I would share my life with my brother. The real date of his death would not be until the day I died.
“Tom had been born on November 8. I took that day as my birthday, in his memory. I discarded the day I was born, May 12. I decided that from then on that my birthday would be November 8, and so it’s been. I told everyone and always wrote November 8. Some people thought I was lying about my birthday so I could be a few months younger.
“The sign for November 8 is Scorpio. When they heard about my November 8 birthday, people said, ‘You’re the perfect Scorpio.’ Well, of course. Why not? I never said a word. Except I was a fake Scorpio. It was an adopted sign. I wasn’t really that strong, but just as well not to tell anyone, and let them think what they wanted to. To tell you the truth, taking Tom’s birthday for my own was comforting.
“Everyone in the world, our world, who knew Tom, felt he couldn’t possibly have committed suicide. There was no reason. No one knew any reason. I don’t know if knowing what happened would have made it easier for any of us. I only knew Tom and I could never do things together again.
“Practicing hanging yourself without killing yourself seemed kind of a silly thing to do, not to mention dangerous, especially if no one was around. But sometimes people do silly things. All of us, at some time or other, do silly things without weighing possible repercussions. I don’t know if knowing any reason would have made any of the pain go away.”
Kate’s story about her brother followed a question George Cukor had asked as we sat in his living room. I was staying in the guest room in his Los Angeles house, and Kate was living in one of the cottages on his property. Kate trusted me because George trusted me, so I seemed part of the house.
“Tell me, my girl,” Cukor had asked her, “who was the most important man in your life? Was it your father? Was it Spencer [Tracy]?”
“No and no,” Kate had answered without hesitating. “Tom. My brother Tom was the most important man in my life. But he lived an incomplete life.
“I admired him so much. I was younger and a girl, but I was a more natural athlete. I think Tom was more intelligent than I was, but that wasn’t what my father valued. He took our intelligence for granted.”
Kate had been “going on,” as George called it, “rhapsodizing about what a great man her father was.” Cukor later commented to me that he never quite agreed with Kate’s “obsessive fascination with her difficult-to-please father,” who appeared to him to have been “rather a cold fish, a better doctor than a father. Just my opinion.”
Cukor believed that Kate had been challenged by her father to succeed and to prove him wrong about her choice of a career as an actress. Cukor said he had rarely, if ever, heard her mention a brother named Tom.
“Tom was not exactly like our father,” Kate continued. “He was a tall, handsome boy, intelligent, and a good athlete, but he lacked our father’s perfect confidence. He didn’t have Father’s competitive spirit. I think Father would have liked to compete with every other man in the world. Tom only wanted to compete against himself.
“I was not able to believe he took his own life, deliberately planning it in advance. I can’t believe he would have left without saying goodbye to me. Now I think that for my father there was not only sadness, but shame—that his eldest son would show that kind of weakness.
“After Tom was gone, I believe my personality changed. I went from being totally open to life, to being closed to life. You might say ingrown, sort of like a toenail can get when your shoe is too small. I didn’t like meeting any new people.
“It was enough for me to have my family, who were used to me, and I was used to them. I remember we had an Irish seamstress who came on Thursdays, and I liked to be with her. She told me interesting stories, and I told her interesting stories. I didn’t have much to tell at that point, but she always seemed fascinated. She had a very good disposition. She taught me how to sew on a button so it would never come off. She made me feel partly Irish.
“‘Just keep your head, Kath,’ I would say to myself, if I found myself caring too much about anyone. In my head, I always called myself Kath. I didn’t want to care for anyone except my family so deeply that I felt such pain. I was able to do that until Spence came along and took my breath away.
“When Tom died, it was so unexpected. Impossible to conceive of. Such a waste. He was gone from my life. He was gone from his life. Tom’s death was never resolved. Worse, his life was never resolved.”
“Have you ever thought about it, George,” Kate said. “After all these years, it’s almost as if you and I have been married.”
“What do you mean, almost?” Cukor retorted.
Cukor lived in an Art Deco house on Cordell Drive in Los Angeles just outside Beverly Hills. The world-famous interiors were designed by a good friend of Cukor’s, William Haines, who had been one of the most famous film actors of his time.
During the silent film era, Haines was a star who ranked almost with Rudolph Valentino. After retiring from films, he continued on in Hollywood as a popular interior decorator, with his initial launching by Joan Crawford and Cukor.
“Billy said to me,” Cukor recalled as we sat in his living room, “‘What ideas do you have, George, about how you would like your house to look?’
“That was simple for me. I said, ‘I want it to look like a Hollywood director’s house.’
“That was all I said. It was all I needed to say. And this is the result.” We were sitting in his suede-walled, oval living room, with its parquet floors and copper fireplace.
Kate had been renting a cottage on Cukor’s property since Spencer Tracy had died. Before that, for the last five years of his life, mostly she had stayed with Tracy, who was renting the cottage. Whenever she felt like it, at least a few times a day, she used Cukor’s kitchen, passing freely through his house. Over the years, she and Cukor had made ten films together, and they were extremely close friends.
Kate left us to go to the kitchen. “Those were Spencer’s clothes she’s wearing—the shirt, the sweater,” Cukor said. “I don’t know about the trousers.”
Kate returned for something and heard what George was saying.
“The trousers, too,” she said. “They’re a bit baggy. I’ve thought of having them taken in, but I never get around to it. I wear them because it makes me feel close to Spence, and I don’t like to waste good things, you know. I bought some of these things for him, and I think they suit me.”
Kate left again. She returned with the report that she had checked the fridge and didn’t find any butter for baking her brownies.
Cukor replied, “I’m sure Margaret [his cook] didn’t leave us unbuttered.” He turned to me and said, “I’m just a tourist in my own kitchen.”
“There’s some butter,” Kate said, “but it’s not in the glass butter dish, and I think it might be salted butter.”
“Kate is the most eccentric person I know,” Cukor said to me. “And the most eccentric thing about her is she thinks she’s regular.”
“I don’t like to use salted butter in my brownies,” she explained. “If I do use it, I have to adjust the proportions. You can always add salt. You can’t take it away.”
“I’m sure you’re safe,” Cukor reassured her. “Margaret is very European, and she always buys unsalted butter.”
“I thought I might bake some brownies we could have for breakfast tomorrow,” Kate said. “If you have some left from yesterday, we could finish them off now.”
“We can’t finish them off now,” Cukor said, “because I’ve already finished them off. I told you not to leave them here. Now, I’ll be wearing those brownies the rest of my life. I think you’re in cahoots with my tailor to help him put his children through college.”
“I’m really desperate for some chocolate, now,” Kate said. “I must have some.”
“The Cordell Drive cupboard is bare,” George said. “If there were any chocolates, I’ve hidden them so well from myself, we’ll never find them.”
“I have some chocolates,” I volunteered. “I’ve just come from Europe, and I have a big box of Teuscher Swiss chocolates I brought for George.”
Cukor made a pouting face. “Are you going to open the chocolates you brought for me? This girl here [indicating Kate] can go through a pound of chocolates at a sitting, even if she’s standing.”
“The box I brought,” I said, “is two kilos, over four pounds.”
“Dark or light? Creams or nuts?” Cukor inquired.
“All right,” Cukor said in a mock huff. “Bring them on.”
I went to the room where I was staying and I took the huge box of chocolates along with a small package in the shape of a Swiss blond paper doll wearing a pretty paper dress over the chocolates back to George and Kate. Kate immediately tore open, and tore is the correct word, the paper covering the box. She opened it, took two, and offered them to George. He looked at them and said, “I want to select my own.”
“So, which ones do you want?” she asked.
He hesitated a moment, then said, “Those,” indicating the two she had selected.
Kate picked up the paper doll package. She held it carefully and turned it around to examine it from all angles. She put it down.
“I never buy fancy boxes,” she said. “You have to pay extra, and I’d rather invest my money in more chocolate. This one is adorable, though. Since you’ve already paid extra for it, are you planning to take the box away with you?” she asked me.
“No. I was just going to leave it for George.”
“George doesn’t play with dolls,” she said, “and I like the flowers she’s holding.” It was a small bouquet of colored paper flowers. A few years later, when I visited her in New York, I saw the paper doll box in her kitchen. The chocolates were long gone, but the box had been given a full life.
Whitney, Cukor’s yellow Labrador, had entered the room, aware of the chocolates, but more interested in Kate. When she rose to leave, he followed her. He had brought his leash with him.
“Whitney likes to walk with her,” George told me. “He runs around the property here all day, but he’s always ready for a walk with Kate.”
Kate left, closely followed by Whitney and his wagging tail. Halfway through the door, she said, “George, do you really think you have enough butter for baking brownies for tomorrow?”
“I’ll have to check with my accountant,” he answered.
After she had gone, Cukor said to me, “You probably noticed the way she softened and changed when she said Spencer’s name. Well, that’s nothing compared to the way it was here when they were together. It was often just the three of us. Sometimes Ruth [Gordon] and Garson [Kanin] were here. Sometimes Joe Mankiewicz and Judy Garland, too. It was all very private, Kate giggling like a schoolgirl, simpering, blushing girlishly whenever Spencer just looked at her.
“A great deal of their romance was conducted here. I have a very romantic house. Their relationship was subtle and neither one would have committed any indiscretion or embarrassed anyone.
“But there is no doubt that with Spencer, our girl was a girl, not a woman. He brought out a side, an aspect of Kate that she enjoyed having brought out. That simple.
“She learned to cook the best steak anyone ever made. Steak was Spencer’s favorite meal.
“There are some who would lean toward analysis. Kate would not have liked that. It’s not my cup of tea. They might have said that she had missed that aspect of her girlhood and was enjoying it late. Or she had enjoyed her teenage years so much, her college days, that she was trying to relive the past. That wasn’t so. I know because she told me she wasn’t very happy then.
“She was just enjoying herself in a part for which life didn’t seem to have cast her, but which she thoroughly enjoyed.
“She was recapturing the present.”
© 2010 Charlotte Chandler
Katharine Hepburn, A Personal Biography
I Know Where I'm Going
Katharine Hepburn, A Personal Biography
• A Hollywood icon unveiled: Notoriously guarded, Katharine Hepburn talks candidly with Chandler about her marriage, her long affair with Spencer Tracy, co-stars and movies, and the seminal event in her life—the suicide of her brother, whom she adored, when they were both in their teens. With her unprecedented access to Hepburn, Chandler has written a biography completely different from all others, including Hepburn’s own guarded book about herself. .
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