Not many people can say they were babysat by Katharine Hepburn, but Peter Bulkeley is one of them. “Kate was a distant cousin of mine, and our families were good friends,” Bulkeley tells Closer. “When I met her in 1931, I was 2 weeks old. She changed my diaper.”
Born and raised in Hartford, Connecticut, Katharine spent summers at her family’s house in the tight-knit Fenwick section of Old Saybrook, Connecticut, which is where Bulkeley got to know her. She made her movie debut in 1932 but continually returned to Fenwick and lived there fulltime in her later years, cherishing her seclusion. “People of Fenwick wouldn’t ever bother her,” Bulkeley says. “We were in awe of what she accomplished but not in awe of her personally. She was just one of us.”
Growing up, Katharine and her best friend, Ali Barbour, used to put on plays each summer. “One was Beauty and the Beast, and Kate was the Beast!” Bulkeley says. “That ’s when she developed an interest in acting and was pretty damn good at it!” That wasn’t her only talent. “She was a very good golfer,” Bulkeley says. “I caddied for her occasionally when I was a youngster, but she preferred to carry her own bag.”
The independent streak that Katharine brought to so many of her greatest roles was no act. “She was a very feisty person,” Bulkeley says. “If things didn’t go her way, look out!” As Katharine herself once said, “If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.”
Though Katharine fiercely protected her privacy, Bulkeley occasionally got a peek into her romantic life. “One afternoon down at our little community beach, this seaplane came right into the harbor, and it turned out the pilot was Howard Hughes,” he says of the eccentric billionaire Katharine dated from 1935 to 1938. “They were pretty hot and heavy.” Alas, their relationship wasn’t built to last. “I always thought it was lucky that we never married,” Katharine later said. “Two people who are used to having their own way should stay separate.”
A few years later, Bulkeley was delivering a newspaper to Katharine’s house and sat down in her kitchen for a glass of orange juice, only to find himself across the table from Spencer Tracy. “She obviously adored him,” says Bulkeley of Katharine’s longtime love. “You could see it in the way she looked at him and patted his arm.” Even though Spencer never divorced his wife and couldn’t go public with his relationship with Katharine, she remained devoted to him throughout their 27-year affair. “ I would have done anything for him,” Katharine said. “The door between us was always open. There were no reservations of any kind.” Katharine was devastated when Spencer died of a heart attack at 67 in 1967.
While she continued to work, she found herself spending more time in the comfort of her Connecticut home. “Fenwick is and always has been my paradise,” she wrote in her 1991 autobiography, Me. “I was and am nothing special here. I’ve been here since I was 6. I had a drink last night with a man with whom I won a three-legged race when we were about 10 — over 70 years ago.” Still, she remained her irrepressible self till the end. “She passed away at 96 in 2003, but when she was in her mid-80s, she was still riding around on her bicycle,” says Bulkeley, remembering a time when Katharine pedaled by while he was painting a fire hydrant green. “She stopped and said, ‘Peter, what are you doing? All fire hydrants should be red!’ Then she rode off. That was Kate!”
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