As a writer for "National Geographic," I have been fortunate to travel all around the world and meet amazing people. I was the first writer to cross Australia’s Red Center, from south to north by train. I’ve slept in the highest monastery in the world in the Himalayas, and travelled 7,500 miles by jeep through Patagonia. I’ve dug clams with the Inuit on Baffin Island; eaten pasta in Belize with Francis Ford Coppola and played tennis against Maria Sharapova.
But of all of the assignments I’ve had, one stands out like the Matterhorn rising above the Alps: the day I interviewed Katharine Hepburn.
It took nearly three months to get the interview. Even at the age of 85, Hepburn still had an extraordinary hold over the public imagination. Even among teenagers, she ranked not far behind Michael Jackson and Elvis as one of the most idolised figures of the 20th century.
Freya Manston, Hepburn’s agent, was the dragon at the gate. For three months, she breathed fire and smoke over me, as I begged and charmed and wheedled. "No," she told me, again and again, "Miss Hepburn does not do interviews." But the more she said no, the more I badgered her. The ruder she was, the more charming I became. I wrote glowingly affectionate letters. The fact that I promised I would confine my questions to her lifelong love affair with the Connecticut coast, and not ask any about the legendary one she had with a man called Spencer Tracy, probably helped. So did Hepburn's well-known soft spot for Englishmen. A few days before Easter, Manston finally relented — and gave me Hepburn’s private number, spelled out in the old-fashioned way, with the district, Plaza, before the numbers.
Three days later, I was standing outside Hepburn’s brownstone on Turtle Bay, an exclusive quadrangle of apartments in mid-town Manhattan, whose other denizens included Hepburn’s friend, Stephen Sondheim. I clutched a bunch of flowers to my chest, like an anxious schoolboy on his first date. The door opened and I was greeted by a slightly severe octogenarian: Phyllis Wilbourn, Hepburn's British "secretary-companion-assistant-indispensable,” as Hepburn called her in her autobiography, "Me."
“Miss Hepburn is waiting for you upstairs,” she said, in a ringing English accent and closed the door behind us.
I began to climb the stairs, my heart knocking against my ribs. I felt like Pip going to see Miss Haversham in Charles Dickens’ "Great Expectations."
“I thought you’d got lost!” said Hepburn, rising from her chair on one side of the long, sunny living room. She was dressed in her signature colours, scarlet and black: a black, turtle-neck, cashmere sweater with a scarlet, wool jerkin over the top of it; black pants; and a pair of battered black sneakers that looked as though they had been bought at a thrift shop.
Time had ravaged her beauty. Her lustrous red hair was now grey. Her head bobbed up and down, from the Parkinson's disease that was already beginning to overwhelm her; and she was limping slightly after spraining her ankle in a minor car accident. But the look in her eye was still as mischievous, and full of life, as ever.
“Well, sit down,” she said, brusquely. “Over there. On the sofa.”
Hepburn returned to what she called her “command post” — a lacquered, black rocking chair draped with a scarlet scarf. On the cherry-wood table next to her was one of those big, black, old-fashioned telephones that weigh about two pounds. When it rang, it sounded like the bells on a fire engine. No one, except Hepburn, was allowed to touch it.
It was the child in Hepburn that the world loved, and Hollywood paid millions of dollars for: that headstrong, utterly authentic spirit that never got spoiled by fame
Normally, during an interview, I make copious notes. But with Hepburn I felt like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights and our conversation flashed by in a blur. After an hour, she looked across at me and asked: “D'you wanna eat?” I grinned sheepishly. “D'YOU WANT SOMETHING TO EAT?!” she yelled, as though addressing an imbecile.
Twenty minutes later, Nora, her Irish maid, brought up two trays loaded with delicious food: Caesar salad garnished with mushrooms and carrots; homemade mayonnaise; lashings of toast. Balancing hers across her knees, Hepburn tucked into her lunch with the gusto, and concentration, of a child, scooping thick wedges of butter out of a plastic tub and daubing it delightedly on her toast. She had asked me to turn off my recorder, and most of the time we ate in silence, occasionally exchanging a phrase, or a laugh, as the fire crackled and spat in the grate.
As a cloud shifted across the sky, Hepburn cried out, like an excited child: “Look at the sun! It' s coming out!”
It was the child in Hepburn that the world loved, and Hollywood paid millions of dollars for: that headstrong, utterly authentic spirit that never got spoiled by fame. “There's a magnificence that comes out of you, that comes out of your eyes, and your voice, and the way you walk,” Jimmy Stewart says at the end of the finest scene she played, a 13-minute tour de force in "Philadelphia Story" when she and Stewart perform a pas de deux of wit and romance around a swimming pool. “You're lit from within! You're banked down deep with fires!”
I put it to her that the secret of her success was that she had remained uncompromisingly herself, as children are fiercely and beautifully themselves.
She grinned, impishly, and whispered: “Lucky, lucky.”
The full-length version of Simon Worrall’s interview with Katharine Hepburn is available in his e-book "Lunch With Miss Hepburn:The Last Interview."