Katharine Hepburn and Howard Hughes: “Dedicated Loners”

Cary Grant and Howard Hughes were best friends. Cary Grant also, in the early 30s, had become very good friends with Katharine Hepburn. Hepburn, at that point, hard as it is to believe, was finding it difficult to get work in Hollywood, despite her two back-to-back Oscars. She had then appeared in 4 flops in a row, she couldn’t get her own projects off the ground, she was turning down bad projects, and so she got a reputation for being difficult.

Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn met when they made Sylvia Scarlett together (a very odd and unforgettable little film). It was the film which launched Cary Grant’s real career. He didn’t become a star because of it, but for the first time, it was apparent that he wasn’t just any old leading man. But Hepburn, by her own admission, felt completely LOST during the filming of that movie. She didn’t think she was funny, she didn’t think she was any good … and basically she felt like she had lost her grip on her own enormous success. In a way, she had.

And at this kind of fragile moment in her life, she met Howard Hughes, the boy billionaire who had come to Hollywood with his inherited fortune, to become an independent film producer.

Cary Grant and Howard Hughes became fast friends. And Grant had it in his head that Howard Hughes and Kate Hepburn would be really good together. Hughes was known as a womanizer, he hung out with every floozy starlet in town (making some of them big stars, by the way, like Harlow). But for whatever reason, Grant’s sense was that the boyish wild-man millionaire and the boyish hard-to-pin-down actress would make a good match.

Cary Grant invited Hughes to come to the location shoot of Sylvia Scarlett, to meet Hepburn, see what he thought of her. Cary Grant did NOT inform Katharine Hepburn of his nefarious love-match plans. Howard Hughes basically landed his plane on the beach, and strolled over to join the cast and crew for lunch. This, in those early days of flying, made a huge sensation. Hepburn, nobody’s fool, knew that Grant was behind the stunt and said she wouldn’t speak to him for the rest of the day, and that she kept throwing him “black looks”. Like: don’t you try to set me up! However, Grant’s sense of the appropriate-ness of this match ended up being spot-on.

They were together for a couple of years, they lived together, they were on the cover of every movie magazine … quite a strange thing for, basically, two world-famous people who HATED crowds. The two of them were very very similiar, in that way. They both yearned to be famous, and yet they both found the fame itself to be uncomfortable. Hepburn hated putting on a dress and schmoozing in Hollywood, she hated being “seen”. She would rather host her own small dinner parties, or go play golf. Howard Hughes found the frenzy of stardom highly frightening, and had a hermit sensibility anyway (despite all of his shenanigans) – and so he and Hepburn were, in a funny way, made for each other. To the end of her life, Katharine Hepburn never had a bad word to say about Howard Hughes. She maintained her fondness for him, and also for what he gave her. He taught her how to fly. He didn’t have a desire to change her, or put her in a skirt, or have her be different than what she was. For whatever reason, they found each other supremely relaxing.

Her chapter on her love affair with Howard Hughes in her autobiography Me : Stories of My Life is very moving, very interesting. She could relax with him, have fun with him, be herself. She also could hide from the world. They would go out on his yacht, and have total privacy. She didn’t have to conform to someone else’s ideas of womanhood … she was, in her own way, as much of a daredevil as he was.

Later, though, after the break-up, she told Cary Grant that she and Hughes were both “dedicated loners” – and could two dedicated loners ever make it together as a couple?

She decided to move back East, give up on Hollywood, go back on the stage. (The eventual result? Philadelphia Story. Ahem. Good move, Kate, good feckin’ move.)

Hughes wanted to stay in Hollywood.

And so they parted ways. This was in 1937, I believe. The next year, 1938, came the hurricane. The hurricane of (of course) 1938 – in which Katharine Hepburn’s family home in Connecticut literally floated away, as the entire family watched from the next house over, on higher ground. Their ancestral home floated away – leaving only a couple bricks from the foundation, and a random claw-footed bathtub. Everything gone. The Hepburn family, destroyed, started to re-build, to try to recover. There was nothing left. They built on the same spot, only the house was raised up by three feet or something like that.

Anyway … when Howard Hughes heard of what had happened to Kate, and her family, he had a plane deliver a supply of bottled water, since nobody’s water worked in the area, post-hurricane … and he kept the entire area in full supply until everyone was back up and running again.

Strangely moving, huh…A kind gesture.

Hepburn wrote in her autobiography that it was then that she knew that the relationship was really over. That there was no more love, just water. And yet – that water lasted. She never had a bad word to say about the guy. Ever.

Two class acts there.

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7 Responses to Katharine Hepburn and Howard Hughes: “Dedicated Loners”

  1. peteb says:

    and it pleases us that it pleases you to do so, Sheila.

    and the water was definitely a kind, and practical, gesture..

    I had forgotten that Cary Grant introduced the two of them, and I seem to remember, possibly fictional, scenes in one biopic or other of Hughes and Hepburn meeting, sailing and talking about who Hughes was currently seeing.. although I don’t know where that fitted into the time-scale of their relationship.

  2. red says:

    Cary Grant also introduced Rosalind Russell to the man she eventually would marry.

    Russell sent a note to Grant from her honeymoon, calling him a “black-eyed Cupid”.

  3. peteb says:

    That seems a particularly apt description of Mr Grant. Although, perhaps, a little too wistful for a note from her honeymoon..

  4. Stevie says:

    Oh Red, are you a Roz Russell fan? I had forgotten that Cary Grant introduced Roz to Freddie Brisson (sp?), who ended up quite the big shot producer. Freddie was coming back from WWII on the Queen Mary with a boatful of GIs and the only movie playing onboard was The Women. He thought, “Who’s that loud-mouthed dame?” Finally he went to see the movie, and fell in love. When he got to Hollywood to look up his friend Cary Grant, Grant just happened to be working on His Girl Friday at the time, so Freddie asked Cary to introduce him.

    They used to call Freddie the Lizard of Roz because his specialty was obtaining rights to successful Broadway plays to be made into movies starring you-know-who. Was Roz the best choice to appear in Gypsy? Who knows? I still love that damned movie. Maybe her singing and dancing were a little sub-par for a big splashy musical, but her acting was aces. Karl Malden was fabulous in that movie, too.

    You’ve probably read Roz’s autobiography, Life is a Banquet – it’s marvelous and chock full of delightfully funny stories from her childhood and dish from Hollywood. For example, she hired a comedy writer herself to beef up the script of His Girl Friday. When Sammy Cohn was giving her shite for not accepting a part, he told her, “You didn’t go wrong when I put you in His Girl Friday!” And Roz called for the script, then gave Cohn a page-by-page reading of all the jokes that were in the movie that weren’t in the script. Cohn thought a moment, then said, “Do you have that guy’s number?”

    There’s even a chapter about Sinatra that almost (but not quite) persuades me not to hate him.

    Roz Russell, a truly great GREAT.

  5. David says:

    Was Katherine Hepburn related to Audrey Hepburn?
    If so, how were they related?

    Many Thanks

  6. T Dewey says:

    Great descritpion of Hughes & Hepburn. One small correction: Hepburn did not win back-to back Oscars until the 1960s. She won her first for Morning Glory in 1934. She didn’t win again until 1968 for “Dinner” and again in 69 for “Lion”.


  7. red says:

    t dewey: Thanks for the catch! You’re right … she had back to back NOMINATIONS in the 1930s, but she won for Morning Glory.