“Katharine Hepburn was the patron saint of the independent American female,” read Hepburn’s eulogy in the Los Angeles Times – and rightly so. There are few icons in cultural history quite so fiercely independent as Hepburn: the inimitable silver screen star who pioneered women wearing trouser suits, refused to be defined by a man, and who catalogued her impressive Rolodex of friendships within the gilt-edged pages of her bespoke Panama address book.

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Over the course of Hepburn’s illustrious career, she acted in over 50 films, won four Oscars for best actress and was nominated for another eight. When she was approached for her first role, in A Bill of Divorcement, she immediately demanded a pay rise – something unheard of within the Hollywood studio system of the time – and she got it. Such an assertive style became what would define Hepburn both on screen and off: the roles she played were sharp-witted, sophisticated and, controversially for the time, dressed in trouser suits.

After all, as she noted in her on-screen autobiography in 1991, “I realised long ago that skirts are hopeless. Anytime I hear a man say he prefers a woman in a skirt, I say: ‘Try one. Try a skirt.’” It is this audacity that has best defines her legacy; her refusal to acquiesce to the glamour demanded of Hollywood starlets or the meekly feminine sensibility of so many of her peers.

While she was consistently reluctant to expose her personal life to public scrutiny (she famously once quipped that “death will be a great relief: no more interviews”), Hepburn’s legacy of resolute self-determinism is one that has never waned, nor dated. “I have not lived as a woman. I have lived as a man,” she told Barbara Walters in 1981. “I’ve just done what I damn well wanted to and I made enough money to support myself, and I ain’t afraid of being alone.”

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Plus, with the phone numbers and addresses of people from Rock Hudson and Frank Sinatra to Winston Churchill and Vivien Leigh scrawled in biro (and, occasionally, pink felt tip) on the pages of her bespoke navy address book, being alone was clearly not on the cards for a woman who made her way in the world on her own terms. Whether travelling in London, New York or, most preferably, California (a city whose name was double-embossed on the cover of the book, and which came with twice the amount of pages to accommodate extra friendships), there were plenty of people around the world with whom she could find companionship. Such a spirit is one that remains as compelling in the present day as it did in her own time – and, if the acquisition of a Smythson address book sets us on her path… well, what can we say? We’re sold.
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About This Series

Icons: Exploring our long-standing heritage through the people who love us and the products that define us. 

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