Excerpted from Chapter 1: Onliness, from I Know Where I’m Going: Katharine Hepburn, A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler. Available from Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, an imprint of Hal Leonard, Copyright © 2011. Reprinted by permission of Applause Theatre & Cinema Books. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
“‘Onliness’ is my word for what I call my philosophy of life,” Katharine Hepburn told me. “It’s a word I made up for myself when my teenage brother hanged himself.
“What I meant by it was that I wanted to be independent, to separate myself from all the others and never again to care so much about another person, so I would never feel the pain I felt when Tom left me.
“I was almost fourteen when Tom, my absolute hero—whom I loved and worshipped—had, what I call in my head, his ‘accident.’ I was the only one who believed it was an accident. I believed it because I couldn’t bear to believe otherwise.
“I had a wonderfully warm feeling in my soul. I felt it so deeply that he would be there for me, that I could always count on him. It made me feel very secure. And then, suddenly, he wasn’t there for me. He wasn’t there for himself.
I Know Where I’m Going: Katharine Hepburn, A Personal Biography
(Applause Theatre & Cinema Books; US: Apr 2011)
“If something had made him so unhappy that he no longer wanted to live, why hadn’t he shared his trouble with me? I could have helped him. We were so close, how could I not have shared his pain? I couldn’t bear it. I thought we were like twins, even though he was two years older. It was a nightmare that was real, and I was never going to wake up from it. I understood that now is forever.
“Tom was my best friend from the first moment I can remember. He never regarded me as the little sister he had to drag along. The opposite. At two, two and a half, I remember him holding my hand and showing me the ropes and how to swing on them, how to get along in life. When I was just barely walking, he was running with me. I wanted so to keep up with his long-legged strides. I wanted to run fast into life, not just to walk, and I wanted to run toward life with Tom.
“He had not yet had his sixteenth birthday. For the Easter school vacation, Tom and I were given a trip to visit a dear friend of Mother’s who had been at Bryn Mawr with her. After we celebrated Easter with our family, we went to New York to stay with Aunt Mary Towle, who was a lawyer and had her own lovely little house in Greenwich Village. She wasn’t really our aunt, but we’d always called her ‘Auntie.’ Whenever we visited her, it meant seeing many plays, seeing all the wondrous sights of New York City, and eating in lovely restaurants. We would dress up for our excursions.
“It was a darling house, not big. It was just right for Auntie Mary, who never married. She had her lovely room, and I stayed in the guest room. My brother had a cot in her attic, which was filled with trunks of books and everything she stored there. Sometimes girls have privileges, but I wouldn’t have minded being in the attic. I’m sure Tom didn’t. He was always protecting me, and being chivalrous.”
Although Kate loved her visits to New York City, and so did Tom, she couldn’t imagine herself living in New York. “Tom said he’d love to be right in New York City, especially in Greenwich Village, which we knew best.”
Until then, their mother had always gone with them and stayed. “She enjoyed the visit with Auntie Mary and with Auntie Mary’s law partner, Bertha, who had become a judge and was also a good friend of Mother’s at Bryn Mawr. Auntie Bertha lived next door. This year, Mother had some other plan, and it was deemed we were old enough to make the short trip from Connecticut to Greenwich Village, where we would be chaperoned by Auntie Mary, who had known us since we were born. We’d been going to visit her at her Greenwich Village townhouse since before Tom and I could remember. We found the Village fascinating, walking around for hours. It was so different from where we lived.
“I don’t know which one of us was more excited. It was a tie. I was always the more emotional one, jumping with glee. Tom was more composed, in a masculine, older-brother way. But I could tell how excited he was, because we had an almost telepathic bond between us.
“We went with Auntie Mary to see A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. My brother was particularly taken by the show, and I enjoyed it, too, with my favorite companion, Tom. If he enjoyed something, I enjoyed it more because of that. I know he felt the same way about doing anything with me. Tom told me he liked our visit so much, he would be sorry to have it end. I knew I would be, too.
“The next day, our Uncle Floyd took us out sightseeing. He was my father’s brother, and a bachelor. We had a wonderful time with him, as we always did. Uncle Floyd took the day off whenever we were in New York to show us all the sights and there were so many sights to see. Endless. Our uncle never ran out of places to show. Tom had brought his banjo with him and that last night in New York, he played for us.
“The next morning, Auntie and I were eating breakfast and expecting Tom to come downstairs to join us. Auntie began putting some food together for a package Tom could take on the train because he was late and would be missing breakfast. Auntie was a lovely cook, and Tom and I enjoyed everything she fixed for us. Auntie took great pride in everything she prepared for us. She was not generally domestic, but she was so anxious that we should have a wonderful time.
“She said I should go upstairs and tell Tom that we were going to be late. Tom had bought our return tickets, and it was getting close to the time we had to be at the train station. Auntie said I’d better go up and wake my brother, or we’d miss our train. I knew he was packed, with his travel outfit neatly laid out for the trip.
“I went up. I knocked on the door. There was no answer. I knocked harder, calling, ‘Tom, Tom.’ Tom was not a heavy sleeper, and we were accustomed to getting up early. Tom told me that he had been waking up during the nights because what we were doing was so exciting and stimulating. I felt a little anxious.
“At first, I didn’t see Tom. And then I saw him. He was there next to the bed.
“He was hanging from a rafter with a piece of material around his neck. His knees were bent and he had strangled.
“I took him down and put him on the bed. He felt very cold. I knew it was too late, but all I could think of was to run downstairs and out of the house to the nearby house where I’d seen a doctor’s sign. The doctor wasn’t in. It was no use. I ran next door to Auntie Bertha’s house and I told her, ‘Tom is dead!’ She came back with me, and we told Auntie Mary. We called Mother and Father.
“Mother and Father arrived with Mother’s close friend Jo Bennett. I felt numb. I don’t remember too well what happened. People said I was amazingly calm. I was in shock. I stayed in shock for a long time. It was as if I couldn’t feel anything when I cried. It seemed like the thing to do and what everyone expected of me. I found out that I could cry at will, anytime I chose, on less than a minute’s notice. My crying on the outside wasn’t real. What was real was I was crying on the inside. It was a chaotic time until I could make some kind of adjustment to the reality. But I never really did.
“There were police. There were some reporters. They all called it suicide. Such a terrible word.
“They talked about Tom’s bent knees. The police said he had hanged himself, but he was too tall. Someone said, ‘He would have had to bend his knees to finish the job.’”
Kate said that one night about a year before, her father had told the family at the dinner table about his undergraduate days, when his southern school, Randolph Macon, was playing a northern school. Some of the visiting northern players asked, only semiseriously, if they still lynched black men in the area.
“There happened to be a black man in the area who was known for his very special trick, Father told us. He was famous for being able to constrict the muscles in his neck so that he could fake being hanged. The southern students hired the man to perform his trick in a pretend stunt, a practical joke played on the northern team. The northerners fell for it. Then they were pretty surprised when the joke was on them, and they’d all been fooled.”
Kate speculated that Tom remembered the story and was practicing this stunt. “One year later, seeing A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court during our New York visit might have overstimulated Tom’s active imagination.”