When Margaret Perry asked me to participate in this wonderful Katharine Hepburn blogathon, I knew exactly what I wanted to write about: in 1941, Hepburn installed herself at the Garden of Allah Hotel and helped put together the first of the Hepburn/Tracy films, Woman of the Year.
The Garden of Allah Hotel stood at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights. Originally the residence of silent screen star, Alla Nazimova, it was converted into a hotel during late 1926 and opened in 1927, just months before The Jazz Singer heralded the dawn of the talkies, and closed in 1959 at the dusk of the studio system. Over the 32 years it was open, a Who’s Who of Hollywood names called it home: Errol Flynn, Tallulah Bankhead, Harpo Marx, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Bogie and Bacall, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lillian Hellman, Ginger Rogers, Frank Sinatra, Orson Welles—the list is virtually endless. A well-known watering hole for actors and writers, it was the perfect place that Hepburn was needed during the spring of 1941.
In 1938, after a string of flops (which included the now-classic Bringing Up Baby with Cary Grant), Katharine found herself declared box office poison. She remedied that by going to Howard Hughes and asking him to help finance a play called The Philadelphia Story, which she performed on the stage in 1939 and brought to the screen in 1941. The movie proved to be the fifth most popular at the US box office that year, thus putting Kate back on track. But being back on track and staying back on track are two different things and she was searching for a solid follow-up.
It arrived in the form of writer/director Garson Kanin. A story about a down-to-earth sports columnist reluctantly falling in love with a more famous news reporter came to him when he received a letter from sports writer Jimmy Cannon after Cannon had spent an evening with political columnist Dorothy Thompson. He thought the character based on Thompson would be a good fit for Hepburn, whom he’d met through Vivien Leigh during the Broadway run of The Philadelphia Story. Hepburn pounced on the idea.
The two of them recruited a pair of screenwriters: Garson’s brother Michael Kanin (who would later co-write Teacher’s Pet starring Clark Gable and Doris Day) and Ring Lardner Jr. (who would go on to become one of the infamous Hollywood Ten, the group of film people who refused to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee which led to their being jailed and blackballed from the industry.) So Hepburn rented one of the villas at the Garden of Allah Hotel and the foursome locked themselves in and banged out the story.
Chasen’s was a famous restaurant at the corner of Beverly Boulevard and Doheny Drive. It was very popular with the Hollywood crowd—particularly for its chili—and wasn’t too far from the Garden of Allah, so Hepburn had Chasen’s deliver their meals so that no time need be lost. The villas at the Garden of Allah were also self-contained so they had everything they needed to get the job done in the time available to them. Well, not everything. They also hired a pair of typists who tag-teamed the hard work of typing out draft after draft. By the end of the five days the poor women’s fingers were “too stiff to hold a cigarette.” But between the determined star, the three talented writers, and two hardy typists, they got the job done.
The most-generally accepted version of what happened has them putting the whole thing together in just five days because WWII was now on, and Garson Kanin was being drafted. But Woman of the Year had its premiere on January 19th, 1942, barely six weeks after Pearl Harbor. Anne Edward’s biography says that Hepburn sold the project to MGM in early May of 1941 which means this intense stay at the Garden of Allah must have happened some time between late April to early May 1941—seven months before Pearl Harbor. So Garson’s imminent drafting can’t have been the reason, but every source I’ve come across says that by the end of five days, they had a detailed treatment of a film they were now calling Woman of the Year.
By the Monday morning, Hepburn took the 106 pages they’d churned out (she’d promised Mayer 60 pages—talk about an over-achiever!) and delivered them personally to MGM, then retreated to her room at the Beverly Hills Hotel to sit by the phone. When it rang the next day, Sam Katz, a vice president at MGM was on the other end of the line offering her $175,000. But Hepburn held out for $210,000 (talk about ballsy!) — $50,000 each for Michael Kanin and Ring Lardner Jr., $10,000 for her agent, Leland Hayward, and $1000 for the Garden of Allah bill. (Garson Kanin never got any screen credit on Woman of the Year so I suspect maybe he and Hepburn came to an arrangement of some sort—he went on to write two more Hepburn/Tracy pictures: Adam’s Rib (1949) and Pat and Mike (1952.)) Katz knew the project was too good to turn down so he agreed to Hepburn’s price. It set the record for the highest amount ever paid by a Hollywood studio for an original screenplay. Word soon got out around Hollywood that a woman (a box-office poisoned one, at that) had beaten a major Hollywood studio at its own game.
To her enormous credit, Hepburn withheld the names of the two screenwriters until after the deal was agreed on. Previously, both Kanin and Lardner had only earned a maximum of $3000 for a screenplay, and here was Hepburn seeing to it that they earned $50,000. In a number of ways, Woman of the Year was a game-changer, and a history maker.
Hepburn’s first choice to play opposite her was Spencer Tracy but he was on location in Florida shooting The Yearling, so MGM suggested Clark Gable or Walter Pidgeon. Either of those actors would probably have been fine, but The Yearling suffered location problems and was shut down. Suddenly Tracy was available for Woman of the Year.
In her book, Me: Stories of My Life, Hepburn said that Tracy needed to be convinced to work with her. At their first meeting, he took exception to the dirt under her fingernails and her preference for wearing pants. She said to him, “I’m afraid I’m a little too tall for you.” To which he replied, “Don’t worry, I’ll cut you down to my size.”
Apparently he did because Woman of the Year saw the start of a decades-long relationship between the stars, was the first of a legendary run of nine movies the two stars made together, won a pair of Best Original Screenplay Oscars for Michael Kanin and Ring Lardner, Jr., and inspired a Broadway musical in 1981 starring Lauren Bacall which in itself won 5 Tony awards and ran for over 700 performances.
But none of it would have happened without Hepburn’s drive, tenacity, energy and good old New England pluck to take charge of her career during a time when women were largely stuck toiling in the men’s sandbox. It took a lot to pull off a deal like this, even more to see it through to such a successful conclusion, and for that, Katharine Hepburn deserves a heaping helping of credit.