Barbara Walters' Complicated Relationship With Katharine Hepburn Explained

Katharine Hepburn lived in a world of right and wrong and black-and-white thinking. Barbara Walters dabbled in shades of gray. And yet, as Walters recounts on page 505 of her memoir, "Audition: A Memoir," Hepburn was the closest thing to a mentor that the celebrated television personality would ever have.

"She was such an independent woman, opinionated and positive about things, that when she said something it was as if it were written in stone and you had to pay attention to it," Walters recalls admiringly. While Hepburn pitied Walters for her nuanced worldview and while the great actress "loved to terrify people," Walters eventually grew close to Hepburn, winning her participation in a series of interviews that would come to include Walters' infamous "What kind of tree are you?" question.

"Her bark was worse than her bite," Walters writes of Hepburn in her memoir. And Walters, then a green and eager TV reporter, gradually managed to get past Hepburn's gruffness to become her friend.

Hepburn shaped the way Walters thought about life

Hanging out with Hepburn, Walters began to sharpen her own views on career, family and relationships, as Showbiz CheatSheet points out. Perhaps some of the famous actress's storied independence rubbed off on Walters, because she went on to enjoy her own high-flying career.

But no matter how accomplished she became, Walters' admiration for Hepburn never dimmed. And in "Audition," Walters says she still remembers many of Hepburn's unambiguous opinions years later. (Among those was Hepburn's opinion on appropriate journalistic conduct: Show up on time and bring chocolates.)

Walters also never forgot Hepburn's relationship with Spencer Tracy, an unorthodox affair in which the couple never lived together or married. Still, they remained a couple for three decades, during which time they co-starred in nine movies, according to Biography. Walters writes in "Audition" of how Hepburn's residence was adorned with artwork done by Tracy, who by many accounts abused alcohol significantly.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Hepburn left Walters an 'odd inheritance'

As Showbiz CheatSheet writes, "Being around Hepburn helped Walters form her own point of view toward career, kids, and love." For all that, when people of a certain generation think of Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Walters, they think of one question: "What kind of tree are you?" It's perhaps the one interview out of a prolific career that Walters has never managed to live down. As Groovy History explains, it's not as unprovoked and silly a question as it seems. Here's what happened: Walters had asked Hepburn how she became a Hollywood icon, and Hepburn replied that she'd become "sort of a thing."

"What sort of thing?" Walters pressed. Hepburn said that she was like a tree. So Walters then asked her what kind of a tree she was. Hepburn eventually said that she wanted to be like a white oak, strong and great. But the question, shorn of context, lived on in infamy, and in "Audition," Walters says that celebrities like Johnny Carson never let it go.

It's a strange way to be reminded of her late friend, but Walters can laugh about it now. Perhaps somewhere up there, Hepburn is laughing with her.