Articles by Ben Robinson
The Great Kate
Katharine Hepburn Remembered
by Ben Robinson
June 30, 2003
It is a sign of aging when you hark back to days past, thinking of lost values in current society. The death of Katharine Hepburn yesterday prompts this sign of aging in this writer.
I only met Ms. Hepburn once. She was 86 and I was 33. I met her, appropriately enough, on Valentine’s Day February 14, 1994. I had just endured a very stressful break up with my fiancé, and moved to a new apartment in a very nice section of New York, just three blocks from Ms. Hepburn’s townhouse, though I did not know this at the time.
What can be said about the great Kate that has not been said before? I have only my addition to the volumes that have and will be written about this icon of the 20th century. I believe she typified “presence.” I have only encountered this type of “energy” once before, from another icon of the silver screen, the great John Calvert, still rocking and rolling at 92. (ED. NOTE: as of 2008, Mr. Calvert continues to thrill at age 96!) I noticed and was drawn, almost magnetically, to Mr. Calvert in a church in Woodbury NJ as I arrived, late for Sunday Mass, and crept in through the rear parish door. Instantly my head whipped 30 degrees due South, and sitting, with his back to me, there was the great man. Today, some 17 years later, Mr. Calvert and I are friends, pen pals, better than just acquaintances, though I will always consider him a genuine walking legend.
I digress about the great Calvert because he is similar to the great Kate, though my experience with her was only 10 minutes long, or two hours, depending on how you clock it.
I decided to take a break from the arduous unpacking of a life’s possessions on 52nd Street and take in an afternoon movie at The Paris, just across the street from the world famous Plaza Hotel practically in the dead center of Manhattan. A 2pm showing of Woody Allen’s “Alice” starring his (then) companion, Mia Farrow was the cinema fare I thought might quell my lovesick woes.
I bought my ticket, made my way to the balcony, hoping to score a front row seat and love it and live it with Mia and Woody for the next two hours.
In the seat I hoped to sit was a shaking mass of grey hair abundantly coiffed, dignified, even 40 feet to the rear. I instantly recognized the slight movement of the head, the color of the hair: the style. It was her. Kate.
I debated what to do. Go out and buy flowers and present them to her on Valentine’s Day? No, too much.
Sit behind her and tap her on the shoulder an say, “Excuse me, could you slouch, I can’t see the screen?” Hardly.
I chose subtlety. I would sit two rows behind her and not offer a peep. My plan worked. When the movie ended, she got up, and I bounded one empty row ahead, and there she stood, slightly bent, and radiant. I immediately picked up her coat on the chair and held it for her. I offered, “So, what did you think of the movie?” I did not address her by name as my effusive smile was all she needed to know about me; a smile and knowing glance she must have seen literally millions of times from gentleman admirers. “Ohhhh” she quivered in her upper-crust New England accent, “it was horrible.” She went on to denigrate Woody Allen as not much of a film maker, and thought that Mia could not act her way out of a paper bag (her words, sorry Mia).
I helped the great Kate on with her coat and offered my arm as her companions smiled and appreciated my help in escorting their octogenarian friend out to the aisle and up the small staircase.
I was floating. I had Katharine Hepburn, tired, slightly hunched, but alert as ever on my arm! We compared notes on other aspects of modern society. The conversation basically ran the gamut from some strident point from her to me saying “Yes ma’am.” She told me that her niece was named after her and then beguiled me further (Kate spun a gossamer web for sure) that her niece was indeed none other than Katharine Ross, of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Graduate” fame (and no doubt many other credits).
She asked what I did. “I’m a magician.” She cocked her eye and looked at me hard. “Ahhhh, a fascinating profession! Are you doing well? ” I told her I made a living, and she said, “Conjuring has always fascinated me, Spencer too.” I swooned that my craft had a place in Kate’s universe.
(Little did I know at the time that her 16-year-old brother was found hanged to death, and it was a possibilty his death was not a suicide, but rather a result of an illusion gone wrong.)
Katharine Hepburn was also special to me for another reason. Growing up as a single child of a single mother made me appreciate the Woman’s Movement all the more, given the injustices I saw applied daily to me mum by the sharks on Madison Avenue. Kate fought the man’s world and won. Hell, she even handled Bogart in the African Queen, and off screen as Bogart washed his teeth with vodka. Holding her own with John Huston in tow as well cannot have been easy.
We came down the stairs, and into the lobby for the eyes of the 4pm’ers standing in line. And if there ever was a Jesus of Nazareth moment, this was it. The crowds parted as real royalty walked among them. It was as if time stood still, frozen faced admirers stopped in mid bite of popcorn. No one said anything.
Banal urban reality became touched with the unreality of a screen goddess. But Kate was not just a pretty face. She was a trendsetter; an original; something so sadly missing in today’s low standards of performance and popular entertainment.
I walked in this re-arranged time continuum as an insider. Ms. Hepburn’s aides walked behind us, not worrying at all about the young man with a living legend quietly stepping the light fantastic in mid-Manhattan. The crowds parted and we moved toward the door as people smiled, some began to cry and others nearly clapped. I was terrified she might take a fall at any moment, fragile and perfect she was. Her companions alighted to their vehicle, a four-door station wagon which pulled in front of the theater.
And then a real New York moment happened. A man begging quarters on the movie line, attired in raggedy pants saw the coming entourage of three, Queen Kate leading our small charge. Without any command, except years of worship built into this man’s heart and DNA, he made a sweeping gesture and bowed as this scion of the streets opened the door of Ms. Hepburn’s car. Then the driver swung out and gently took her off my arm, and quietly said, “Thank you very much, I’ll take it from here.”
I stood in reverential glee. Getting Ms. Hepburn into the back seat was an art of care, not the place for an admiring fan like me, but a pro.
She looked at me through the glass and tilted her head to the side, and, I swear, winked at me.
I fell to my knees on the sidewalk struck by a silent thunderbolt. The homeless man helped me up. “Man, what is she…man?” Others came closer, as if I had any answers. But I had none
.Kate disappeared, but obviously her magic, never will.