For many decades, my father used to walk across town to do his food shopping on Second Avenue. He often shopped at a Gristede’s around the corner from Miss Hepburn’s town house on East 49th Street.
One day he suddenly came face to face with Miss Hepburn, who was also picking up groceries. He acknowledged her with a nod, and she responded in kind. He began thinking of her as a neighbor.
In 1983, my senior year at Bryn Mawr, Miss Hepburn’s alma mater, I was frustrated and was doing poorly, and at Christmas break, I decided to quit. I had the romantic notion of running away to Scotland to write screenplays. My father was frantic. My mother had died two years before, leaving him with all the responsibility for his headstrong daughter.
He knew that Miss Hepburn had gone through her own struggles at Bryn Mawr, so he wrote her a letter asking her to intervene. “She’s a great admirer of yours, and perhaps she’ll listen to you,” he wrote. On the way to the grocery store, he dropped the letter in her mail slot.
At 7:30 the next morning, the phone woke me up. I answered it and heard that famous voice, crackling with command. “Is this the young woman who wants to quit Bryn Mawr?” I said it was. “What a damn stupid thing to do!” she snapped. She went on to give me a lively lecture, the gist of which was that I had to finish my studies and get my degree, and after that I could do what I wanted to do. There was no arguing with her imperiousness. Then she said she wanted to meet us for tea.
The day of our appointment was gray and wintry. Walking the long blocks to Turtle Bay, my father and I didn’t speak much. It felt as if we were about to meet the Queen.
Miss Hepburn greeted us warmly. With casual hauteur, she provided us with tea and some of her famous brownies. Though she was in her 70’s, she had a youthful look, enhanced by her girlish clothes: a turtleneck, a black cardigan and shabby khaki-green pants.
We talked about many things, including Bryn Mawr. She said that she was miserable there and still had nightmares about it, but she was glad she went. At the end of the afternoon she told me, in a rather grim tone, “You’re smart.” It was a compliment, but also an admonition not to be foolish in the future.
My father was invited to visit her a few times after that. Once, he had heard that she was recovering from a serious car accident, and he stopped by to drop off a package of homemade brownies and a get-well note. To his surprise, he was ushered in and invited into her boudoir, where she greeted him in her nightgown. She sampled his brownies.
“Too much flour!” she declared. She then rattled off her own recipe, which he hastily wrote down. “And don’t overbake them! They should be moist, not cakey!”
I’ll always be grateful to Miss Hepburn for making me stick it out at Bryn Mawr and for giving me these rules to live by: 1. Never quit. 2. Be yourself. 3. Don’t put too much flour in your brownies.