Famous Replacement Child – Katharine Hepburn

Katherine Hepburn was born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1907, the second of six children. Her father was a successful urologist; her mother a feminist and leading supporter of women’s rights. Kate’s father encouraged independence, competitiveness, and athleticism in his children. Kate was a tomboy, sporting short hair like a boy and referring to herself as “Jimmy.” She took a keen interest in golf and swimming, but early on was also drawn to the movies and put on plays for family and neighbors.

Katharine Hepburn

In 1921, while visiting family friends in New York City, Kate walked into the attic room where her fifteen- year-old brother, Tom had been sleeping. She found him hanging from a makeshift noose from one of the ceiling beams. She was thirteen and extremely close to Tom. It was she who cut his body loose and ran for help— but it was already too late.

At that time suicide was a stigma. Tom’s death was one in a series of suicides in the family, including Kate’s maternal grandfather, as well as one of her father’s brothers. Kate’s father adamantly denied that Tom’s death was a suicide, rather the result of a “parlor trick gone wrong.”

Just as these tragedies were never spoken of within the family, there was no mourning for Tom. In fact, the family never mentioned his name thereafter. In large part this was due to the fact that Kate’s father thought of depression as a “contagious disease” and by denying its existence he sought to banish it from their lives.

But the loss of her brother instantly and completely changed Kate’s life. She had adored and idolized her brother—he was her best friend and confidant. After Tom’s death Kate grew withdrawn and moody and it was decided that she should be home-schooled by tutors.

She coped with this devastating loss by keeping Tom alive within herself, even taking on his birthday, November 8 (while her date of birth was actually May 12). She vowed to herself and her deceased brother that he would live with her always; she would live a life for two. And along the lines of sharing birthdays, she stated that “the real date of his death would not be until the day I died.”

Kate went on to attend Bryn Mawr. It was during that time that she decided to become and actress and appeared in many school productions. Her illustrious career needs no discussion. The long-standing relationship with Spencer Tracy may have served both of them well. Tracy was often depressed, a sometime alcoholic, whom Kate referred to as “tortured.” She was there to help him, to make his life easier; perhaps to make up in part for what she could not do for her beloved Tom. Tracy helped Kate be a girl again—something she had been robbed of from the day Tom died.

Kate died in 2003 at the age of 96. It’s said that just before her death she had a dream about the day Tom died. Everything played out as it had on that fateful day—until Tom smiled at her. He loosened the noose around his neck and told her that he had figured out what he had done wrong on that day so long ago.

This month’s profile is excerpted with permission from Replacement Children: The Unconscious Script, by Rita Battat and Dr. Abigail Brenner.

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