“Australia is a fascinating country. Wonderful climate-walking, swimming, wildflowers, many many flowers that are quite different from any that we’ve known. I saw everything that I could and would love to go back. Wonderful birds-wonderful animals.”
Australia, the beautiful country in the Southern Hemisphere that is known for it’s breathtaking scenery and picturesque beaches has welcomed many notable tourists during the years. Some visitors ended up calling Australia home, while others fell in love with the continent and didn’t want to leave.
One of the most distinguished guests to ever step foot on Australian soil is Katharine Hepburn, the four time Academy Award winner who spent six glorious months here back in 1955 when she toured the continent with Robert Helpmann in three Shakespearean productions.
Katharine Hepburn loved travelling the world and discovering places that she might not have had the opportunity to explore if it weren’t for her career. That wish was fulfilled several times throughout her tenure as an actress. At the beginning of 1955, Hepburn was residing in London where she met the Australian born, Robert Helpmann, whom she would develop a lifelong friendship with.
In the meantime, Michael Benthall had surpassed Tyrone Guthrie in the role as director for the Old Vic in 1953, and was already in the process of achieving a long term aspiration that he had established years ago. More than anything that Benthall had wanted career wise was to create thirty-six plays from the Shakespeare canon and perform them within a period of five years. Now that Benthall was in charge this was easily accomplished, and before he knew it Benthall had mapped out a plan which included an Australian itinerary for him and he’s stars to perform, The Taming Of The Shrew, Measure For Measure and The Merchant Of Venice in that far away place down under where many people have never had the opportunity to visit.
Upon hearing the news that she was going to tour Australia, Kate couldn’t be more elated, and when she returned from Venice where she had been filming “Summertime”, she immediately signed for the part in those three productions. After all she loved vacationing in other parts of the world and examining different cultures, but while she was euphoric about the sojourn in Australia, there was one thing lingering on in her mind: Kate was worried about Spencer Tracy. After the Australian tour closed, Hepburn was scheduled to fly to London to film The Iron Petticoat with Bob Hope, which meant that she would be away from the United States and Spencer Tracy for almost a year.
After some serious thinking over, Hepburn decided that a long absence from Spencer would be the best thing. In addition to that she also saw this vacation as the perfect opportunity to expand her talents as an artist, something that Constance Collier had been encouraging Kate to do for years, but now that the favorable circumstance arose, Kate was eager to follow up Collier’s suggestion.
For weeks Katharine Hepburn had been looking forward to this highly anticipated trip to Australia, but just when she was about to embark on this long awaited journey, she received the news that Constance Collier had passed away in New York, where she had been coaching Marilyn Monroe. Hepburn was devastated beyond words. She was also crushed that her beloved mentor would miss the opportunity of witnessing her play Portia like she always wanted. Though as upset as she was and disappointed that she was not able to attend the memorial service, Hepburn was determined that she was doing this tour as a tribute to Constance, which is what she had told Phyllis Wilbourn, who she was hoping would accompany her on the tour.
On May 5th, 1955, Katharine Hepburn boarded a Qantas Airlines flight to Australia. The first stop was Sydney where she was welcomed to a deluge of reporters who besieged Sydney’s Kingford Smith Airport with their microphones and papers in hand ready to ask her questions that were common knowledge in the United States and England.
Minutes later Katharine Hepburn exited the aircraft wearing beige gabardine pants and a white polo sweater with her hair adorned in a top bun. In one hand she was holding a whiskey and soda which she constantly sipped as she tried to keep up with the questions. Finally Kate managed to end the press conference with some rambling monologue that was typical of Katharine Hepburn: “Your water here is wonderful. New York City water is fine. Hartford water is good. Middle West water not so good, but Atlanta, Georgia, water is very good. I went there and immediately had a bath and washed my hair because the water was so good.”
The Old Vic Tour opened in Sydney a few nights after to a crowd of roaring fans who were excited to see the presence of their idol up there on stage. The first show ran smoothly, and from there Kate and the rest of the cast traveled to Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Melbourne, where they performed to packed houses.
Apart from mixed reviews and people comparing Hepburn to Vivien Leigh who was also accustomed to Shakespearean roles, the shows were an overall success. Kate loved the enthusiasm from Australian audiences and found a spirit of defiance and unconventionality that resembled her own.
While she wasn’t performing, Kate relished the outdoors and explored the exquisite scenery of Australia. During some of these outings she met new friends who she would remain close to for the rest of her life. One night Maie Casey and her husband, Richard greeted her backstage to invite her to dinner at the Casey estate in Berwick. Richard later became Australia’s governor-general, and nobody was as enthused about that title than Kate.
From the moment Kate met Maie, she discovered that she possessed the exact same qualities as her. Like Kate, Maie was a daredevil pilot, and when the opportunity arose, Kate jumped in Maie’s plane and soared up into the air over the colossal stretches of the Australian outback. These memories with Maie were moments that she held onto for the rest of her life.
In her spare time when she wasn’t surrounded by people, Katharine Hepburn loved nothing more than capturing the photographic and arresting locales of Australian cities in her paintings. Whilst in Melbourne she had done a watercolor of Port Melbourne Pier and presented it to a friend, and in Perth she painted a vivid picture of the Esplanade Hotel, where she stayed during her visit to Perth.
Katharine Hepburn had fell in love with Australia, but sadly she knew that this unforgettable journey was about to come to an end. What she liked most about the country was the freedom that she never got in the United States. In Australia Kate could do what she pleased without the interference of the press. One day for instance, Kate was strolling leisurely through a park when she encountered an assembled group of children listening to the kookaburras singing in the trees. Kate who was a wildlife enthusiast became fixated in the sight and joined the kids in their kookaburra engaging activity.
Unfortunately the day came when Kate had to depart the country. It was this trip to the magical land down under that left Kate with an ingrained sense of nostalgia. For the rest of her life she would reminisce back to her time in Australia and the glorious moments she spent wondering through a lush Victorian rain forest and the thoughts of the lyrebirds in which she became obsessed with. In the years that followed Katharine Hepburn was longing to return, but sadly it was not to eventuate.
The Esplanade Hotel where Kate stayed in Perth.
The following was my entry for The Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon, hosted by Margaret Perry in celebration of Kate’s 109th Birthday. Click here to view the other articles being exhibited during the event. Happy Birthday Katharine Hepburn.