I Know Where I’m Going

Katharine Hepburn, A Personal Biography

by Charlotte Chandler

2 June 2011


Kate wondered if Tom had experienced difficulty in sleeping, had awakened in the middle of the night in a strange place and in a makeshift sleeping situation, rather than in his own room, and had tried to do the trick. “There wasn’t much he could do in the middle of the night without disturbing the household, and Tom was always considerate of everyone. So, it came to me that what he must have been doing was practicing the trick, so he could show our father and surprise him.

“I told Father, and it seemed to him to be a plausible possibility. Even though it meant that Father had played a sad part in it all, by telling the story of the prank, it was easier for him to face that than the alternative—his son a suicide.

“About a year later I overheard my father, in our house, talking with a friend of his, and the other doctor used the phrase ‘adolescent insanity.’ It was a serious, even grim, conversation. When I walked into the room, they stopped talking. That was unusual, because Father and Mother had always made a point of allowing us children to hear everything. They never stopped talking that way when we appeared. It was so unusual, it gave me pause. I wondered if they could have been talking about Tom.

“One of my most striking memories is of my mother’s tears. I only saw my mother cry once in my life. I don’t know if she ever cried, even when she was alone. Only she knew that. She was a stoic.

“We left New York and went on a boat to New Jersey to a crematorium. Mother was standing off to the side with her friend Jo. Father had his back to her. He was looking forward toward where we were going, not backward toward where we had been. Mother probably couldn’t see me from where she was standing. There were wet tears on her cheeks.

“I didn’t know what to do. I decided to do nothing. I didn’t think she wanted me to know.

“I was sure she did not want Father to know. He didn’t feel tears accomplished anything.

“We took the urn of Tom’s ashes to the Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford. As far as I know, my parents never went back. I never went there, but one day I’ll live there next to Tom.

“My father believed that we had to put Tom’s name out of our house and out of our minds and hearts so that his passing would not ruin our lives. He believed it would keep us from living lives of sadness. ‘Depression is a contagious disease,’ he would say.

“It was so much more terrible because we were not just told not to talk about Tom, but not to think about him. It was to be as if he’d never been part of our family.

“It was to be as if he had never lived. And so it was, I suppose, for everyone except me. It could never be like that for me. He had been a part of our family, and for me, he always would be, not just a part of our family, but a part of me.

“My father had said it, and no one, not even my mother, ever questioned my father’s absolute authority.

“Because no one spoke Tom’s name, I pledged to Tom and to myself that he would live in my heart and mind as long as I lived. I decided I had to live my life for two. It was the only way I could keep my brother alive. I decided I would share my life with my brother. The real date of his death would not be until the day I died.

“Tom had been born on November 8. I took that day as my birthday, in his memory. I discarded the day I was born, May 12. I decided that from then on that my birthday would be November 8, and so it’s been. I told everyone and always wrote November 8. Some people thought I was lying about my birthday so I could be a few months younger.

“The sign for November 8 is Scorpio. When they heard about my November 8 birthday, people said, ‘You’re the perfect Scorpio.’ Well, of course. Why not? I never said a word. Except I was a fake Scorpio. It was an adopted sign. I wasn’t really that strong, but just as well not to tell anyone, and let them think what they wanted to. To tell you the truth, taking Tom’s birthday for my own was comforting.

“Everyone in the world, our world, who knew Tom, felt he couldn’t possibly have committed suicide. There was no reason. No one knew any reason. I don’t know if knowing what happened would have made it easier for any of us. I only knew Tom and I could never do things together again.

“Practicing hanging yourself without killing yourself seemed kind of a silly thing to do, not to mention dangerous, especially if no one was around. But sometimes people do silly things. All of us, at some time or other, do silly things without weighing possible repercussions. I don’t know if knowing any reason would have made any of the pain go away.”


Kate’s story about her brother followed a question George Cukor had asked as we sat in his living room. I was staying in the guest room in his Los Angeles house, and Kate was living in one of the cottages on his property. Kate trusted me because George trusted me, so I seemed part of the house.

“Tell me, my girl,” Cukor had asked her, “who was the most important man in your life? Was it your father? Was it Spencer [Tracy]?”

“No and no,” Kate had answered without hesitating. “Tom. My brother Tom was the most important man in my life. But he lived an incomplete life.

“I admired him so much. I was younger and a girl, but I was a more natural athlete. I think Tom was more intelligent than I was, but that wasn’t what my father valued. He took our intelligence for granted.”

Kate had been “going on,” as George called it, “rhapsodizing about what a great man her father was.” Cukor later commented to me that he never quite agreed with Kate’s “obsessive fascination with her difficult-to-please father,” who appeared to him to have been “rather a cold fish, a better doctor than a father. Just my opinion.”

Cukor believed that Kate had been challenged by her father to succeed and to prove him wrong about her choice of a career as an actress. Cukor said he had rarely, if ever, heard her mention a brother named Tom.

“Tom was not exactly like our father,” Kate continued. “He was a tall, handsome boy, intelligent, and a good athlete, but he lacked our father’s perfect confidence. He didn’t have Father’s competitive spirit. I think Father would have liked to compete with every other man in the world. Tom only wanted to compete against himself.

“I was not able to believe he took his own life, deliberately planning it in advance. I can’t believe he would have left without saying goodbye to me. Now I think that for my father there was not only sadness, but shame—that his eldest son would show that kind of weakness.

“After Tom was gone, I believe my personality changed. I went from being totally open to life, to being closed to life. You might say ingrown, sort of like a toenail can get when your shoe is too small. I didn’t like meeting any new people.

“It was enough for me to have my family, who were used to me, and I was used to them. I remember we had an Irish seamstress who came on Thursdays, and I liked to be with her. She told me interesting stories, and I told her interesting stories. I didn’t have much to tell at that point, but she always seemed fascinated. She had a very good disposition. She taught me how to sew on a button so it would never come off. She made me feel partly Irish.

“ ‘Just keep your head, Kath,’ I would say to myself, if I found myself caring too much about anyone. In my head, I always called myself Kath. I didn’t want to care for anyone except my family so deeply that I felt such pain. I was able to do that until Spence came along and took my breath away.

“When Tom died, it was so unexpected. Impossible to conceive of. Such a waste. He was gone from my life. He was gone from his life. Tom’s death was never resolved. Worse, his life was never resolved.”



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