The house that Kate built: Hepburn’s legacy of land and home lives on at Fenwick ‘paradise’
It’s hard to imagine a more perfect, more tranquil setting to spend one’s golden years than Fenwick—a borough of Old Saybrook, where the Connecticut River meets Long Island Sound.
This place was called “paradise” by its most famous resident, a star of Hollywood’s Golden Age, Katharine Hepburn, who’d traveled the world, yet chose to call this coastal Connecticut community home for much of her life, until her death here in 2003 at age 96.
The Borough of Fenwick was created by a Special Act of the state legislature in 1899, and its quality, character and community have been preserved by residents and its Historic District Commission.
The turn-of-the-century homes of the era represented an array of architectural styles, including shingle-style “cottages,” ornate Queen Anne Victorians, and simpler Craftsman-style bungalows.
Fenwick, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is just 195 acres, not even half a square mile, with two historic lighthouses marking its shores. The “inner lighthouse,” the Lynde Point Lighthouse dates back to 1839, and the “outer lighthouse,” the Saybrook Breakwater Lighthouse was commissioned in 1886.
Marion Hepburn Grant—the late Connecticut historian and Katharine Hepburn’s younger sister—authored The Fenwick Story for the Connecticut Historical Society in 1974, recounting how her family came to live here:
Their father, Dr. Thomas Hepburn, founded the urology department at Hartford Hospital, and their mother was a passionate suffragette who ascended to the presidency of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association.
Dr. Hepburn bought their “summer cottage” in 1912; he acquired several parcels and properties with Dr. Donald Hooker, his brother-in-law, who was married to his wife’s sister, Edith.
Katharine, “Kate,” was born the second of six children. She was still a child when the family first came to Fenwick.
It was here that she and the other Hepburn children learned to golf, play tennis and race sailboats.
In 1896, the Fenwick Golf Course debuted, a nine-hole course that remains in operation today, making it Connecticut’s oldest public golf course, though there are some access restrictions and “season tickets” can cost upwards of $1,500. Kate became an avid golfer on that very course.
In her 1991 memoir, Hepburn recalled June in Fenwick: “The weather was heavenly—golf, tennis, swimming. Sailing. Ever available. The family were there. They were all there, and it was fun.”
The matriarch, Katharine Martha Houghton Hepburn, known as “Kit,” reportedly held suffrage meetings at the cottage, according to Grant’s account. She developed an affinity for diving and practiced at the end of the neighborhood pier.
In The Fenwick Story, Grant recounted an immodest moment for Kit Hepburn: “In those early days, ladies were expected to wear long black stockings and cover-up dresses for swimming. One warm day, Kit Hepburn horrified the community by walking down to the pier to dive without wearing the accustomed black stockings. … Many summer seasons passed before bare legs became the fashion.”
Young Kate and her brother Richard—“Dick,” who would later become a playwright—were said to have hosted plays for their friends and family at the cottage, acting out tales like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Bluebeard,” with sets crafted of cardboard.
She later ventured off to college, attending Bryn Mawr College, her mother’s alma mater, before pursuing her renowned acting career.
According to Grant, “Dr. Hepburn was not too happy about the theatrical career of his eldest daughter, but Mrs. Hepburn was delighted.”
She personified beauty and brains, with her thick mane, her set, angular jaw, expressive, piercing eyes and that unmistakable, assured voice. She exuded confidence and independence. The actress sported pants in public before they were broadly accepted as suitable attire for women, and she defended her fashion choice to reporters who pressed her about them.
Over the course of her career, Hepburn was awarded four Best Actress Oscars. She fell in and out of love along the way, marrying young. Her first husband was a businessman from Pennsylvania; the couple parted ways after just six years. She famously dated eccentric magnate Howard Hughes, who taught her how to fly an airplane during their courtship. Local Fenwick legend has it that Hughes used to drop in to see Kate and her family, landing his seaplane in the Long Island Sound and docking it right out in front of the house.
Her most famous love affair was with her nine-time costar, Spencer Tracy, whom she never married—for Tracy was already inconveniently married with children, and Catholic. Still, her affection for “Spence” endured from 1941 until his death in 1967.
About 10 years into her illustrious career (which spanned decades into the mid-1990s), Kate was at the family cottage with her mother and brother Dick, when a monster hurricane ravaged the Connecticut coast and swept the entire house into Long Island Sound. The family narrowly escaped through a window and waded to safety.
“God sent the hurricane of 1938. The house in Fenwick completely disappeared,” Hepburn recounts in the film Katharine Hepburn: Unintentional Trailblazer, a partly autobiographical virtual exhibit hosted by The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center (katharinehepburntheater.org). The Katharine Hepburn Museum at The Kate opened in 2020.
Anne Edwards’ biography, Katharine Hepburn: A Remarkable Woman recounts how the actress walked into town during the storm to find a working phone, and placed a call to her father, who immediately inquired about his wife. “She’s all right. All right, Dad! But listen, the house—it’s gone—blown away into the sea,” his daughter replied.
The pragmatic Dr. Hepburn responded, “I don’t suppose you had the brains enough to throw a match into it before it went, did you? It’s insured against fire, but not against blowing away!”
The actress was famously photographed in Fenwick after the hurricane. In one image, she’s seen sifting through rubble, presumably for anything salvageable. In another, she’s sitting on a porcelain toilet amid the debris, next to a claw-footed tub left behind, studying a document, perhaps a photograph spared by the storm. Someone thought to snap a photo of the actress as she dug through sand to salvage the family’s silver utensils.
On May 7, 1939, a Hartford newspaper reported that the movie star intended to rebuild at Fenwick, and published a sketch of the home she proposed—a house made of brick, painted white, with a cedar-shake roof. John F. Wayne was the architect, and Robert B. Swain was enlisted as the builder.
Underneath the headline, the subheading read, “Pretentious 21-Room Structure on Sound at Fenwick to Replace Father’s Modest Frame Cottage Razed by September Hurricane.”
The article provided details of the home’s interiors, describing pine-clad walls, a music room, formal dining room, and on the second floor, “five master bedrooms, three maids’ rooms, chauffeur’s room, a sleeping porch and bathrooms.”
Hepburn and members of her immediate family, including her beloved brother, Dick, relished the home and their coastal perspective for seven decades.
Hepburn referred to the 7.17-acre Fenwick estate in her last will and testament. When the property was sold off, several acres were designated as conservation land—the Hepburn Family Preserve, managed by the Lynde Point Land Trust.
Colette Harron, a broker with William Pitt Sotheby’s International Realty in Essex, served as the listing broker for the property more than once—including when the Hepburn family sold the property after the actress’ death and again for the most recent sale of the waterfront estate.
Subsequent owners have retained Hepburn’s choice of white-washed brick and cedar-shake roof.
The 8,368-square-feet of interior space has been freshened over the years and completely renovated in 2005 by F.J. Sciame Construction, which included raising the house by 5 feet and creating an upscale beach house aesthetic among the interiors. In 2011, 10 Mohegan Ave. was listed for sale with an asking price of $28 million and sold to new owners in 2017 for $11.5 million.
“Fenwick is magical,” Harron attested. “All the houses are so special. They take you to another era, and the historic commission has really tried to keep it that way.”
Katharine Hepburn knew it was pretty special, too. In her 1991 memoir, Me: Stories of My Life, she wrote, “Fenwick is and always has been my other paradise.”