Brochure for the current exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

Brochure for the current exhibit at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts

While the exhibit devoted to Serge Diaghilev continues at the first floor Oenslager Gallery at New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, downstairs in its Astor Gallery is a lovely selection of materials from its recently acquired and processed Katherine Hepburn Papers. 

The Hepburn heirs divided the papers into two collections based on her stage and movie careers, the former going to the New York Public Library and the latter going to the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in Los Angeles.  Nevertheless, the division between her two vocations is not nearly so neat and her papers at NYPL contain many materials devoted to her motion picture activities.  When combined with the Library’s own film holdings, the picture that emerges is a rounded one. 


In chronological order the exhibit goes through the major segments of her career, highlighting her little-known early stage appearances.  In addition to many photographs (both publicity and candid), there are many magazines (as the exhibit notes state) which, at the outset of her film career, tried to reconcile Hepburn’s unusual looks with then-current ideas of beauty, sometimes resulting in images in which one strains to see a resemblance to the actress.

Here is presented a very different side of Hepburn.  On stage and in costume, she holds herself both regally and sensually depending on the dramatic situation.  It is a pity that with rare and late exceptions (such as the excerpt from the musical Coco, broadcast as part of the Tony Awards of 1970) there are no filmed records of Hepburn on stage.  Such is the ephemeral nature of the performer’s art.  Yet with ample documentation of scripts, letters, photographs and programs, one can get a sense of how Hepburn commanded a stage.  As Bob Taylor, the former curator of the Billy Rose Theatre Division stated in a video, these materials show part of Hepburn’s career that is often overlooked.

It is a fascinating trove:  there are a loads of letters, annotated scripts and documents.  One gets the sense that Hepburn strived to save materials relevant to her activities.  Apparently not content to simply collect, she frequently made notes on these materials.  So many items, even ephemeral ones, have her annotations, comments, thoughts, or communications, providing a deeper context for each item.  She apparently saved fan letters along with the most trivial of items.  That’s what makes not only the exhibit but her archive so rich:  she kept so many things that, while seemingly ephemeral, played some significant part in her life. 

It’s a lesson to us all on what makes a worthwhile archive: not the mere collection of lots of ephemera, but all of it having an organic connection to its creator/collector.  The result is a vivid picture of not just a performing artist but someone fully engaged with life and the world around her.