Skip to comments.Date with Kate: Stephen Bennett, Hepburn's portraitist, remembers actress
Posted on 07/11/2003 12:06:51 AM PDT by JohnHuang2
After dropping out of art school in NYC in 1982 and now fully immersed in the "gay" lifestyle, I decided I was going to make it in the art world as a "famous" portrait painter. My goal was to be "Stephen Bennett: Celebrity Artist to the Stars." My dreams were to have my own art gallery on Rodeo Drive in California, Mercedes Benz and boyfriend extraordinaire. I figured my paintings would sell for $50,000.00 and up - mere pocket change for the celebrities.
In the late '80s, my dreams slowly began to happen. I began doing celebrity portrait work (hardly making a dime, though). Little by little, my name and work was getting around. Billy Idol, Boy George, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Randy Travis and comedian Dana Carvey were some of my earlier works. I soon began designing concert merchandise for country star Crystal Gayle in Nashville and also traveled nationally with her. Today, a 5-foot, three-dimensional portrait I painted of Crystal hangs enclosed in glass in her office at her store, "Crystal's," in Nashville.
Other celebrity works followed (most of whom I met personally): Cher, Michael Bolton, Bette Midler, Woody Allen, David Letterman. While in California, I even went out for drinks and nachos with Sally Struthers, "Gloria" from "All in the Family." It seemed my dreams and career were on the way up.
I soon became friends with "Everybody Loves Raymond" star Brad Garrett who plays "Robert." I designed his first concert T-shirt after he won Star Search in 1984.
The stories I could tell of my experiences with each of the celebrities could be a book in itself (especially "Ms. Ross!" Don't cross this lady's path - and yes, she is just as wicked as she is made out to be!). One experience though that I'll never forget is being personally invited by Katharine Hepburn to her home in 1991 in Old Saybrook, Conn.
I painted a portrait of Kate that was very lifelike. It was stunning and reflected her beauty as an 80-year-old woman. I was invited to her home on a Saturday for her to personally see it. As excited as I was, I quickly went to work and painted another portrait for her to keep as a gift Spencer Tracy.
I arrived at her home in the "Bat Mobile," my black Pontiac Firebird. It was February and snow covered the Connecticut ground. A little old woman stood outside this huge mansion on the water wearing only a sweater, hunched over, eating a ham sandwich. It was Kate!
"Who are you?" she yelled at me, as to warn me off her property.
"I'm the painter," I said.
She then smiled, her head and hands shaking, and invited me in to her home.
As I walked into her mansion, I was taken aback by the interior. It was far from what I imagined. It was not beautiful, nor ritzy, nor even incredible. Everything was just old - worn out. In fact (I hate to even use the word,) it looked dumpy! I was shocked. It even smelled musty.
As I was walking in the hallway, two men were walking out with a carpet to be cleaned. Kate told me she had a flood in her living room from Long Island Sound. The carpet was not even nice - it was old, beat up and torn - yet she was sending it out to be cleaned!
We sat in her basement living room, full glass windows showing off the waters of the Sound. She asked if I would like a drink and someone elderly brought me a glass of water. Then, being right to the point, she said, "So, let's see the painting."
I pulled it out of a garbage bag (yes, I should have used something a little nicer). I then handed it to her and I watched her as she held it, shaking, examining every inch and detail.
"So, what do you think?" I asked. Knowing Kate from the movies, I should have expected her response:
"It's fair," she said.
"Fair?" I questioned.
"I think you've made my eyes are a little too close, and I hope my teeth aren't that yellow!" she said.
Till this day I quietly laugh to myself, for her teeth were whiter in my portrait than in real life! She then looked over and saw the other bag I had with me and said, "What's in that?"
I opened up the bag and pulled out the special portrait I created for her ... one of Spencer Tracy. Tears welled in her eyes as she reached out to hold it. The portrait was fairly large, 18-by-24 inches, framed in a beautiful wooden frame. Her hands continued to shake as she just held it and said, "Spence. ..."
"That's a present for you," I said. "That's for you graciously welcoming me into your home. I'd like you to have it."
All was quiet for several seconds and she handed the painting back to me. "I can't keep it," she remarked.
I was confused. "Why?" I asked.
As a little child, she bared the pain in her heart. "Everyone I love or have loved ... is gone. Everyone. My parents, Spence, others. If you look around, I have no photographs of anyone. It's all too painful," she said.
Kate then proceeded to get two old black and white photos in old frames. They were of two little children on the beach.
Kate said, "This is my mother and this one is my father as children. I obviously never knew them this way and these are the only photographs I keep of them. It doesn't hurt."
I guess I was not as understanding as I should have been at the time, understanding her emotional pain.
I pleaded, "Please, I spent a long time on this portrait. I really would like for you to have it." I felt deep down she wanted to keep it - just by her reaction when she saw it.
"Fine," she abruptly said. "I'll stick in the closet." She then took the portrait from me, and saw she made a new friend.
Katharine Hepburn then began to reminisce about her past, her mother, her father, Spencer Tracy and others. She shared with me how she also loved to paint and showed me some of her work. I'll never forget the self portrait she did of herself laying in bed in Austria with curlers in her hair, looking in a mirror. I honestly have to say, Kate's artwork was "fair," but at least she tried!
Our visit over 12 years ago lasted for about a half an hour, and it is one I'll honestly never forget. Kate cordially invited me to come back again sometime and visit with her. Unfortunately, that next visit never transpired. Today, now that I am a Christian I desperately wish that next visit did take place for it would have been with a total different purpose - a selfless one.
Katharine Hepburn died at 96 years old in the home I visited in Old Saybrook on June 30. The memories of her that stick in my mind are not the ones of my personal visit with her on that cold wintry morning in 1991 but painful memories of her views on God, the Bible and abortion.
Kate was no doubt a woman filled with anger deep-seated anger. She was a proud feminist and a vocal atheist. She made no apologies for her adulterous affair with actor Spencer Tracy. God to her was nothing but a myth and a story, and heaven and hell were fabrications of men used to manipulate mankind. She wanted no part of Him or His Word.
Phil Donahue interviewed Kate many years ago when he was the No. 1 talk show in America. Kate had no idea who Phil was she never watched television. On camera, Donahue's pride was obviously hurt a bit from her lack of knowledge of him.
Phil asked Kate, "Do you believe in God? Do you believe in an after life?" (Strange and bizarre questions coming from Phil Donahue - a man who has proved himself time and time again an enemy of the Gospel of Christ.)
Kate angrily replied, "I don't appreciate you sir pushing your religious beliefs on me! No, I don't believe in a god and as far as when I die, I'm looking forward to a nice, long rest in the ground!"
One of Katharine Hepburn's favorite "charities" she financially supported until her death was Planned Parenthood. Her militant beliefs on a woman's right to murder the unborn were heartbreaking. In news organizations around the country, stories of Kate's passing also included her link to Planned Parenthood and her support for a woman's "right to choose."
Today, I do grieve the loss of Katharine Hepburn. Kate was a woman who had it all in this life - fame, fortune, power and friends. However, if she never accepted the sacrificial payment of Jesus Christ on the cross for her sins, I'm afraid in God's book Katharine Hepburn lost at the game of life. She missed the boat on what life is all about.
I pray that I am wrong. I pray that someone reached Kate's stony heart with the truth before she died. However, if she defiantly rejected Jesus Christ until her death, I can biblically say with a breaking heart I'm sure Kate knows today first-hand the answers to Phil Donahue's questions.
As an "Ambassador of Christ," I pray I will never let another opportunity pass me by to share God's Word the Gospel of Jesus Christ with another fellow human being. Eternity is a long, long time.
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Sometimes old age brings wisdom. That does not seem to be the case with Hepburn. To her it brought emptiness, sadness, and bitterness. Perhaps living to 96 was a punishment.