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10 May 2012

Brother Tom's Suicide

Tom (left) and Katharine (right) Hepburn
Tom Houghton Hepburn, Katharine Hepburn's brother, was two years her senior. As children, the two were inseparable. Dr. Hepburn encouraged all his children to  be very athletic, and it has been said that his expectations for his eldest son could be extreme. Tom had developed a nervous tick due to a childhood illness, and Dr. Hepburn pressured him to use willpower to overcome the problem. He believed that any physical accomplishment could be achieved through willpower, hard work, and puritanical habits of living (Barbara Leaming, 1995, 139-140). Unfortunately, tom-boy Kathy proved to be more of an athlete than her brother, a point Dr. Hepburn often pointed out, congratulating Katharine on her athletic prowess within Tom's hearing. Tom was in fact a fairly competent athlete; he simply failed to measure up to his father's high standards for his children. Many Hepburn biographers attribute this failing on the father's part to Tom's low self-esteem as a youth. Dr. Hepburn is often portrayed as a bully and harsh task-master to his children. However, Miss Hepburn and her siblings hero-worshiped both their parents and constantly strove to impress them. On numerous occasions, Miss Hepburn attributed her success to the fact that she was the product of two extraordinary individuals (The Dick Cavett Show, 1974).

family photo a few months before Tom's death
Katharine  far left, Tom standing in rear

Mrs. Hepburn had a very tight circle of friends living in the Greenwich Village area of New York City. Many of them were friends from her Bryn Mawr days, and several were also involved in the social reform movements of the time. Tom and Katharine occasionally stayed with their "aunts" Mary Towle and Bertha Rembaugh, and it was during one of these visits that tragedy struck. When Tom didn't come down to breakfast one morning, 14-year-old Katharine went to fetch him from his attic bedroom. Upon entering the room, she first noticed that the tie from one of the curtains was missing so the drapes hung loose on that side. Then she saw her brother's body, suspended by the curtain tie from one of the ceiling beams, his bent legs clearly able to reach the ground. In a state of shock, Katharine got Tom down from the beam and lay him on the bed. After ascertaining that he was indeed dead, she recalled having seen a doctor's house on their street. She went to the house and rang the bell. The housekeeper answered the door and Katharine told her, "My brother is dead," to which the housekeeper replied, "Then the doctor can't help him, can he? and closed the door in Katharine's face (Hepburn, Me, 1991, 47).

Fearful that her aunt Mary Towle might become hysterical, Katharine went next door to Aunt Bertha's to break the news. The rest of the incident becomes a bit of a blur. Miss Hepburn later remembered her parents coming and crossing on the ferry with Tom's body. Mrs. Hepburn's father had also committed suicide and you must remember that there was a rather strong stigma surrounding suicide in those days (Barbara Leaming, 1995). Suicide was translated as mental instability and was believed to be an inherited trait. Therefore, a history of suicide in the family was not only something one wanted to keep from public knowledge, it also bred the fear that oneself or one's offspring might be threatened by the same problem. One can only imagine how horrified Mrs. Hepburn must have been to discover that her eldest son had succumbed to the same cause of death as her own father. In a documentary about Katharine Hepburn, her brother Bob recalls being at home with Mrs. Hepburn when she received the call from New York that Tom was dead. Even many years later, Bob was reduced to tears as he recalled his usually composed mother slumping over on the kitchen table as she answered the phone call from New York (All About Me, 1993).
Tom's school photo as it appeared
in the local newspaper reporting his death.

There was much public speculation concerning the cause of Tom's suicide. As I've said, some biographers attribute Dr. Hepburn's bullying to a development of low self-esteem. Tom's death was never discussed in the family. In later years, Miss Hepburn speculated that it must have been an accident. No one in the family could find any cause for Tom to suddenly become depressed or suicidal. In her autobiography, Miss Hepburn relates how she seems to remember Tom telling her, during that fateful visit to New York, "You're my girl, aren't you? You're my favorite girl in the whole world" (Hepburn, Me, 1991, 46). But even Miss Hepburn admits that that could be a memory she constructed many years later, half wishing, half hoping it had once been real. One possibility is that Tom was trying to perform an elaborate stunt described by Dr. Hepburn some months prior to Tom suicide. Dr. Hepburn was from Virginia and he would tell a story about how he and his African American friends would play pranks on the northern football teams who came to compete in the south. He showed his children how there was a special knack of tying a rope so that one could suspend oneself from a tree by the neck without cutting off your air supply. Although it is very difficult to find such antics amusing today, it is possible that Tom was trying this stunt but that he lost control of the slippery curtain tie (Hepburn, Me, 1991, 48).

As you can imagine, Tom's death had a dramatic effect on young Katharine. When she returned to the girls school she was then attending, she became frustrated by all the impertinent questions her classmates demanded of her concerning her brother's death. She felt that she lived in a different world than those girls, because she had been forced to grow up so abruptly. She described her new philosophy of life as "onlines:" "What I meant by it was that I wanted to be independent, to separate myself from all the others and never again to care so much about another person, so I would never feel the pain I felt when my teenage brother hanged himself" (Charlotte Chandler, 2010, 1). Katharine left school and began to take lessons from various tutors around Hartford. She much preferred this method of study, not only because it removed her from the society of her nosy peers, but also because it allowed her to play golf competitively; she became quite a champ. She loved riding her bike all over Hartford to her lessons and golf classes.

Katharine would feel the consequences of this less formal schooling when it came to preparations for her entrance to her mother's alma mater, Bryn Mawr College. She had to study extra hard for her entrance exams, just barley scraping the minimum passing marks in chemistry. And, having been away from the society of her peers for so long, she was unprepared for the social life of the all-girl college. Tom's death changed her life irreparably, shaping her into the independent woman the world would come to admire.


  1. Very interesting.. thanks!

  2. you've got a typo. it should be "bred" not 'bread".
    another english major.

  3. Hi Margaret,

    I would be relucant to put any statements from Charlotte Chandler in anything that you write about Katharine Hepburn as I believe she made most of the book up and I very much doubt that she interviewed her as claimed . Her comments about Tom Hepburn are particularly suspect and I doubt that Katharine would have been discussing such a traumatic event with a person that she barely knew . I speak as somebody who lost a sibling as well . I doubt that Katharine's account of what happened also has some inaccuracies due to the tragic circumstances Cheers Kerrie

    1. What evidence do you have to support the claim that she didn't interview Hepburn? I would be interested in following that up if it were true. The book has been a very valuable resource, so I will do some research of my own before I cross it off my list. Thank you for alerting me to the possibility that it might not be genuine.

  4. hi Katharine sounds like a very nice person and at school I am doing a project on her.

  5. Very interesting Margaret! Thanks for your literary contribution!

  6. Katherine Hepburn was a force of nature. Having said that she was a terrible actress until her later years and she
    got it. She was a wealthy woman (much like Grace Kelly ) who wanted to be famous without doing any work
    Henry Fonda, Bette Davis, Spencer Tracey and Gary Cooper who always makes me think he needs antibiotics,
    All came from that arrogance that they could act and were charming. Not!!! I do admire Hepburn she learned and
    worked hard.. I don't know her attraction to an alcoholic Tracey but she seems to have been a good friend. I would
    like to think he appreciated her but I doubt it.

  7. Miss Hepburn was not nearly as wealthy as grace Kelly was growing up. Her dad was a doctor/surgeon, but she was no heiress. I'm sorry you think she was a bad actress early on. It certainly was a different style, but she was fairly popular at the time. I'm glad you admire her though - she definitely was a force of nature!

  8. She was wonderful on the screen. But those romantic comedies with Tracey are just plain empty. Except for her uniqueness.
    I don't get it with Tracey. He just isn't as great as all
    Maybe I haven't seen the right vehicles yet

  9. Did any one ever stop to think that Tom made have been gay and the bullying from his tryant of a father with his i'm sure at that time 'closeted feelings' left him, as he saw it, with no way out...except the ultimate one.

  10. She couldn't save her adored, creative, depressed older brother so she spent her life making sure another creative, depressed man whom she adored wouldn't do the same. At least, that's my take.

  11. Very interesting read. Traumatic experience for Katherine and anyone for that matter who finds a loved one dead. 25 years later I still mourn the death of my partner and soulmate.

  12. I just found this post, and it was excellent. After reading the comments, I saw the one about Charlotte Chandler's biography. Here is The Telegraph's review of it, and it is rather damning:

    Excellent post, though! I am just getting into Ms. Hepburn and found the story of her brother's death so haunting.

  13. Has anyone ever raised the question of whether or not it is possible that Katharine and her brother Tom had had an incestuous relationship or love or experimented sexually and that that had driven him, the older sibling, to take his life?


Can't wait to hear your thoughts!