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 partyread: “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.

Revelers cut into a birthday cake.Credit…Dolly Faibyshev for The New York Times

“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.”

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