As I passed through the massive gates of Cedar Hill Cemetery, just south of Hartford, Connecticut, I was immediately taken in by the size and beauty of the grounds. Although I had rough directions to the graves I was looking for, I stopped just inside the gate and grabbed a map of the notable graves and also a pamphlet listing notable trees existing on the grounds. Any help to locate the graves I sought was an added bonus.
Most of the two hundred and seventy acres of Cedar Hill Cemetery was purchased in 1864. The land that could not be bought was taken by eminent domain and construction began in September 1865 with the first burial taking place on July 17, 1866. In the summer of 1868 Cedar Hill would officially be consecrated.
Cedar Hill Cemetery serves as the final resting place for more than thirty thousand residents of the region. To add beauty to the sacred grounds, over sixty-five acres of the cemetery is covered with water. The largest of these ponds is Lake Llyn Mawr, which means “great lake”; the man-made lake covers eight acres just inside the gates of the cemetery. I paused next to Lake Llyn Mawr, located on the left of the roadway upon entering the cemetery, to scan the lake that was filled with Canadian geese. As I was watching them, a great blue heron took flight from the nearby cattails and crossed the pond, settling at the far side of it.
Continuing a short distance past the lake, I finally had my first glance of the cemetery. Massive monuments, mixed with simple stones, covered the rolling hills. The mixture of trees, shrubs, and stones created a peaceful, natural setting among the hustle and bustle of the Hartford region.
I was completely taken in by the site before me. I had been in large cemeteries before, but this one was definitely one the largest – if not the largest – cemetery I have visited. Finding a single grave within the borders of this sacred spot – without help or knowing its location – would be impossible.
I located the resting place of Katharine Hepburn on the map and carefully navigated the roadways of Cedar Hill Cemetery. I slowly passed through the garden of stone with its grand monuments, wishing I had the time to spend exploring the grounds. The Hepburn plot, which could be seen from the narrow roadway was quickly located. Parking near her resting spot is non-existent, so I pulled as close to the edge of the roadway as I could and hoped that no other vehicles wanted past as I paid my respects to the actress.
The Hepburn family plot is marked with a large rock with the name “Hepburn” engraved on it and is bordered by two flowering shrubs on either side. In the shadow of the family memorial is a simple granite marker that is set flush with the ground: “Katharine Houghton Hepburn / 1907-2003″. Compared to the grand monuments in the cemetery, the grave of the noted actress seemed so simple and out of place.
I first encountered Katharine Hepburn when I watched On Golden Pond and soon after being introduced to her I found myself watching many of her well-known movies: The African Queen, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, The Philadelphia Story, and Rooster Cogburn, the sequel to True Grit, all of which are considered classics of the silver screen.
Katharine Hepburn was born May 12, 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut, where she spent her childhood years. Katharine was the second of six children of Dr. Thomas and Katharine Hepburn. She showed interest in acting at an early age and her father built a small stage in the backyard for her to put on performances.
Katharine’s career almost never happened. At the age of fourteen, she discovered her brother, whom she was close to, after he had committed suicide. The tragedy caused her to become withdrawn and awkward around others and in the aftermath of the tragedy she adopted his birth date of November 8 as her own – it would not be until her autobiography that she revealed the real date of her birth.
In 1924, Katharine began attending Bryn Mawr College. Located in Pennsylvania, this was the same college her mother had attended. Hepburn’s first two years were not notable as she did not do well in any of her classes. During this time, however, she decided to pursue becoming an actress. Two days after graduation, she set out to follow her dream. Though her parents had allowed her to dabble in acting in the past, they had not planned for her to take it up seriously.
In 1928, while still in college, Katharine would marry Ludlow Smith, a businessman from Philadelphia. As a means to appease her, Smith changed his name to S. Odgen Ludlow because Katharine refused to be a Mrs. Smith. The marriage was never strong and would fall apart with her move to Hollywood in 1932. After they divorced, the two remained on friendly terms until his death in 1979. Hepburn would never remarry.
Katharine was not an overnight success. The success she had found on stage did not easily transfer to the Hollywood scene. Hepburn’s first break happened in 1932, when she starred opposite John Barrymore in A Bill of Divorcement. This would be the first of a number of movies she starred in for RKO Radio Pictures. Her most noted role for RKO was Jo in the adaptation of Little Women in 1933.
Although Katherine was a star, she refused to follow the rules of Hollywood and act the role of being a “starlet.” They wanted her to wear dresses and give interviews. Instead, she wore slacks, refused to wear make-up, and avoided the media as much as she could. After the success of Little Women, Katharine found herself as the lead in a number of flops, added with her refusal to conform to the ideal Hollywood actress, she was labeled as “box office poison.”
In 1938, Katharine ended her contract with RKO and moved back east. She took the lead in The Philadelphia Story on Broadway and received critical acclaim for her acting. Based on the success of the play, Hepburn bought the film rights and returned to Hollywood where she selected a director and her co-stars for a film version. The Philadelphia Story was a box office hit and Katharine personally revived her own career.
Katharine’s next film, Woman of the Year, would introduce her to Spencer Tracy. Katharine and Spencer would appear in nine films together and maintained a relationship that spanned twenty-five years. Though they were romantic both on and off screen, they never married because Spencer refused to divorce his wife. Hepburn remained by Tracy’s side and left the Hollywood scene to take care of him during his final years. They returned to the big screen to film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, which was Tracy’s last movie – he died seventeen days after filming was completed.
Katharine won the Best Actress Oscar four times out of her twelve nominations — the most won by any actress. The movies Hepburn won Best Actress for are: Morning Glory (1933), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968) and On Golden Pond (1981).
Katherine’s last films were Love Affair and a television film One Christmas, both which were released in 1994. She died in 2003 at the age of ninety-six at her family home in Connecticut. In accordance to her wishes, she had no memorial service and was laid to rest in the family plot.
As I stood paying my respects, a quote came to mind. The quote, spoken by Hepburn in On Golden Pond, has been one that has stuck with me throughout the years: “Don’t you think that everyone looks back on their childhood with a certain amount of bitterness and regret about something? It doesn’t have to ruin your life…Life marches by, Chels. I suggest you get on with it.”
And with those words echoing in my head I left her resting in the family plot. Time was marching on and I had miles to go before this journey was over.