Katharine Hepburn would be turning 110 today, were the Oscar-winning icon still alive. Rumors about her sexuality persisted throughout Hepburn’s life and, while we can’t make a definitive statement, even she’d admit she had little use for gender norms.
From her intimate friendships women to her physicality and forthrightness—even her film choices and wardrobe—Kate was a queer icon before the term was even coined. In honor of her birthday, we celebrate one of Hollywood’s gayest It girls.
The Bryn Mawr yearsBryn Mawr Library
Hepburn took up acting at the all-girl’s college in 1927, when she was cast in the male role of Oliver in The Truth About Blayds. To butch up for the part, she cut her hair with fingernail scissors. After receiving a review that called her “an engaging boy, roguish and merry,” she put on a pair of white trousers and a blazer and took gal pal (and rumored lover) Alice Palache out on the town. The duo were caught on their way home, and warned not to not leave campus again.
“The Warrior’s Husband”
This 1932 play was another early gender-bending role for Hepburn, who played Amazon champion Antiope in a world where women were the fighters and men stayed home and took care of the children.
Friends remember her loving the part—and the armor she got to wear.
In her second film, directed by out lesbian filmmaker Dorothy Arzner, Hepburn played a female aviator. Lady Cynthia Darrington has never been in love before and her on-screen romance with a man doesn’t have a happy ending—a recurring motif in Hepburn’s roles.
The ladiesBud Seelig/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
Hepburn was linked early on to socialite Laura Harding, though the American Express heiress was often referred to as her “friend” or “secretary.” It was the first of many intimate relationships with other women, including Nancy Hamilton, her understudy in The Warrior’s Husband; artist Frances Rich, who sculpted a bust of Hepburn, and Phyllis Wilbourn, her “companion,” of more than 30 years. (Hepburn even jokingly referred to Wilbourn as “My Alice B. Toklas.”
Whether these were lesbian relationships as we understand today is hard to pin down: “’Lesbian’ was, for Hepburn, a specific term to describe a very butch woman, not her type at all,” wrote Catherine Shroad in Telegraph.RKO Radio Pictures/Getty Images
Hepburn just wasn’t a huge fan of sex, with men or women. “The chasteness of almost all her relationships meant she didn’t have to lie too much about them,” adds Shroad.
She was only married once, at age 21 to businessman Ludlow Ogden Smith, but split when she went to Hollywood four years later. Hepburn never remarried—insisting “I liked the idea of being my own single self”—and never had any children. “I would have been a terrible mother,” she told biographer A. Scott Berg, “because I’m basically a very selfish human being.”
“Little Women”Little Women/RKO Pictures/Courtesy of Getty Images
Jo March is one of American literature’s earliest tomboys, so when Hepburn played the role in 1933, it was inevitable she’d help make the character a lesbian icon. Who else could so convincingly deliver these lines about a short haircut: “Well it’s boyish, becoming and easy to maintain… If wearing hair up means becoming a lady, I’ll wear it down until I’m 100 years old.”
“Sylvia Scarlett”AFP/AFP/Getty Images
In 1935, Hepburn convincingly crossdressed as a con artist’s daughter pretending to be a boy to escape the law in this George Cukor adventure-comedy. She even engaged in a same-sex kiss with a flirtatious maid who thinks she’s an eligible bachelor. The homoeroticism continue as co-stars Brian Aherne and Cary Grant also find themselves strangely attracted to “Sylvester.”
While Sylvia Scarlett was a box office dud—Cukor and Hepburn reportedly begged producers to shelve the picture if they agreed to make their next film for free—one reviewer called Hepburn “the handsomest boy of the season.”
She wore the pantsKeystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images
Even today, someone like Ellen DeGeneres eschewing dresses garners notice. In the 1930s, when Hepburn did it, it was downright revolutionary. “I put on pants 50 years ago and declared a sort of middle road,” she told Barbara Walters in a 1981 interview. “I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man. I’ve just done what I damn well wanted.”
“She never fit into conventional womanhood,” biographer William Mann told OutSmart. “And certainly because of her body, she didn’t live as a man. So she kind of did live this middle road.”
While never quiet a hard butch, Hepburn also embraced an athleticism usually reserved for men, enjoying tennis, shooting, diving and horseback riding. Golf was a particular passion: She took daily lessons and even reached the semi-finals of the Connecticut Young Women’s Golf Championship.Hulton Archive/Getty Images
“Stage Door”RKO Radio Pictures/Getty Images
Hepburn and Ginger Rogers played aspiring actresses who live together in a boarding house in this 1937 film, adapted from the play by Edna Ferber (herself something of a queer icon).
The two quarrel incessantly and make up over and over—exhibiting a sexual tension noticeable to anyone who didn’t feel the need to ignore it.
“The Philadelphia Story”Silver Screen Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Not only was this 1940 rom-com Hepburn’s big comeback after several flops, she took charge from the start—buying the rights for the stage play (which she starred in) to bring it to Hollywood. The Philadelphia Story re-paired Hepburn with gay director George Cukor and bisexual movie star Cary Grant.
Hepburn also took the reins when it came to wardrobe: She ignored male producers’ demands she wear a dress in the opening scene, opting to wear pants instead.Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Getty Images
Her frienship with George CukorSilver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Known widely in Hollywood as a “woman’s director” and a gay man, Cukor was one of Hepburn’s closest friends, and helmed some of her biggest hits.
“He was the kind of man she adored,” said Mann. “He was smart. He was witty. He threw great parties. He respected the complexity of her own life without ever needing to put a definition on her. And that’s what she needed. She wasn’t like Dietrich or someone who you could throw out the word ’lesbian’ and they’d love it, the camp of it. Cukor accepted who she was.”
“The Millionairess”Keystone/Getty Images
Hepburn starred in the 1952 West End production of George Bernard Shaw’s play as Epifania, yet another single woman who can’t find the right man. (Go figure.)
The lesbian Hollwyood tell-all The Sewing Circle described Hepburn in The Millionairess as “butch”: “In slacks, turtlenecks, and casual jackets, [she] told chat-show audiences in clipped humorous and disdainful pronouncements what she thought of women’s lib, marriage, her need for privacy and increasing fear of everything.”
“Suddenly Last Summer”Suddenly Last Summer/Columbia Pictures
A Tennessee Williams play adapted by Gore Vidal starring Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and closeted actor Montgomery Clift. Does it get any gayer than this?
It does, actually: Hepburn played Violet Venable, a socialite who “procures” young men for her gay son, Sebastian. (Taylor, as cousin Catherine, picks up the slack when Violet gets too long in the tooth.)Suddenly Last Summer/Columbia Pictures
Released in 1959, Summer never overtly mentions homosexuality directly, but the Production Code Administration gave filmmakers a “special dispensation” to depict Sebastian as a predatory gay.
The Legion of Decency concluded, “Since the film illustrates the horrors of such a lifestyle, it can be considered moral in theme even though it deals with sexual perversion.”
Hepburn and TracyAFP PHOTO/HO/GETTY IMAGES
Yes, even one of Hollywood’s most cited romances had a queer tinge. To hear Larry Kramer tell it, the two icons were the ultimate Hollywood beards.
“Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were both gay,” he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015. “They were publicly paired together by the studio. Everyone in Hollywood knows this is true.”