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In a Secret Manhattan Garden, a Birthday Party for Katharine Hepburn

In a Secret Manhattan Garden, a Birthday Party for Katharine Hepburn

Nearly every spring for over two decades now, a tender ritual has taken place in a leafy plaza in the Turtle Bay area of Midtown Manhattan.

It is the Katharine Hepburn Garden Party, a posthumous birthday celebration for the four-time Academy Award-winning actress, who was a beloved member of the neighborhood until she died in 2003. The gathering is held at the garden named after Hepburn that is nestled within Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, and last weekend, dozens of loyal elderly local residents came out to toast her 117th year.

A sign bearing a portrait of Hepburn that welcomed guests to the party read: “Celebrate Kate’s Birthday. Cake, Coffee and Live Music!” The flier pinned to a community board noted: “Put on your dancing shoes. Wear your spring hat.”

Hepburn’s old neighbors sat in rows of folding chairs while they tapped their feet to a jazz band that played tunes like “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Cheek to Cheek.” Volunteers from the Turtle Bay Association and Friends of Dag Hammarskjold Plaza handed out Katharine Hepburn pins and slices of cake. Nearby, an informational sign included factoids about Hepburn’s life, black-and-white photographs of her running errands in the neighborhood and biographical chapter headings like “Tomboy at Heart” and “Tree Hugger.”

Relishing the sunny afternoon’s birthday festivities was Ethel Bendove, 89, a retired accountant.

“I still remember one cold winter day years ago when I saw a woman shoveling snow, and I noticed that she was wearing a lovely pair of boots,” Ms. Bendove said. “Then I realized it was Katharine Hepburn. She said hello to me and then went back to her shoveling. I guess it surprised me to see her doing that, and I never forgot it.”

To the congregants of this birthday gathering, Hepburn was not only a legend of American cinema, she was also an everyday New Yorker, one who took out her trash and shoveled her own snow, just like everyone else. (Well, except that she did so outside a four-story townhouse, anyway.)

For some 60 years, Hepburn’s Manhattan residence was her brownstone at 244 East 49th Street, and when she wasn’t making movies with Spencer Tracy or challenging traditional notions of femininity by wearing turtlenecks and trousers, she was an active member of the Turtle Bay Association.

With the same outspokenness that made her a roguish figure in Hollywood, Hepburn advocated stopping the destruction of trees on her street and the development of skyscrapers in the neighborhood. She also had a green thumb. Growing up, she enjoyed picking bloodroot and lily of the valley from hills along the Connecticut River, and she transplanted her love of nature to the city, planting wildflowers in her townhouse’s backyard.

When Hepburn was 90, the Parks Department dedicated the green space tucked inside Dag Hammarskjold Plaza to her. The small oasis, which was designed by the landscape architect George Vellonakis, is little known to even the savviest New Yorkers, and it has the feel of a secret garden.

Its footpath is lined with steppingstones inscribed with Hepburnisms like “Enemies are so stimulating” and “Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then.” A wall displays tablets engraved with scenes from Hepburn classics like “The Philadelphia Story” and “Little Women.” There’s also a bench that once belonged to Hepburn’s country home in Old Saybrook that her estate donated to the garden after her death.

“Once for lunch she invited me and Millie Margiotta of the Turtle Bay Association to her Connecticut home, and after I saw the bench, I told her lawyer we’d love to have it for the garden one day, and he said it was all ours if we wanted it,” Mr. Vellonakis recalled in a phone interview. “After she passed away, the bench accidentally went to auction, and we had to get Lauren Bacall to help us get it back for the garden.”

Last weekend as the birthday party began to bop, several speakers shared their remembrances of Hepburn’s legacy with the crowd.

“Her mother was a suffragette,” said Anne Hersh, a founder and director of Friends of Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. “And she would take Katharine Hepburn when she was just a little girl, and she would be expected to hand out posies to people to ask them to vote, to let women have the vote.”

Sabrina Seidner, a real estate broker who is an alum of Hepburn’s alma mater, Bryn Mawr College, recounted how Hepburn inspired campus traditions like skinny dipping in a fountain after finals, and that she wore pants to the college’s graduation ceremony in 1985.

“It was a special day,” Ms. Seidner said. “And one of the things she said to all of us was, ‘You go out there in the real world, you will get knocked down, but just don’t get knocked up.’”

Mark Levine, the Manhattan Borough president, took a moment to address a topic of concern for some: the green scaffolding currently cutting off a segment of the park, which had been installed in advance of facade work required on a building abutting the garden.

“I’m going to do everything I can to get this down and to get it down as soon as possible,” Mr. Levine said. “We have 4,000 scaffolds up throughout Manhattan. It’s an epidemic.”

The crowd cheered.

As the jazz band, Peter & the Master Keys, resumed swinging, guests continued to reminisce about Hepburn’s life in Turtle Bay.

Meryl Brodsky, an economics policy analyst, recalled Hepburn’s sometimes salty relationship with her neighbor Stephen Sondheim, who died in 2021, and lived in an adjacent townhouse that recently sold for $7 million.

“There’s a story about how Sondheim would grouse about her threatening to call the police on him because he liked composing on his piano in the wee hours of the night,” Ms. Brodsky said. “She hated it.”

Then Ms. Brodsky turned to Ms. Hersh to ask about her favorite Hepburn movie.

“‘The African Queen’ is mine,” she said. “What’s your favorite, Anne?”

“Maybe ‘Adam’s Rib,’” Ms. Hersh replied.

“‘Adam’s Rib’ is so great.”

“Remember when we screened it out here?” Ms. Hersh said. “Everyone was here. That got a big turnout.”

Also enjoying the birthday festivities was Robert Rosenblatt, an entertainment lawyer. His two miniature schnauzers kept him company.

Mr. Rosenblatt said that he never had the luck of encountering Hepburn in the neighborhood, but that the garden’s existence always let him feel close to her.

“The closest I ever got to meeting Hepburn is sitting on her bench,” he said. “This neighborhood still has her glow and grace to this day, partly because she was so devoted to this community, and I still feel that grace whenever I sit on her bench in the garden.”

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