A Sea Change
From the window of her New York town house, Kath Hepburn, the new queen of Hollywood, looked up and down the quiet, early morning street. It seemed that she was actually going to be spared the reporters who usually lurked beyond the iron railing in front of her brownstone. Her getaway would be fast and clean.
At twenty-six, red-haired, freckle-faced Kath was the star she’d always dreamed of becoming. It was the morning of March 17, 1934. Her agent, Leland Hayward, had just called to announce that she’d won the Academy Award for Morning Glory. But the news would not alter Kath’s travel plans—nor her mood. She and her friend Suzanne were getting out of town—as far away from show business as they could.
Later, as the two women snaked through the Fifth Avenue traffic, Kath couldn’t have missed the crowds gathering for the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade—a temporary break from the grim tidings of hard times. Of course, Kath herself had never suffered many of the hardships faced by those less fortunate during the Depression. Her chief concern during the previous years had been, as ever, her career. Fired by Broadway managers, waiting in the wings for opportunities that never arose, Kath nevertheless had remained convinced that fame was her due.
She was right. Marching into Hollywood like a determined conqueror, she’d scored a smash in her very first picture, A Bill of Divorcement. The acclaim was of the sort she lived for, ever since she’d tottered out onto a makeshift stage as a twelve-year-old Beast to her best friend Ali Barbour’s Beauty. From that moment on, Katharine Hepburn’s dream had been to be famous. For something. For anything.
Now she was. And she was running away.
The problem was: Fame wasn’t supposed to be like these past twenty months. It shouldn’t be something to escape. It was supposed to be glamorous, exciting, exhilarating. Stardom to Kath was Leatrice Joy, beaming serenely from the screen of the State Theatre in Hartford, dazzling the wide-eyed girl. But Kath’s fame had turned out to be much more complicated than that. The night before had brought her an Oscar, but the month before, the critics had been shouting for her head, sniggering at her ignoble Broadway flop in the play The Lake. To make matters worse, her new picture, Spitfire, was so abysmal that many were calling her a fraud. The rejections hurt. Kath didn’t understand why her ambition hit people the wrong way; surely it was the kind of desire all Americans were raised to value.
But her failures had simply provided ammunition to those who had been waiting to shoot her down, and they were legion. From the start, Hepburn had been a troublesome star who’d wanted everything on her terms. Paying dues, Kath seemed to imply, was for lesser mortals. Her method for attracting publicity wasn’t to show up at premieres with a handsome leading man on her arm, but rather to walk around town with a real live gibbon clinging to her neck. “The stormy petrel of the RKO studios,” Vanity Fair called her, “subject for raging controversy on two continents.” In 1934, people either loved Katharine Hepburn or despised her.
Burning up the wires from the West Coast in the days before the Oscars, Leland Hayward tried to tell her how she could fix things, what she needed to do and say to remain on top. Achieving fame had been the easy part, Kath realized; holding on to it was a whole other experience, one she couldn’t have imagined when she first set her sights on Hollywood. As she listened to what Leland was suggesting, she balked. Was it any wonder she and Suzanne were heading for France? Was it any wonder she was just about ready to call it quits?
So determined she had been, so ambitious. And now she was considering turning her back on it all. Had her father been right? He’d called her a show-off that day six years ago when she’d announced she was becoming an actress. For such conceit he’d slapped her across the face. But nothing could deter her from following her dream.
“There she is!”
By the time Kath stepped out of the car onto the pier, the horns of the French liner Paris were wailing mournfully behind her. And, of course, the reporters had caught up to her. Had she really thought she’d eluded them? Bowler-hatted sharks from the tabloids surged forward, their boxy handheld cameras already positioned at their eyes.
“Miss Hepburn,” Suzanne echoed, “has no comments.”
“Not even a ‘thank you’ for the award?”
“Nothing,” Suzanne told them.
Depressed and confused, Kath was oblivious to appearing ungrateful. All she wanted to do was get out of the city. Despite the warm day, she wore a wool hat, pulling it down almost to her eyes. Scampering around to the lower level of the pier, she lost herself among the gray coats and brown faces, making her way onto the ship via the third-class gangplank.
The thirty-five-thousand-ton Paris was less the floating Versailles of earlier French liners and more a modern objet d’art, with art nouveau staterooms and art deco fluting along its grand marble staircases. Launched in 1921, the largest vessel ever built in France, the Paris boasted private telephones in many cabins and in the anterooms first-class passengers used to receive visitors. Gone were the old-fashioned round portholes, replaced with square, velvet-curtained windows that looked out onto wooden decks polished to a high gloss. Marlene Dietrich’s daughter Maria Riva, soon to board the ship herself, would remember it “sparkling like a bottle of French perfume.”
Such heady fragrance, however, had no effect on Katharine Hepburn. Hurrying to her chintz-decorated stateroom, she left Suzanne to deal with the press.
“We will be abroad for four or five weeks,” Suzanne announced as she walked down the hall, pursued by a phalanx of reporters.
“Where will you be going?”
“Paris, the Riviera.”
“Why the secrecy? Why won’t Miss Hepburn talk to us?”
Suzanne just slipped inside the stateroom, shutting the door quickly behind her. There was nothing more to say.
Huddled inside, sitting cross-legged on the bed, Kath would have been surprised had it ended there. Certainly she expected the reporters to once again bang upon the door, and they did. This was the price of fame. She’d learned that much in the past twenty months.
Impatiently, Suzanne opened the door once more. “I said that would be all!”
“And who are you?” a newsman demanded.
“My name is Suzanne Steell.” She didn’t spell her last name for them; in their reports, they’d quite naturally get it wrong, writing it as Steel or Steele, inadvertently setting up a mystery that would take more than seventy years to unravel. “I am an old friend of Miss Hepburn’s, and she has nothing more to say.” Then she firmly closed the door.
Even in her fugue, Kath may have smiled at the term old friend, so bold-faced was Suzanne’s exaggeration. They’d known each other no more than three months, though it’s possible they had met casually at some point earlier. Suzanne had attended New York’s prestigious Spence School, and Kath’s best friend, the heiress Laura Harding, counted many Spence graduates among her acquaintances. But the bond that connected Kath and Suzanne had been forged only recently. It had been Suzanne—and Suzanne alone, Kath felt—who’d stood by her as The Lake died a slow, painful, and very public death.
In the bleak days after the play’s closing, Kath had taken refuge with Suzanne. Tall and full-figured, five years older than her movie-star friend, Suzanne possessed the kind of ingrained self-confidence Kath always admired. Suzanne suffered no fool gladly, from cabdrivers to theater critics. She issued orders with all the imperiousness of an opera diva—a style learned, in fact, at the elbow of Madame Maria Jeritza, her former mentor and the famed prima donna of the Metropolitan Opera. As she often did when in retreat, Kath simply folded herself into her friend’s embrace and let her lead the way.
Outside their stateroom door, the reporters kept up their hammering, but time was short: the ship was scheduled to sail at noon. Eventually the shouting died down, the whistles blew, and the Paris, slow and steady, began its inexorable slide down the Hudson River.
It would be the last transatlantic voyage that the young woman called Kath ever took.
Of course, Katharine Hepburn—Kate—would make the journey many more times. But on this St. Patrick’s Day in 1934 she was leaving in a sad, disappointed, and disoriented state. When she returned, she’d be a very different person.
As recalled by friends, and documented by references in her own letters, this trip marked the first major turning point in Hepburn’s career. She had scaled the heights—only to discover the enormous, unexpected costs of all that she had so desired. Crestfallen and deeply hurt, she had wired George Cukor, her friend and director: “Don’t expect me back. You’ll have to find another Red”—a reference to her hair, not her political leanings.
Her friend Max Showalter called this period “the most difficult time of her whole career.” That description echoed the sentiment of Worthington Miner, director of The Lake, who remembered Hepburn as “totally demoralized” by the experience. In fact, the play’s failure and the brutish behavior of its producer, Jed Harris, would leave an impression on Kath that would remain the rest of her life.
“If there was a moment that her Hollywood career might have ended,” reflected Showalter, “it was [at this point]. There was tremendous pressure on her, and she hadn’t learned how to survive quite yet.”
If Leland Hayward had thought the news of her win from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences might lift her spirits, he was wrong. Kath’s wounds from The Lake were still too raw, and the drubbing Spitfire was taking only made things worse. Back on the Coast, the Los Angeles Times critic Edwin Schallert seemed to be gunning for her. “Katharine Hepburn—ha, ha, ha!” Schallert wrote, gloating over the failure of Spitfire. “Whoever said she was a box office draw? In Little Women, yes—but then there were three other girls.”
She had never taken criticism very well. As a youngster, she’d climb a tree to sulk after being scolded by her father. Much later, she’d pretend reviews didn’t bother her. She’d joke, in fact, that the critics weren’t hard enough on her. But inside she despised them, those beasts with their poison pens: she hated to be called less than great. That fact never changed, but in 1934 she hadn’t yet learned the art of deflection. Her heart was still strapped to her shirtsleeve. She took things very personally.
“In this courier’s opinion,” Brooks Atkinson, influential critic of the New York Times, had written after the New York premiere of The Lake, “Miss Hepburn is not a full-fledged dramatic actress yet . . . [S]he has not yet developed the flexibility of first-rate acting and her voice is a rather strident instrument.”
Of course, it was Dorothy Parker’s smug little quip (that Hepburn “ran the gamut of emotions from A to B”) that forever sealed the historical verdict against The Lake. In truth, not all the reviews were bad—some were quite approving—but Hepburn herself would fuel the legend of The Lake’s disaster, because that’s how she saw it at the time: the world had turned against her. No matter that she had just won the Oscar. What counted was the way the story got spun, and the tale being told in the first few months of 1934 was that Hepburn had flopped on Broadway. One magazine headlined its story: how haughty hepburn went down in flames. Wounded, she followed her instincts, which told her to run away, to go climb a tree.
“What Susan always told me,” said the costume designer Miles White, using Suzanne Steell’s real name, “was that she and Kate Hepburn were escaping from Hollywood by going to Europe. Hepburn thought her career was over. She was devastated.”
In 1934, Katharine Hepburn was not yet the formidable personage of our cultural memory. She was just six years out of college, a slender girl of moderate privilege for whom success in films had come quickly and easily. This criticism, tough and mean-spirited as it was, was the first real test of her adult life, and she was running away. “I thought I was through,” she remembered. “My career was over and all that was left for me to do was go back home a failure.” That would never do, of course, not with the sting of her father’s hand on her cheek still fresh in her memory.
Given the Academy Award, her despair may seem overwrought. Yet to understand Hepburn’s crisis we must move beyond the professional. Not long before, the press had discovered a very personal secret about her: she had a husband. In 1928, just out of Bryn Mawr, she had married Ludlow Ogden Smith. As Kath had taken her first baby steps onto the stage, Luddy had been her rock—as in much the same way Suzanne would be, more briefly, later on. But the paths of husband and wife had diverged not long after, with Luddy settling into anonymity as an industrial engineer and Kath setting out to make her name.
When she first went to Hollywood, Katharine Hepburn never mentioned her husband. But the newshounds had a way of sniffing out the details of stars’ lives. In a fan-magazine article late in 1933, the story of Kath’s marriage had been spelled out. Every morning since, a parade of shouting, snapping reporters had trailed Luddy to his office on Vanderbilt Avenue. Even the compliant young man had found his breaking point. What might the press say about him? About them and their untraditional marriage?
Leland Hayward worried about that, too. Times were changing. The Hollywood of March 1934 was a very different place from what it was when Kath first stepped off the train in Pasadena in July 1932. In those twenty months, the Production Code—that draconian list of dos and don’ts concerning what Americans could and could not see on the screen—had been forced down the throats of even Hollywood’s most powerful producers. Bowing to the fear of boycotts threatened by conservative reformers (particularly unnerving, given the precarious economic times), Hollywood had reluctantly ceded its creative imprimatur to the censors. It wasn’t just on-screen content that was affected; the stars suddenly found their personal lives under a microscope as well. Racy images so popular in the freewheeling 1920s—the rakish John Barrymore, the free-loving Clara Bow, the sexually ambiguous Marlene Dietrich—were suddenly out of style, replaced by upstanding heroes and sweet, ladylike girls next door.
Yet from her very first day in Hollywood, Katharine Hepburn had been known best for one thing: her pants. Today, Hepburn’s trousers have become a beloved cultural icon, but in the early 1930s they were considered subversive. Independent women seemed to offer a threat to the millions of men out of work, men whose sense of mastery over their lives and families had been lost. Traditional gender roles took on a certain sacredness. By 1934, Katharine Hepburn (in pants) was not a comforting image for much of the population—not even to many women. Though some took inspiration from her defiant persona, many more, as frightened as their husbands, preferred to keep the apples secure in the cart.
Sailing out of New York Harbor in March 1934, Kath was beginning to grasp that, if she was to survive and prosper in this new Hollywood, she would have to change, rethink, reinvent. Academy Award or not, Katharine Hepburn—with her men’s trousers, gibbon, and abandoned husband—was not going to sell tickets or attract media adoration. For the damage didn’t end there. Even more troubling than the discovery of Luddy were the stories about Laura Harding, whom some in the press were labeling “Hepburn’s other half.” The Hollywood underground buzzed with rumors that the two women were more than just friends.
Considering Laura a liability, Leland urged Kath to send her away. Yet such an action seemed inconceivable. Laura—polished, sophisticated Laura—from an aristocratic Main Line Philadelphia family, had been with Kath every moment since her arrival on the West Coast. Laura had taken charge of her career, designing Kath’s wardrobe, handling her press, even negotiating on Kath’s behalf with producers, directors, and—much to his growing annoyance—Leland himself. Not a few reporters wondered just what hold this Miss Harding had over Miss Hepburn. Setting tongues wagging, Laura had once answered an RKO official’s demand to know who she was by declaring curtly, “Miss Hepburn’s husband.” Gales of laughter had erupted over the comment when she and Kath returned to the house they shared in Franklin Canyon. But at the studio there were no guffaws.
“What kind of queer arrangement is this?” asked one newspaper caption, juxtaposing photos of Kath and Laura with images of “Hepburn’s forgotten husband.”
The arrival of Suzanne, Leland insisted, only made things worse. Usually her agent’s word was gospel for Kath. She adored Leland. Few things were more enjoyable than sitting with her leg draped over the arm of a chair, listening to Leland brag of seducing Hollywood’s most beautiful women. Handsome, rangy Leland Hayward, in his finely tailored flannel suits and diamond cuff links, was one of the shrewdest agents Hollywood ever produced. He knew everyone. Lying on the couch in his office, he’d prop three telephones on his chest, talking on all three at once. To keep his sanity, the phones never rang, just glowed with a soft red light to announce incoming calls.
Laura’s presence in Kath’s life, Leland argued, was bad enough, but at least Laura was an elegant and mannerly Philadelphia blueblood. Suzanne—or Susan, as she was born, the daughter of a scrappy New York journalist named Willis Steell—was something else entirely. At age nineteen, she’d been singing in the chorus of a Broadway play when she was spotted by Madame Maria Jeritza, the tempestuous Austrian opera singer known as much for her luxurious blond hair as for her voice. In January 1923, the diva announced she had chosen Susan Steell as her protégée, and for the next seven years, the rechristened Suzanne remained at Jeritza’s side. In her early twenties, Steell was tall, lithe, and pretty—“statuesque, like a Gibson girl,” according to Miles White. Jeritza, fourteen years Suzanne’s senior, delighted in the younger woman’s company and was seen with her in New York, Paris, and Vienna far more often than with her husband, Baron Leopold von Popper.
Inevitably, Jeritza’s flamboyant reputation led to gossip. A 1930 Austrian novel featured a lead character based on the star, thinly disguised: a bisexually adventurous opera singer with a milquetoast titled husband. Another character, a young protégée, seemed modeled after Suzanne. Called Riff-Raff, the novel was based on “a lot of dirt about Jeritza,” according to its author, Roderick Mueller-Guttenbrunn, and became an instant European best seller. Both Jeritza and Popper sued for defamation. Meanwhile, Suzanne Steell quietly sailed out of the tempest, returning to America on October 5 on the SS Rochambeau.
Not long afterward, Steell found herself a new friend, though this time it would be she who played the mentor. The official version, given by Hepburn herself, was that Steell strode into her dressing room during the run of The Lake and offered to give her voice lessons. No doubt recalling Brooks Atkinson’s crack about her voice being a “strident instrument,” Kath agreed.
Many have lamented the “enigma” of Suzanne Steell, wondering just who this mysterious woman was who took Hepburn under her wing at this low point in her career. In truth, Steell was no mystery at all. She’d made a name for herself in France singing in Massenet’s Werther. Since returning to New York, she had performed at the Town Hall with selections from Rameau and Ravel. The New York Times called Steell’s voice “full and round,” her diction “unusually good.” Just prior to walking into Kath’s dressing room, she had appeared in a much-publicized performance at the American Women’s Association clubhouse on West Fifty-seventh Street, taking on all the roles in Molière’s School for Wives. The New York Sun, reviewing an earlier run of the show, thought Steell moved “easily and pleasantly” between masculine and feminine gestures. Those who knew her insisted such was the case for Steell in her private life as well.
In the paranoid climate of post-Code Hollywood, stars could not afford being touched by scandal, however distant. Leland Hayward surely considered Hepburn’s friendship with Suzanne Steell a disaster waiting to happen. Although Riff-Raff was never published in the United States, the publicity from it trailed Jeritza, and Leland did not want it attached to Kath. Laura Harding shared his concern. Her animosity toward Steell remained evident forty years later when she repeated secondhand horror stories about her to the author Charles Higham. While Kath allowed Suzanne to move in with her and cook all her meals, everyone else thought she needed to be dumped. Such talk could only have deepened Kath’s depression as the Paris pulled out of the harbor. Luddy, Laura, now Suzanne. How much, Kath may have wondered as the ship sailed past the Statue of Liberty, was this career of hers going to cost?
Copyright © 2006 by William J. Mann. All rights reserved.