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Katherine Hepburn Storms Hollywood

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Originally published December 13, 1941.

When David O. Selznick, RKO’s chief of production, and George Cukor, director of A Bill of Divorcement, first approached a then-unknown Katharine Hepburn to appear in the film, they offered her $500 a week. Kate replied coolly that she “would prefer $1,500.”

At the end of two weeks, Selznick had come up to $1,250 a week. Kate asked her family whether they thought she should trim her sails a bit. Her mother said she’d be insane not to. Her father said she shouldn’t. So she told casting agent Leland Hayward, “I said $1,500 a week.” Selznick told Hayward, “I like her, but she’s got no right to demand $1,500. I won’t meet any such figure. That’s final!” Hayward knew that Selznick meant what he said. But by this time he also knew Kate. “She’ll never give in,” he told Selznick, “but look here: In the theater she’s used to rehearsing free, and she’s green. I’ll tell her you’ll meet the $1,500 figure for four weeks, but that she’ll have to give you a rehearsal week free. That’s the equivalent of five weeks at $1,200.” Selznick said at once, “I’ll do it.”

Today both he and Kate regard the deal as the triumph of their lives. Selz­nick got a leading woman for $6,000. Kate set a per-week rate that was not far from the very top of the payroll. And neither had given in.

When she arrived in California, Hayward and his partner, Myron Selz­nick, met her train at Pasadena. They will never forget the sight. One of Kate’s eyes was swollen shut from an injury she’d suffered on the ride. The other was inflamed sympathetically. Her freckles seemed as big as potato chips. She was wearing a bizarre blue suit and a pancake straw hat that in 1941 might be called “stylishly insane” but in 1932 was merely insane.

“My God,” Selznick whispered to Hayward. “Did we stick David $1,500 for that?

The agents delivered her to David Selznick in silence and disappeared. Selznick, too, took a single look, then stepped into the next office and phoned Cukor. “Your star is here, George. I’ll send her down.”

Cukor had a sheaf of dress designs spread out. Still “busy being superior,” Kate leafed through them contemptuously. Her only comment was, “Not quite the sort of thing a well-bred English girl would wear, I’m afraid.”

“No?” said Cukor. “And what do you think of what you’re wearing now?”

“I think it’s very smart,” she said.

“Well, I think it stinks,” he retorted.

Cukor has described Kate’s mood, during her first Hollywood phase, as “sub-collegiate idiotic.” The incident of the dress designs was his first clue.

In her first meeting with RKO’s press department, she announced, “Publicity? Not for me — none at all!” She wanted to wait until she knew whether she deserved it, and she remembered her father’s creed: “Do your work. Keep out of the papers. Your private life’s your own.”

Having alienated the RKO press department before noon on her first day, she looked around for more trouble. She found it quickly. A studio photographer had taken some stills of her with co-stars John Barrymore and Billie Burke. An RKO official sent prints of the pictures for the three stars to autograph as souvenirs for visitors. Kate told Cukor haughtily, “I never give autographs.”

Cukor handed the stills back to the messenger. Then he turned to Kate. “You! Do you really think anyone would want your autograph alongside Barrymore’s and Miss Burke’s? Those two are actors! If you study for 25 years, maybe your signature will be worthy to go with theirs.”

An RKO offical sent prints for the three stars to autograph. Kate told Cukor haughtily, “I never give autographs.”

That hit home. Afterward, Kate was humble toward acting. Her supercilious attitude toward Hollywood fell away. She flung herself into the 10-hour-a-day schedule with all her intensity. From the first moment she appeared on screen, Cukor saw in her something fine, and he maneuvered with skill and patience to evoke it.

Barrymore helped her develop her talent further. They also developed a friendly repertoire. One day he stared at her until she squirmed.

“What’s that for?” she asked.

“Isn’t it the customary thing to stare at beautiful young girls?”

Kate wouldn’t accept the explanation.

“Well,” said Barrymore, “I was just thinking how much you reminded me of my second wife.”

Kate smiled.

“Or was it my third?”

To his delight, Kate swore right back at him.

Barrymore says, “I remember every hour of working with her. … Miss Hepburn’s talent was so clearly perceptible, and she was so intelligent in learning, that working with her was all pleasure. But Lord, she was innocent!”

Without ever having seen the picture, she and her husband sailed for Europe. They were still there when A Bill of Divorcement was released. It was an instant success.

RKO’s urgent cables finally caught up with her in Vienna. They wanted her to return at once. Kate agreed and sailed for home. Reporters swarmed aboard her ship at Quarantine. Kate’s back went up at once. Even more unfortunate was the interview that RKO forced her to give a group of fan-magazine writers. She might better have kept silent, but “they asked a lot of asinine questions, so I gave them asinine answers.”

“Are you married?” they asked.

“I don’t remember,” she said.

“Have you any children?”

“Yes, two white and three colored.”

“How does it feel to be a socialite in Hollywood?”

That was the last straw. White with fury, she strode from the room.

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