Food You Can Eat: Celebrity Sunday Matinee: Katharine Hepburn’s Brownies

"The calla lilies are in bloom again..."

Katharine Hepburn (r.), 1938

Katharine Hepburn was one of the most famous women who ever lived, and her brownies are one of the most widely known celebrity recipes floating around online. I slotted her in here because in two days it will be the Summer Solstice (in the northern hemisphere) and thus the longest day of the year. Therefore, it follows, we will be experiencing a long day’s journey into night, and she was in the 1962 movie “A Long Day’s Journey into Night,” so I thought

Screeeech! At the 35th Academy Awards Katharine Hepburn was nominated for Best Actress for “Journey” but didn’t get it. Bette Davis was nominated (for “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane”) but didn’t get it. FYCE favorite Joan Crawford was hugely pissed off because she wasn’t nominated for “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.” So what did our Joan do? She campaigned against Davis in the run-up AND persuaded New York-based Anne Bancroft that if she won (for “The Miracle Worker”) she, Joan Crawford, would be happy to accept her Oscar for her. Bancroft did win. So you have these two bitter enemies. The one who wasn’t even nominated got up on stage to accept the award for Best Actress, while the one who was nominated was left…seething is probably too mild a word for it.

But I digress. A ton is known about Hepburn so I’m going to skip lightly over her life and pass along stuff I didn’t know. She was one of six children born to prosperous parents in Connecticut. When she was 13 she and her beloved older brother Tom (they were the two oldest of the six) were staying with a friend of her mother’s in Greenwich Village. Tom, for reasons unknown, killed himself by hanging. He was 15. This, it is thought by some, prompted her well-earned reputation for aloofness/rudeness. She famously never signed autographs, used to bark at the press even when they lobbed the most softball questions at her, and only once attended an Academy Awards ceremony, to present an award, even though she was nominated 12 times and won four, all for Best Actress.

Her first big success onscreen was in 1933’s “Morning Glory,” for which she won her first Oscar. Later in the year came “Little Women,” which Hepburn considered her favorite movie. In the book her character, tomboy Jo, starts out at 15 and ends up 18 by the end of the second volume. Hepburn was 26. Also around this time she divorces her husband (they’d been married six years) and she never married again.

She appeared in 1938’s “Bringing Up Baby” with Cary Grant and it was kind of a bomb. She had made other flops around this time and you know what that meant for actresses of that era: Box Office Poison. But she bounced back and in 1940 made “The Philadelphia Story,” which was a huge hit. The next year she made “Woman of the Year” with Spencer Tracy and that legendary romance began. Tracy was an alcoholic insomniac and Hepburn dialed back her work to help him deal with this. So romantic. The only thing was: Tracy was married, and stayed married, until his death in 1967 (married for 44 years) and where his wife was while her husband was being ministered to by Kate Hepburn of all people…

Anyway, I’ll stop here, even though I could transcribe another hundred anecdotes. (Her constant feuding with next-door neighbor Stephen Sondheim was legendary.) On to the brownies:

Katharine Hepburn’s Brownies*

1. Melt together 1 stick butter and 2 squares unsweetened chocolate and take the saucepan off the heat. [EDITOR’S NOTE: This hearkens back to the day when “baking” chocolate—all two or so brands—came in large bars that were scored into squares. Use whatever your preferred brand—squares or otherwise—knowing that each square equaled one ounce.]

2. Stir in 1 cup sugar, add 2 eggs, and 1/2 teaspoon vanilla, and beat the mixture well.

3. Stir in 1/4 cup all-purpose flour and 1/4 teaspoon salt. (In Hepburn’s original recipe, 1 cup chopped walnuts is added here as well.)

4. Bake the brownies in a buttered and floured 8-inch-square pan at 325°F for about 40 minutes. You can cut these brownies into squares, once they have cooled, and eat them out of the pan, but it is so much nicer to pile them onto a fancy plate.

* That strange editorial voice you hear intruding is that of Laurie Colwin, who provided this in the February, 1992 issue of “Gourmet” magazine. This article, as far as I know, is how it became so famous in The Internet Age, but it had appeared previously and its origin myths abound. One I read said that it came from a syndicated newspaper column, which I would not doubt at all. Another said that an acquaintance dropped by with a plate of brownies while Hepburn was recuperating from a car accident and Hepburn, being who she was, detailed why their brownies were so horrible and spouted off her own recipe and the acquaintance took notes. Yeah, well…



    • That’s more than possible.

      Tracy’s wife was also an actor so she wasn’t some star-struck rube; they met doing summer stock (of course) and married and had children pretty young. They also separated while pretty young but then reconciled, but at this point his career was taking off and she kind of lived her own life as well. She was very devoted to her son, who was deaf, and did tons of work in that field.

      Meanwhile Spence was catting around (can you say that about a man?) but not with anyone for long, moving briskly and with purpose through the studio lots. Except for Hepburn. One of the reasons Hepburn was initially so unpopular was that she was so “mannish.” This wasn’t altogether meant that she was a Lesbian, but she wore pants and argued back and was widely known to be difficult to work with. It’s more than possible that the two of them had a deep friendship but nothing more.

  1. My apologies for completely forgetting Father’s Day! Here, please accept my invitation to join the Four Roses Society:

    I love how this ad drips with barely concealed homophilia, and I’m sure the Art Director knew exactly what he was doing. We are shown three men spending Father’s Day together with their dogs, and not in their own suburban houses being gifted slippers and ties by their (presumably non-existent) wives and children. Only one man’s face is barely shown, and he doesn’t look particularly happy, but that’s no doubt because it is 1959 and he has internalized some homophobic self-loathing.

    I bet they served a lot of Four Roses in those dark underground bars that used to get raided by the cops if the monthly payoffs to the police captains weren’t made pronto.

        • I’m very disappointed that they chose the “before” scene for this Four Roses ad. I very much would have liked to have seen the aftermath instead. I’m sure when things were done the one or two left would have been guzzling the whiskey with thousand yard stares, instead of barely sipping like they are here.

      • He is the “sub” in this throuple and thus is only worthy of a humiliatingly small toy chair.

        I just noticed that there’s no sign of mixers on the table next to the bottle of Four Roses, so they’re consuming mass quantities of the stuff out of large drinking glasses? These guy know how to party!

        I also blew up the ad and read the text. The large bulldog has a Four Roses dog tag, which is totally normal, as does one of the puppies, and the four puppies (the “little Rosies” as they are no doubt termed by the lushy humans) are said to be from a litter sired by the large bulldog. The female no doubt died in childbirth. Bulldog births are among the most problematic of all canine births, because of the way they have been bred over the last couple of centuries.

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