Letters, photos, film clips and many, many pairs of pants: Katharine Hepburn Museum opens in Connecticut

When she was filming her movie debut, “A Bill of Divorcement,” in 1932, Katharine Hepburn wrote her mother a letter: “This is such a scream. ... I’m gathering so many interesting and amusing facts about this business that I can hardly wait to get back to make you all pass out with hysterics.”

As the world knows, Hepburn made that interesting and amusing profession her life’s work, starring in more than 50 films and earning a still-record four best actress Oscars. The Hartford native, whose family spent summers in the Fenwick section of Old Saybrook, is the subject of a museum that opened Monday in Old Saybrook.


That letter is on exhibit in the Katharine Hepburn Museum, which is a new addition onto the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center performance venue. Lots of letters are on exhibit, as well as photos, film clips, posters, some of Hepburn’s outfits — many, many pairs of pants — and even a bathtub salvaged from the wreck of the Hepburn’s summer home after the hurricane of 1938.

The ribbon cutting Monday was attended by local and national dignitaries including U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who said the museum is “preserving and enhancing a Connecticut icon, not just the person Katharine Hepburn, but the values, the tradition, the heritage.”


The funny, frank letters to her adored mother — suffragist and Planned Parenthood co-founder Katharine Houghton Hepburn — are the heart of the exhibits. The handwritten missives give complexity and depth to the visually flashier elements in the show.

In that 1932 letter, Katharine tells her mom that “Barrymore was very pleased with me — mentally — physically — and actingly.” Her co-star Billie Burke — best known to today’s audiences as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North — is “very, very pretty and I hope she will be a success tho’ she can’t act at all.”

While making “Little Women” in 1933, Hepburn complains about a crew strike that caused production “to be going on forever.” She praised the other “Little Women,” played by Joan Bennett, Frances Dee and Jean Parker, but was less impressed by the “very dull” Douglass Montgomery, who portrayed the heartthrob Laurie. “[Director George] Cukor ... says to me quite often, ‘well, he’s not as offensive as I feared.’ ”

In 1935, after she made “Alice Adams,” Hepburn wrote “The director — George Stevens, was excellent. This was his first full-length picture and lots of people thought we were crazy to have him do it.” The doubters were wrong and Hepburn was right. Stevens went on to direct the legendary films “A Place in the Sun,” “Shane” and “Giant.”

The gossipy tone is shared by Hepburn’s sisters. In 1937, when fan magazines speculated that Hepburn might marry Howard Hughes, Margaret wrote to Marion. “The hotel lobby was jammed with reporters so she had to escape down a fire escape. ... Six armed policemen had to come to keep the corridors clear. ... Katy seems to be enjoying it immensely!”

Despite her annoyance at the union woes during “Little Women,” Hepburn in 1947 appeared at a political rally of the Progressive Citizens of America, a pro-union organization. At that rally, she said “I speak because I am an American and as an American, I shall always resist any attempt at the abridgement of freedom.”

Built during COVID

The 1,150-square-feet gallery space was built with about $500,000 in donations, The Kate’s Executive Director Brett Elliott said. Previously, there were offices and storage areas in that space, with a few movie posters and pictures on exhibit.

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Newly hired Museum Coordinator Elise Maragliano has worked at the American Museum of Natural History and taught anthropology at Southern Connecticut State University.


“I have always been a Katharine Hepburn fan. I remember seeing ‘The African Queen’ when I was sick. I was 10 or 11,” she said. “For me, she was a different representation of women, strong and independent, not just a wife and mother but her own person.”

Construction on the museum space began in 2021, when the Kate was still shuttered due to the pandemic.

“We took lemons and made lemonade,” Maragliano said. “We never would have been able to do this while there were people walking around, because this area leads right to the restrooms. People would have been walking through a construction area.”

Maragliano said she hoped that future exhibits would feature loans from other institutions with Hepburn memorabilia.

The Katharine Hepburn Museum, 300 Main St., is open Tuesday to Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. In July and August, it also will be open weekends noon to 4 p.m. It also is open before shows, for people with show tickets. Admission is free but a $5 suggested donation is requested.

Susan Dunne can be reached at