They were both unapologetically liberal Yankee aristocrats who used their cigarettes like theatrical props and delivered their crisp, taut opinions in the now-vanished “Mid-Atlantic accent,” that American upper-class tone popularly called “Locust Valley Lockjaw.” They were even distantly related through a common ancestor on The Mayflower. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt met actor Katharine Hepburn on September 22, 1940, however, there was more commonality than met the eye.
Katharine Hepburn had come to the Val-Kill Cottage of Eleanor Roosevelt, the First Lady’s own home, apart from the one she shared in the more famous Hyde Park estate of her husband and his mother. She’d been invited, along with other actors, writers, radio personalities and musicians to help plan a radio show special on behalf of FDR’s 1940 presidential election. As Eleanor Roosevelt had declared at that summer’s National Democratic Convention, however, it was “no ordinary time.” Europe was already enflamed with the march of the Third Reich, as Germany’s dictator Adolph Hitler became conquering one European nation after another, and the United States was manufacturing munitions for its ally England, and was just fourteen months away from joining England and France as the Allied Forces combating Hitler’s alliance of Axis forces.
Yet Roosevelt was not at all certain he would be President for much longer, as he neared the end of his two terms, the traditional limit of presidential tenure. Having been elected in 1932 and 1936, his run in 1940 shattered all tradition as he reached for an unprecedented third term. Even many of his supporters found it audacious at best; Republicans declared that he was creating an American version of Hitler’s dictatorship by violating the unwritten rule of Presidential incumbency. His election in 1940, however, revived the popularity of F.D.R. and he led the nation into World War II with this renewal of confidence, forthrightness and even a tough of arrogance. He went on to win a fourth term, elected yet again in 1944, though he only lived less than three months after his Inauguration for that term, in 1945.
In that very same period, Katharine Hepburn was enjoying her revival.
Born in 1907, a rabid feminist, unconventional in turning her back on marriage and famously wearing pants instead of skirts and dresses, she was utterly “political” in her outlook on life, without ever being a political party activist. Sexually-liberated, she maintained a 26-year love affair with actor Spencer Tracey, who remained married to his wife. Daughter of a Connecticut blueblood activist for women’s suffrage and birth-control rights and a urologist father who led a national awareness campaign to combat venereal diseases, she pursued acting after earning a 1928 degree in history and philosophy at Bryn Mawr, and enjoyed a successful Broadway career.
Making her first movie the same year F.D.R. won his first presidential election, she starred in 1932’s A Bill of Divorcement, and won the Academy award for her third film Morning Glory. Not unlike the harsh criticism and attacks F.D.R. was then encountering in his second term, she starred in a series of mid-to-late 30s clunkers and found herself declared “box-office poison,” Refusing to grant interviews to the press or sign autographs for the public, she also earned the nickname “Katharine of Arrogance.” Fleeing to Broadway where she was acclaimed in The Philadelphia Story, she bought the film rights and sold them to MGM on the condition that she play the lead. Drawing on her own upper-class life to depict the flighty society debutante Tracey Lord, she made it her own and earned a third Oscar nomination.
Although she supported F.D.R. in his fourth presidential race, Katharine Hepburn was outspoken in her opposition to the successor upon his death, Harry Truman. During Truman’s 1948 presidential candidacy, she became a rabid advocate for Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace, linking to him her vehemence against censorship. Suggestions of her Hollywood “un-American activities” resulted from her support of the pro-labor Conference of Studio Unions and also led to her contentious relationship with Screen Actors Guild president Ronald Reagan. Although she dismissed questions about her politics by declaring, “I always just say be on the affirmative and liberal side,” she refused to accept the Kennedy Center Honor during Reagan’s Administration as President.
Katharine Hepburn’s recollection of meeting Franklin Roosevelt is oddly scant, and more telling perhaps about her. Beneath her aristocratic confidence, she held the dark secret of having been the one who discovered her brother had hung himself. Abiding to that era’s stigma of humiliation about suicide by refusing to acknowledge the trauma, she developed a hard, often inscrutable public persona which was resistant to anything but superficial inquiry about her life.
It made Katharine Hepburn more like Franklin D. Roosevelt in a way neither could know.
Although his contracting polio couldn’t be hidden, F.D.R. refused to acknowledge his resulting disability except to those he relied on to help him stand and hold his elbows so he could move his useless legs, heavy with metal braces to simulate a brief few seconds that gave the appearance of walking. His disability, however, bore in the President some deep-set phobias, like being in rooms with locked doors and anything related to fire.
By the time Hepburn published her memoir Me in 1991, the public had finally learned the full extent to which Roosevelt had been left disabled by polio and his effort to create the grand deception that he was able to still somehow walk. Hepburn implied how his naturally powerful charisma seemed to surge into a calculated persona of independent strength: “I was told that President Roosevelt would be in in a minute. He came in. I couldn’t tell you for the life of me if he was or was not in wheelchair. I think that he was on crutches and had an aide with him — who left the minute we were settled. No matter. There he was! That powerful and fascinating personality!”
- Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Those Who Hated Him (usnews.com)
- See Katharine Hepburn Through the Years (bellasugar.com)
- Katharine Hepburn On Pants And Skirts (the1955hudson.com)