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A glimpse inside the feisty world of Hepburn

By David Usborne in New York

A four-letter word she refused to see excised from a script and an abusive slur aimed at a speed cop are among glimpses of the late Katharine Hepburn revealed in a trove of personal papers donated to the New York Public Library.

The library said it had accepted the gift, including scrapbooks, journals, photographs and letters, from the estate of the late film and stage legend who died aged 96 in 2003. For the most part they provide an already familiar portrait of an actress prone to feisty, even haughty, behaviour.

Everything in the collection relates to Hepburn's long and sometimes problematic stage career. A separate hoard of papers pertaining to her cinematic career, for which she was better known, has been donated to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles.

An assiduous diarist, Hepburn, who lived most of her life in Connecticut, kept a record, for example, of a 1950-51 road tour with As You Like It. In Oklahoma her car was stopped for speeding and she and her driver were escorted to a nearby lawyer's office.

"I have been arrested by this moron," she declared upon arrival, according to her notes. She also recalled seething as it became clear that no one could find a judge. "I said I was sorry I did not have a week to take off and if I ever found an Oklahoma car in Connecticut, I would flatten all the tires." The policeman, aside from being a moron, was also "handsome in a dull kind of way".

Work on organising the 22 boxes of papers began even before Hepburn's death, her friend, the journalist Cynthia McFadden said, recalling how the actress kept mountains of papers "squirrelled away on the fourth floor of her house". She added: "It's remarkable that she kept all this stuff, especially because she was such a private person. But she had a real sense of history."

There are many letters of admiration from colleagues such as Laurence Olivier, Henry Fonda and Judy Garland. "I've always said you were our leading actress," Garland wrote to Hepburn in 1952 during a stint in The Millionairess on Broadway. Garland added, "I am getting fat and pregnant and mean."

Not everything Hepburn did on stage was a success. She was fired from her first play, The Big Pond, in 1928 and often fretted about losing her voice. A scrapbook bearing the initials "ST" – thought to have belonged to her greatest love, Spencer Tracy – contains notes about sessions with a speech coach while appearing in The Millionairess.

The collection also includes an exchange of letters in 1971 during a tour of the musical Coco about Coco Chanel. Hepburn is dismayed after being told that a four-letter word in the script – "shit" – had to be dropped for performances in Los Angeles because of audience sensibilities.

She said such censorship was "curiously head in the sand" in "an era of literature and cinema and theatre where every other expression is a four-letter word ... To me it is a seriously arbitrary decision and a false one - and alas one which injures very much our play". The offending word was eventually reinstated.

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