Katherine Hepburn: No Morning Glory

I belong to a family of old movie fans and book lovers.  I like to think this is the result of superior intellect and elitist literary tastes, but it probably has more to do with my conscientious parents making the radical decision to shut off the telly for good when I was five.  This deprivation drove us to scrounge for entertainment where we could, usually the public library.  My parents’ general rule where films were concerned was old black and whites and MGM musicals.  So Bogie and Brigadoon lit up my Friday nights, while my peers gushed over the latest episode of Friends.

My first experience of Katherine Hepburn was probably The Philadelphia Story, one of her many pairings with Cary Grant.  I remember how captivated I was by her performance, her enigmatic blend of strength and vulnerability so reminiscent of my own mother, also a Connecticut Yankee.  By the time I was well into my teens, I had exhausted the local library’s collection of her films and was ordering them through the state lending system.  In high school, I even wrote and presented a biographical report primarily based upon her autobiography Me: Stories of my Life.

Imagine my surprise and delight to discover, a decade later, I have a family connection to this great actress.  My father, who is adopted, recently made the decision to find his biological family.  By researching his birth certificate and public records, we unearthed a Hollywood connection.  As far as we can tell, his great aunt was none other than the Mary Duncan who appeared with Hepburn in one of her earliest films: Morning Glory (1933).

Morning Glory

While only her third movie, Morning Glory permanently established Hepburn as Hollywood Royalty.  Her portrayal of the green but gloriously talented ingénue, Eva Lovelace, garnered Hepburn the first of her four Academy Awards.  Mary Duncan, as the jaded, high-maintenance Broadway veteran Rita Vernon, presents an unflattering foil to Hepburn’s earnestness.  It is perhaps unreasonable to compare my father’s aunt to this legend, but there’s not much to go on.  We do know that, after minimal work in silent films and early ‘talkies,’ her career never flourished.  She became the titular “morning glory” (flash-in-the-pan) that Eva Lovelace declares she is not afraid of becoming after her triumphant Broadway debut.  The same year that Hepburn’s performance took home the Oscar, Mary Duncan retired from the silver screen, marrying, Stephen, “Laddie” Sanford, heir to the Bigelow-Sanford Carpet fortune, and spending the rest of her life playing golf in Palm Beach.

Hepburn’s own career had its ups and downs.  The photograph from Sylvia Scarlett  that was offered in our August 23 Entertainment & Music Memorabilia Signature Auction #7092 (her first pairing with Cary Grant, by the way) evidences one such flop during the “box office poison” phase of her career.  However, like the strong Yankee she was, Hepburn proved no “morning glory,” garnering three additional Academy Awards and a total of twelve nominations.

The ten items of Katherine Hepburn memorabilia presented in this sale originate from the Estate of Emily Perkins, a movie studio seamstress and bit actress who was also Hepburn’s companion for many years.  A fitting resolution, considering Hepburn’s own belongings were posthumously auctioned, raising $5.8 million, which Hepburn willed to her family.  As a Hepburn fan, I am thrilled to belong to a company that continues to carry on the legacy of this inimitable artist.  As a relative of a fellow actress, I am immensely proud my family got to play a small part in it.

By Holly Culbreath

Posted by Heritage Editorial

This article was written as a collaborative effort by multiple experts within the category at Heritage Auctions.

  1. Prior to her film debut, Mary Duncan had a notable, though brief, career on the stage, appearing for instance as the tragic daughter in the “The Shanghai Gesture” (1924.)


  2. That’s so interesting! Mary Duncan really had a fascinating life. Apparently, ‘The Shanghai Gesture’ was a very scandalous play, and (naturally) a hit. It was later made into a film (1941) starring Gene Tierney. Hepburn also enjoyed brief success on the stage before being talent-spotted for Hollywood in 1932’s ‘The Warrior’s Husband’.


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