When asked about fashion, Katharine Hepburn’s response was nothing short of her typical, missile-like manner: “I haven’t time for it.”
But Hepburn, who played Coco Chanel in the Broadway play, “Coco,” in the Sixties, had the features of a fashion icon, and she was even rewarded with a CFDA lifetime achievement award in 1986. She was endowed with aristocratic cheekbones and a lean frame, yet she never fell for the pretty couture fashions her peers happily embraced. Hepburn instead dressed with the independence and forthrightness of a maverick — and more often than not, in pants. She favored streamlined casual looks over the New Look, and often wore simple tunics and haberdashery pants with a black hat and low-heeled shoes.
On the set of “The Lion in Winter” in 1968, WWD reported that Hepburn always wore exactly what she liked, from an old red sweater with “enormous” holes to her brother’s old World War II army jacket and a blue seaman’s cap. At the time, WWD wrote that she was full of “nuttiness, bossiness and kindness.”
In 1934, Hepburn famously wired her car electrically to keep fans away and literally shocked the ones that dared to get close. In court for speeding in 1950, WWD reported, she said to a testifying officer, “You don’t have sense enough to be a policeman,” then stepped back against a cranked-up heater and scorched her $5,500 mink coat.
And she enhanced her viper image by frequently peppering her speech with acerbic barbs that were often as Oscar worthy as her performances. Refusing to be photographed for an interview while preparing for “Coco,” she quipped: “That means makeup. And that’s a bore. But you can level with me. If you don’t want me without photographs, just let me know.”
The actress died Sunday at her home in Old Saybrook, Conn., at age 96. Here, a sample of her remarks to this newspaper, given in interviews in 1968 and 1969.
WWD: “Miss Hepburn, why are people so frightened of you?”
KH: “Because I’m mean.”WWD: “Why do you wear only pants, Miss Hepburn?”
KH: “Because on location, we all freeze our bottoms off.”
WWD: “Why are you mean?”
KH: “I discovered very early that when I was sweet and cooperative and willing, no one paid any attention. When I got sour and difficult, I had them all eating out of my hand.”
On wearing slacks: “If I had a skirt and low-heeled shoes [which I prefer] I’d look deformed. I know my deformities but…I’d be dumb to name them…When I am at a party and have to put on a dress, I spill food down my front and just fall apart. I never take any trouble with beauty treatment or manicures. I use my hands and a lot of my nails get chipped.”
On Coco Chanel: “You know, she talks nonstop and I could get only 65 percent of her French. She must be part Indian or something, for she stood all the time we talked, her feet spread apart like a cowboy. She wore a charming hat. Those marvelous bright eyes. And that face. Sensitive. Small. Hollow, like mine.
“I must confess I rather dreaded meeting her. I’m a country bumpkin. I don’t have any jewels or thrilling possessions. I expected to meet someone so sophisticated and decadent that I would have to get over that before I could play her. I wondered whether she was going to upset me and what to do if she did.
“Coco absolutely shattered me.”
On Chanel’s notorious viper-tongued image: “Who the hell cares. You’re bound to become impatient when you’re with the same old boring asininities….She has enormous integrity and in a storm has her own nerve. She has the look of a person who knows how to face trouble and triumph, to haul down most of the sails, leave the jib flying, go it alone with a rudder. She’s retained her simplicity, this wonderful quality. And it’s the quality of a pretty important kind of person….I feel people should not become too complicated. It’s always a bore. She’s the real article. She’s not stupid.”On Chanel’s reaction to her: “Coco expressed no opinion about my clothes. She just looked at me and probably hoped I could act.”
On choosing to play Chanel: “Since most parts are for lunatics, I’m offered the mother of lunatics. I want to do anything with a ray of hope, with the message that life is a thrilling and exhilarating experience.”
On the Sixties youth: “I think the kids of today are sad and tragic. They’re digging a hole they’ll never get out of. People just don’t take the responsibility now. The joy of doing something tremendously well seems to be forgotten. That may sound cocky, but I’ve been through all periods and I try to keep my head….The world we live in is so depleted and exhausted with the endless pot, drinking and cigarettes. The young are so tired, they haven’t a lot of vitality left for sex.”
On the world at large in 1969: “There’s obviously some terrible fault with the world at large. The war isn’t helping our sense of morality. I think it’s a mess. You can’t survive without character for long. If you get handed some hot potato of a tragedy in your life, you have to face it with character. You don’t get eaten up with weakness and take the easy road. To me, it’s thrilling to make an effort.”
On Sixties actors: “I think people of today are just desperate to be noticed. That may be why they dress like freaks. So do I. But I’m clean, and I think they’re dirty. Being dirty never did anyone any good.”
On career: “I find the swim upstream stimulating business, though I know I was luckily endowed and have been pretty damn spoiled.”
On retiring: “Retiring is such a dull step….If you really plan to retire, you ought to shut up about it.”
On herself: “I was brought up that one should see with a long eye. I’ll do anything to get to a park every day. It gives a point of view of things. I’ve had a wonderful life, full of opportunities. I hate to see people looking sorry and sad….I am Scottish, from New England and hard headed, I have a very cold sense….I’m tall, skinny and very determined.”On Spencer Tracy: “I’ve had 20 years of perfect companionship with a man among men. He’s a rock and a protector. I’ve never regretted it.”
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