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Women’s (Bike) History: Katharine Hepburn

As Steven Rea showcased in his beautiful book “Hollywood Rides a Bike,” movie stars have long been pedaling the joys of bicycling on the big screen. But few have adopted cycling in their daily lives like actress Katharine Hepburn. Born in 1907, Hepburn missed the first bicycling boom by a decade, but loved to ride from early childhood to old age. In fact, Hepburn shared her memories of bicycling in a biography of her life written by Charlotte Chandler. As historian Sue Macy recounts on her blog:

“I saw my parents riding their bicycles, and my brother Tom had his bicycle, too,” Hepburn is quoted as saying. “It looked like a lot of fun.” She related how, at age three-and-a-half, she learned to ride a special children’s bike her dad had made for her. Her first ride took place when he brought her to a hill in a nearby park, placed her on the bike, and gave her a shove. “He had a philosophy, you see,” she recalled. “He believed people will do what they have to do.” Hepburn survived that ride, though her dad had neglected to explain the use of brakes. She only stopped when she ran into a man at the bottom of the hill — but that didn’t dampen her enthusiasm. “The bicycle offered a wonderful chance to see the world,” she said. “I rode all over the city on my bicycle. I don’t know how Mother would have felt if she’d known how far I went. A city seen from a bicycle is an entirely different city.”

That wonder didn’t wear off once she became a movie star, either. According to April Streeter, author of Women on Wheels, Hepburn “was one of the few Hollywood starlets shown in bike glamour shots of the 1930s and 1940s who actually enjoyed a cycling habit.”

Publicity shots with movie stars on bicycles were particularly popular in the late 1930s all the way through the 1950s, and there are plenty of Kate. Fellow actor Theodore Bikel said she was the only superstar that actually regularly rode her bicycle around the Warner Brothers lot. In fact, Hepburn enjoyed cycling nearly everywhere she went. On many movie locations, her pattern seemed to be: work all day, take a bike ride in the afternoon or evening, and retire early. Later in life, she could be seen in slacks and a shirt and sweater, cycling undaunted through Manhattan traffic.

After all, in Hepburn’s day, bicycling made sense from an economic standpoint. “In the Depression, the bike was a viable means of transportation, and then in World War II there was another push for people in the U.S. to ride bikes to save gas and rubber,” Steven Rea told Women Bike Advisory Board member Melissa Balmer. “Hollywood was also encouraging people to be active and healthy via bicycling and other forms of exercise.” That healthy lifestyle certainly served Hepburn — who lived to be 96-years-old. Long after she retired, she was often seen riding near her ocean-front home in Old Saybrook, Conn. Here’s hoping more modern-day stars step up to Hepburn’s example in promoting bicycling for health, happiness and transportation!  

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