OLD SAYBROOK, Conn. — The woman on the white couch has a grand old manor to sell. A Hollywood legend’s summer home is back on the block. But first Colette Harron has a wonderful story to tell about the leading lady of her most recent enterprise, Katharine Hepburn.
A brilliant springtime sun has spread a blanket of diamonds that dance across Long Island Sound and it’s easy to imagine the four-time Academy Award-winning actress sitting here with Harron, precisely as she did that summer afternoon 20 years or so ago at Hepburn’s beloved home here in the borough of Fenwick.
That cherished encounter happened like this: Harron had a house guest. The guest had a famous friend — and a great idea.
Let’s go have a drink with Kate, he suggested.
Hepburn “was very friendly and talked to me the whole time,’’ Harron said, recalling that summer afternoon’s intimate gathering of small talk and cocktails.
“She was wearing white slacks and a blue navy cashmere sweater. It was so her — as if she had been transported from the Hollywood scene into the living room. Down to earth. Lovely. She was a star. I was so excited.”
Harron could not have known that afternoon in the late 1990s that she would return to Fenwick, a tiny and tony borough at the mouth of the Connecticut River, again and again to market the Hepburn home, where the movie star’s privacy was zealously protected. The actress had spent summers here with her family since girlhood, organizing plays such as “Beauty and the Beast’’ with other summer colony kids when she was just 12.
It was a place, in the words of the movie star, where “everyone knew everyone.’’
“Fenwick is and always has been my paradise,’’ Hepburn wrote in her 1991 autobiography, “Me: Stories of My Life.’’
“I was and am nothing special here. I’ve been here since I was 6. I had a drink last night with a man with whom I won the three-legged race when we were about 10 — over 70 years ago.’’
Frank J. Sciame Jr., founder and chief executive of a prominent New York building company, first spotted this slice of seaside splendor, where a nine-hole golf course meanders around a neighborhood of large Victorian shingle-style homes quaintly called “cottages,’’ from the deck of the boat on which he cruised the East Coast.
“It was something I’d never seen before,’’ he said, recalling his first impressions of the estate 10 years before Hepburn’s death. He was smitten.
After Hepburn died at Fenwick at the age of 96 in June 2003, the trustees of her estate interviewed prospective real estate agents in New York to sell the Fenwick home, which had been rebuilt after being washed out to sea during the 1938 hurricane. Harron got the job and went to work.
The market was not great. In 2004, Sciame put in a bid for $6 million — half the asking price — and held his breath.
“Half of me wanted them to say ‘yes’ and the other half of me wanted them to say ‘no,’ ’’ he said. “We started to fall in love with it and ended up keeping it for [more than] 10 years.’’
Sciame poured money into the place. “I stopped counting at $3 million,’’ he said.
Welded beams and hydraulic jacks were brought in to raise the estate five feet to guard against flooding that had haunted Hepburn. The dark New England house was opened up.
The fireplaces and dock were saved, helping to preserve the 8,400-square-foot house’s historical identity. But custom craftspeople transformed the place. Marble countertops. Nine-foot ceilings. A screened-in bluestone porch. Six bedrooms. Two laundry rooms.
Framed photos of Hepburn hang on walls throughout the estate, including one with her in a red robe lounging with a book by one of those fireplaces, her hair wrapped in a white towel, her feet propped up on an ottoman.
It’s an image that harks back to the days when Howard Hughes would land his seaplane outside and glide onto her beach, or when Spencer Tracy, with whom Hepburn had a love affair for the ages, would have his breakfast on the back porch.
Sciame said that once, Hepburn’s brother and sister stopped by and marveled at what he’d done with the place. Another time, a passionate Hepburn fan showed up for a long-distance visit, a 50th birthday present from her husband. “There was a teapot on the stove and she asked if she could have it,’’ Sciame said. “I said, ‘Take it.’ ’’
Taylor Swift once expressed interest in buying the place, he said, opting instead for an estate at Watch Hill, R.I. Sciame himself owns another large home on Long Island. “It’s silly to keep this house for six or seven weekends a year,’’ he said.
So he’s hired Harron to sell the house again, this time for $11.8 million, $3 million less than Sciame sought for it in 2014. “It’s gone from priced to sit to priced to sell,’’ he said.
“It’s very Katharine Hepburn,’’ his real estate agent told me the other day as landscapers worked outside in the warmth of early spring. “It’s New England. It’s unpretentious. It’s beautiful. She could have lived anywhere, right? She chose to live here. It was quiet. It was private.’’
Harron was born in Morocco and came to the United States with her family in 1965. She was a fashion stylist in New York and, when it comes to the rich and famous, she hardly has stars in her eyes.
Her fashion shop in Manhattan counted among its customers Miles Davis, Lou Reed, and the legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who would hang out in her shop, where she said she fitted him for the white, fringed jacket he would wear while performing at Woodstock.
And now, Fenwick’s favorite movie star — or her spirit — is back in her life.
“Yes, it’s a very good gig,’’ she said. “It doesn’t get any better.’’
And somewhere Katharine Hepburn, who knew a good deal when she saw one, is nodding in agreement, flashing her trademark smile, fully appreciating a good line when she hears it.
Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.