It was 1976. It was The Royal Alexander Theatre in Toronto, Ontario. There I was standing inches from Katharine Hepburn, with buckling knees, I might add, having been pushed through the crowds by a “friend”. We’d just seen “A Matter of Gravity”.
The view from the second balcony was exceptional, sort of. I say exceptional, exceptionally high, that is. We made our way out of the theatre amongst the formerly dressed Theatre Crowd and proceeded to go home. That’s when we saw a gathering of people and the adventure began. I was coaxed into asking her for her autograph and she politely said “No”. She must have seen the look of horror on my face. She quickly remedied the discomfort by saying that I should give my Program to the Box Office and could pick it up tomorrow. Little did I know that the encounter would result in over 15 years of correspondence, as succinct as it was, most of the time. Miss Hepburn was known for her short greetings, even amongst her friends.
After the encounter we were on cloud nine. Thoughts of going home became, where can we get a drink and talk about this. We quickly found a bar and discussed the situation. After a few drinks we made a pact. We planned to hand-deliver 2 pink carnations after every remaining performance. We didn’t consider the fact that it was in the dead of Winter or how difficult it could be to buy 2 pink carnations at any given time. We were too young to worry about details. The goal was the goal. There wasn’t anything we couldn’t do if we set our minds to it. So, we set the pact, toasted to our resolution and went home.
I’m not quite sure where we got the carnations but one of us must have bought them on the way home. Home being a good forty-five minute subway ride from the downtown area. We hadn’t considered the travelling aspect of our venture, but that didn’t effect our determination.
We faithfully stood at the same location each visit. Not wanting to be in her face, we decided that a good distance from the front of house stage door would be more polite. Each time we casually presented her with the two carnations, unwrapped and respectfully visible.
As time went on she would stride towards us and jokingly chide us about spending our money on her. We’d quickly pass the time of day and Fisher, her driver, would escort her to the car. Yes, the car, just a simple sedan, nothing over blown. No pretense with this woman. She’d climb in, and one time she looked back and said, I’m just an old dog. Then off they’d go to The Windsor Arms Hotel. The hotel had a special suite for her visits.
It was interesting how people began to wonder who we were. It appeared to them that we must have been great friends as she’d come straight to us. Somewhat amusing, but she was that gracious and did as she pleased, much to the chagrin of her well dressed public. Somehow, she knew we simply were expressing our admiration in a small way and wanted nothing in return. She knew that instinctively.
As I said before, it was the dead of winter. One matinee day, we were standing in our usual spot and realized that her car and Fisher were nowhere to be seen. Suddenly Fisher comes running towards us waving us to come with him. As it turned out, she decided to leave by the back-stage door. So, we followed him. We made ourselves comfortable on a snow bank and waited. She came out and told us she wanted to get a nap before the evening show, accepted her flowers and headed to the car. The saddest thing was that the few mink clad theatre goers that happened to be out back began to bang on her car window. It was quite the show.
One extremely cold day, for some reason, we’d bought the carnations the day before. To keep them fresh we put them on the inside windowsill. HORRORS! They had frozen overnight and we had no option but to take them to her. So we tentatively made our way to the Theatre. She was as gracious as ever.
Towards the end of the run she asked us if we’d like to see the show. As we’d already seen it we hesitated. Well? She said a little confused. It was almost a slight on our part. Of course, we said and that was that. I’m inviting you to the final performance. You can pick up the tickets at the box office. Just ask for K.H. tickets, she said.
Well here we were at The Royal Alexander Theatre being ushered down to the front row, two carnations in hand. She’d given us seats down left of the stage, where the majority of here scenes were played. We felt a little out-of-place but knew, she knew, we’d be there. I must say we felt very special. She had a way of doing just that.
One thing she didn’t tell us, and why would she, was that Ms. Hepburn refused to work and indeed live, anywhere with temperatures above 60 degrees. We froze. She insisted that the stage door be open which, as I knew, was directly behind stage left, not far from where we were seated.
After the show Fisher made sure we had our goodbyes and Ms. Hepburn got her flowers from us. She told us, in a note, that all of the carnations were still beautiful, even the frozen one’s survived.
“You are very sweet-you two-standing out in the alley
with your toll.
I do really enjoy flowers.
And they last and last because I use very little heat.
So the collection of carnations grows and grows.
Even those two frozen ones survive – so do we –
don’t we – if someone takes care as you do of me.
You two make me happy.
Thank You. Katharine Hepburn”
The experience was very special. There was no pretense. No ulterior motives. Just another journey. We sent short letters, and the usual holiday greetings to her in New York, which she replied to. Some type written, perhaps by her personal assistant, Phyllis at the time, but always signed. I could see that her signature was getting shakier. One funny exchange, we’d asked how her foot was. Her hand written response was “The wheel chair version is rather fun.”
I continued to write. At one point in 1982 she wrote back, after having hurt her shoulder. “I’m fine – – the papers are slightly idiotic – – just a shoulder tear.” I saw her signature getting less and less steady.
The last letter I have is from a response dated III – 10 – 1994.
“Dear Jennifer – Thankyou –”
Born: May 12, 1907, Hartford, Connecticut
DIED June 29, 2003 (aged 96)