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O’Toole‐Ewald Art Associates, Inc.(OTE) is an 80‐year‐old firm with a main office in Manhattan, so it shouldn’t be surprising that over these many years we’ve provided professional appraisal services to any number of celebrity clients, among them Katherine Hepburn.
Hepburn was more than just a celebrity however; she was a legend, and when her secretary called to ask us to come to the Hepburn house in Turtle Bay, every soul at OTE volunteered to trot along with me that day in the late 80s. I don’t remember the month, but the weather was balmy and the sun was shining when we arrived, to be greeted at the step‐down entrance by the star herself, dressed casually in dark turtleneck sweater, loose slacks and sensibly sturdy flats.
My partner, James St. Lawrence O’Toole, was at that time in his early 90’s, a Hepburn fan of course, and so wanted to chat with her. As we entered the narrow downstairs hall and walked past the kitchen, Hepburn stopped to introduce us to the cook/housekeeper, with whom she was obviously on close terms. Jimmy O’Toole, already exhausted, was invited to sit down on a kitchen chair and Katherine Hepburn, his more rugged contemporary, stood there for several minutes reminiscing with him. Finally she maneuvered herself so that she could whisper in my ear: “How long do we have to keep this up?” I suggested Jimmy offer some parting remarks and an associate and I proceeded upstairs with Ms. Hepburn.
Her living room was as casual as her dress, with indifferent furnishings, small watercolors and Ashcan School era paintings, objects scattered around, and a large flying wooden goose attached to the ceiling. She gave us a tour of her home before we settled down to work – examining, measuring, photographing and recording all the art, furnishings, collectibles and
whatever else contained in the three or four small bedrooms. I remember little that was memorable among those items, except I do remember that in one bedroom I came upon a golden Oscar set at a crooked angle among various small items on a plain brown wood dresser.
"Is that a real Oscar?” I asked, rather inappropriately. She looked annoyed, not at me, but that she had left such an ostentatious object in plain view. She hurriedly snatched it up and thrust it into the top drawer, muttering something about “what’s that thing doing there?” All the while, as we walked from room to room, she explained about the origin of some of the items, and then began to speak more personally when she came across what I believe was a gift from the actress Betsy Drake, who had been married to Cary Grant. Without being prodded Katherine Hepburn went into high dudgeon about the (and I use a somewhat tempered word here) “frugality” of Cary Grant when it came to his wife, and to all his dealings in general. I regret
that I can’t recall the free‐wheeling comments she offered, unsolicited, about any number of international celebrities, but she certainly clearly had no compunction to be discreet. She spoke about many people, including at length about her brother Tom who had died decades before when Katherine was 14 and whose death impacted so greatly on her throughout her life.
She did offer me advice on love and marriage, but I won’t go into that now. On a later visit she asked me to assess the value of a painting she wanted to sell to help either a friend or an acting student down on his luck. It was a fine painting by Bellows and must have been in Hepburn’s possession for a very long time. The painting was apparently in a storage locker somewhere downstairs. I asked if we could help bring it up, but she turned down the offer. Minutes later, looking out through the rear living room window I saw her figure below, the largish painting tucked under her arm, half‐running across the yard. And then she was upstairs again with us, not breathless at all. I was impressed.
She also showed me a group of her own personal work, small watercolors done in a rather old‐fashioned manner. Then she became a bit more subdued.
“Do you think anybody would want them? I mean, to buy them?” I assured her that lots of fans would love the opportunity to buy one of her works.They were naïve water colors and might have come from the brush of a turn‐of‐the‐century teen‐ager, but they had great charm and, of course, great provenance. I told her that I was certain that we could find a dealer, many dealers, who would be delighted to exhibit her works. She seemed about to agree, then hesitated and said she would need time to think about it. We never resumed that conversation.
Monthly I would send her a company newsletter about the latest in the art and antiques world and I am told that she enjoyed reading it. Not very long after our visits ceased I learned that Katherine Hepburn had moved out of her beloved Turtle Bay townhouse and into the Hepburn Estate in Fenwick, Connecticut, later offered by Sotheby’s after her death for $30,000,000 and subdivided. It was a family compound, and learning from my several visits with Ms. Hepburn how incredibly important family was to her, I knew that it would have broken her heart.
Unfortunately I cannot comment much about the clothes in her closet because I somehow got the impression that there weren’t any ball gowns or fantastic fashions lurking inside. Those days were gone. But I did have the opportunity to spend a good deal of time with a very original lady who certainly did not hesitate in speaking her mind and who ultimately became the
epitome of the woman of will she so splendidly portrayed throughout her life.
President, O’Toole‐Ewald Art Associates, Inc.