By JIM BROCHU
In 1970 my friend Jeanne Arnold was appearing in the musical Coco starring Katharine Hepburn, who graces almost every floor of our clubhouse in dazzling images by Everett Raymond Kinstler. Jeannie became a close friend of Hepburn's and she invited me to see the show and then meet the great lady afterward. Hepburn was extraordinary as Coco Chanel that night, despite having a nosebleed that flowed through most of the first act.
After the show, I was escorted backstage and found myself standing in front of Hepburn's dressing room next to Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé. The stage manager knocked on Hepburn’s door. It opened a crack. I could see the famous cheekbones, the turned-down lips, and a bit of eye staring out suspiciously through the small opening. “Miss Hepburn, would you say hello to Steve and Eydie?” Hepburn opened the door wide, barked “Hello, Steve and Eydie!” and closed the door before they could say a word. The stage manager shrugged and led the famous couple back from whence they came. I thought, if they got that kind of reception, what am I going to get?
Well, my friend knocked on the door again: “Kate, it’s Jeannie!” Hepburn opened the door and said, “so sorry about the bloody nose. Thanks for the hanky. This must be your friend.”
“Hello, Miss Hepburn, you were…”
“Call me Kate! Sorry you had to see the show tonight with my gusher.”
“I didn’t notice a thing except a brilliant performance.” She laughed and introduced me to her companion Phyllis Wilbourn, who was sitting quietly in the corner. Hepburn asked Jeanne if she was going to go to Coco co-star George Rose’s apartment for ice cream. Jeanne said she’d love to and Kate invited me along as well: “I’m sure George won’t mind, and the more the merrier.” I had actually gotten to know George and other members of The Canterbury Tales company during their Broadway run, so I didn’t feel shy about going. The four of us spent four unforgettable hours in the presence of Miss Hepburn and George’s cats – lynx!
A few months later I was appearing in a musical called Something's Afoot at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut. As we were about to begin the performance, I heard a commotion in the house. I peeked through the curtain: it was Hepburn making an entrance and getting wild applause. She sat in the fifth-row center with her knees buckled up on the seat in front of her. At intermission, the stage manager came roaring back and said, “Katharine Hepburn is here.”
“I know. I know. Everybody knows.”
“She would like to come back after the show and see you.”
Well, the cast looked as if they had been hit in the face with a pie. Sure enough, after the show Hepburn made her way down the hall with her laser-beam eyes locked on me, and when she got about five feet away, said with a twinkle, “Do you remember me?”
I said, “You do look somewhat familiar.”
She couldn't have been more effusive about the show and greeted all the cast members warmly. She said she had been up very early and thought she’d be sound asleep by now, but the show was so entertaining we had kept her awake. High praise indeed. She asked if another actor in the play, Mary Jo Catlett, and I would like to come back to her house, in the Fenwick section of Old Saybrook, and share some blueberry bread that she had made that afternoon. She said it was a hard place to find, so we should leave our cars at the theatre and let her brother Dick drive us as she went on ahead.
When we arrived at the property, Dick barreled through the gate which featured a handmade sign that read PLEASE GO AWAY! Kate was at the door waiting for us. She escorted us down a hallway which looked like a rummage sale from a sporting goods store: there were tennis rackets, golf clubs, nets, baseball bats, croquet mallets, and all kinds of game equipment everywhere. She led us into the living room where, even on this sweltering August night, there was a roaring fire in the fireplace. She loved a fire in the hearth more than anything in the world. As she showed us around the house, I couldn’t help but think of the famous visitors that had seen these same walls: Spencer Tracy, Howard Hughes, Cary Grant, governors, presidents – and now me.
In the kitchen, the homemade blueberry bread was waiting for us on the counter. When Kate said “come for blueberry bread,” that’s exactly what she meant, for not even a glass of water was offered to go with it. When we walked back into the living room. I noticed that certain lamps on the tables were not touching the surface, but suspended about an eighth of an inch above by a thin rope attached to the ceiling. I asked her why, and she knocked one of the lamps out of the way and pretended to clean the table top as the lamp swung back into place. “It saves so much time,” she said, “and time is all we have, isn't it?"
I didn't see Hepburn again after that night but we continued a happy correspondence for years. She invited me to visit her in New York but the timing never worked out. I would write her long newsy letters and get short but very sweet notes in return. I wrote a play called The Lucky O’Learys and sent it to her, hoping she would star. Her response was priceless and led to the piece being optioned as a TV series for Lucille Ball.
Many years later I became friends with Katharine Houghton, Kate’s niece and co-star in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner. She kept me informed of her aunt’s declining health, and told me that Kate’s end was a sad one. She was on oxygen, so the one thing that gave her the most true joy was taken away from her:
A roaring fireplace. Even in the dead of August.
Jim Brochu joined The Players in 1970. He is the recipient of the New York Drama Desk Award, the Helen Hayes Award, two LA Ovation Awards, the GLAAD Media Award, and a Sardi's caricature in recognition of his fifty-year career in the theatre as an actor and playwright.