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The Sibling Connection

by Kerrie Tickner
Sydney, Australia

Katharine Hepburn the American actress was born on May 12th 1907 in Harford Connecticut and is the only actress to win four Academy Awards as well as being nominated 12 times. Her career stretched over 60 years on both the stage and film.

Katharine was the second of 6 children born to Dr Hepburn, a urologist, and Kit Hepburn, a suffragist and birth control activist . She was especially close to her older brother Tom Hepburn who was about two years older and they often played athletic games together in the neighbourhood and generally protected each other.

In 1921 when Katharine was 14, Kit Hepburn decided to give her children a special treat and Katharine and Tom took a holiday to New York to visit a family friend Mary Towle. Tom and Kate visited Central Park together and one night went to see ď A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurís Court ď in which there was a scene of a hanging. Some accounts state that Tom told Katharine that the scene gave him the ďhorrorsĒ but he seemed to recover quickly and that night attended a party with some other teenagers . Before he went to bed that night he allegedly turned to Katharine and said, ď Youíre my girl arenít you? You are my favourite girl in the world.Ē

The next morning Katharine waited for Tom to come down for breakfast as they were leaving for home that day. When he didnít appear she went up to the attic to wake him up and discovered that he had hung himself from the attic rafters. Most of the accounts vary as to the exact sequence of events from then on but Katharine wrote in her autobiography about cutting her brother down, laying him on the bed and being completely frozen and in shock. It has never been established whether Tomís death was an accident or a suicide but there had been a family history of depression and suicide and the most likely explanation is that Tom Hepburn was suffering from depression and did in fact take his own life. The family speculated that he was practicing a hanging trick that Dr Hepburn had talked about but his death remains a mystery.

After Tomís death Katharine became very withdrawn and depressed and her schoolwork started to suffer. The family found it very difficult to talk about what had happened and soon after Katharine left high school and never returned. In one account Katharine talked about when Tom died she became both a boy and a girl and she tried to take his place within the family. From then on she took Tomís birthday, November 8th, as her own . She was home tutored until she went to university in Bryn Mawr in 1924. Katharine found university life very difficult and was frequently depressed. She was almost kicked out for poor academic grades until she decided that she was going to become an actress and that meant improving her grades in order to participate in the student productions.

In later life Katharine commented that there are just so many things about people that we canít know but she had come to the conclusion that Tom had in fact taken his own life. Some psychologists have speculated that people who lose their siblings compensate by being especially creative. Katharine went on to have an amazingly full and extraordinary life as an actress, a painter and a writer as well as being a role model for generations of women. She became a woman of striking vitality and energy as well as being a person of enormous resilience.

When Tom Hepburn died in 1921 the family took a piece of his favourite climbing rock from Fenwick and engraved his name on the stone in the family plot. Katharine and Tom are now buried beside each other in the Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford.





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