I was a stage-struck 14. The experience of a leading role in a play staged by my neighborhood drama club had changed me profoundly. I'd stood in the glare of the footlights and heard the heady sound of applause; I was filled with a sense of destiny. This was not just the stuff of dreams. This was what life could be, what it should be.
So when I read in the newspaper that Katharine Hepburn was coming to Chicago in "As You Like It," I felt a delicious chill. Surely fate had tapped me on the shoulder. My 15th birthday was weeks away. I asked my parents for a very special present, a theater ticket.
Mother tried. She called, only to discover that all the less-expensive seats had sold out. I was devastated, but tried not to show it. As the fifth in a family of six children, I knew my parents' very limited means did not extend to theater tickets, let alone expensive ones.
My parents must have guessed how much I wanted to see that play, however. Two days before my birthday, I was told that although they'd already bought my birthday present, Dad had gone downtown and purchased a ticket for Miss Hepburn's Saturday matinee. The seat was right down in front and it was expensive all right: a whopping $4.50.
THE afternoon was all I'd expected and more. Katharine Hepburn strode about the fairyland stage in green tights, declaiming in her inimitable voice.
And me, I sat in the darkened theater and for a few hours knew the meaning of sheer rapture.
After the curtain fell, I dashed outside and sprinted a half block to the brick alley behind the theater - I'd learned about stage doors in our drama club. I reached it just in time to see Miss Hepburn sweep down the steps.
I swallowed my panic and took a step forward, program and pen in hand. One look at that angular, forbidding face, however, and I took a quick step back. Miss Hepburn's gaze swept over me as she briskly passed and stepped into the waiting limousine. I watched in awed silence that turned to desolation as the car sped off down the alley.
I soon forgot my chagrin at missing my big chance, however. Other cast members came out and cheerfully signed programs for me and a crowd of other fans who by now had joined me in the alley. I stayed long after the cast had left, savoring the fact that I'd been close to real, live actors. Only a few people remained when the long, black limousine returned. Perhaps Miss Hepburn had forgotten something!
I peeked inside the car. She hadn't. But the driver saw me and got out. He gestured to me. With a good-natured grin he asked why I hadn't asked his famous passenger for her autograph.
Before I knew it, I was pouring out the whole story of my birthday present, my admiration for Katharine Hepburn, and what a fabulous treat my afternoon had been.
He thought a moment, pushed his black cap to the back of his head, and said he had a suggestion. Why didn't I write Miss Hepburn, tell her how much her performance had meant to me, and ask her to send me her autograph?
The audacity of it took my breath away. Could a person really do that? Where did one send the letter?
He looked around and then leaned forward to whisper, "The Drake Hotel."
Later that night I wrote a letter to Katharine Hepburn. I told her how much I'd loved "As You Like It," told her the story of my birthday present; I think I even enlightened her about my theatrical aspirations. Then, enclosing a blank sheet of paper and a stamped, self-addressed envelope, I sent the whole shebang off to the Drake Hotel.
I can't imagine what Miss Hepburn thought of the letter, but three days later my self-addressed, stamped envelope arrived, and when I tore it open I found a sheet of paper inside, no longer blank, but with a distinctive, scrawled signature on it. My parents were pleased for me, my siblings impressed, my friends awed, and for weeks afterward I was just plain blissful.
Even now, when I look at the yellowed, folded paper, it's warming to recall a chauffeur's kindness, a famous star's perhaps rueful acquiescence, and a teenager's joy.