Katharine Hepburn, film's indomitable woman, dies at 96

By Jay Carr, Globe Correspondent, 6/30/2003

Katharine Hepburn, who for more than 70 years blended fire, breeding, and backbone to personify the modern, independent American woman, died yesterday at her beachfront home in the Fenwick section of Old Saybrook, Conn. She was 96.

High-strung, high-minded, often high-handed, dishing out Connecticut Yankee bluntness in a Bryn Mawr drawl, she more than any in Hollywood's great line of movie queens was synonymous with fortitude, a quality she acquired both genetically and by example from her progressive parents in Hartford.

To scores of stage and screen roles she brought the quality she learned while marching alongside her suffragette mother, one she often said helped her most in life, a refusal to be defeated.

She won the first of her four Oscars in 1933 for playing an aspiring actress in ''Morning Glory,'' survived several career ups and downs, then won three more, for ''Guess Who's Coming to Dinner'' (1967), ''The Lion in Winter'' (1968), and ''On Golden Pond'' (1981).

Typically, Oscar mostly got it wrong. Ms. Hepburn won her statues for her lesser roles, not the great ones that endeared her to the public and in which she made movie history, the high-collared spinster shaming Humphrey Bogart's rum-swilling riverboat pilot into heroism in ''The African Queen'' (1951), for instance, a character she nailed down once director John Huston advised her to keep Eleanor Roosevelt in mind.

Entertaining as Ms. Hepburn is in ''Morning Glory'' - it was only her third film after a 1932 debut as the self-sacrificing daughter of a war-damaged father in ''A Bill of Divorcement'' - she's more crackling opposite an equally career-focused Ginger Rogers in ''Stage Door'' (1937). Here she drew on her own unswerving determination to become a star, a drive, she wrote later, that blighted and ended her only marriage, to Ludlow Ogden Smith.

Her earliest Hollywood champion was director George Cukor, who liked the way she placed a glass on a table in a first unimpressive screen test, ordered another, and cast her in ''A Bill of Divorcement.'' A few years later, he directed her in a role made to order and for which she arguably should have won another Oscar: the headstrong Jo in Cukor's exquisite rendering of Louisa May Alcott's ''Little Women'' (1933), one of her favorites.

Ambition is the common denominator in her memorable early films, the best after ''Little Women'' being ''Alice Adams'' (1935), in which she makes contact with the sadness in Booth Tarkington's desperate, social-climbing, small-town girl. Dorothy Arzner's ''Christopher Strong'' (1933), in which Ms. Hepburn played a doomed aviatrix, is a forgettable film that nevertheless contains two unforgettable images of her: in the cockpit of a small plane and at a costume party dressed as a silver moth who flies too close to a flame.

In Howard Hawks's classic screwball comedy, ''Bringing Up Baby'' (1938), she plays an heiress with a pet leopard, constantly keeping Cary Grant's paleontologist off balance. Hawks found ways to make Ms. Hepburn's occasional brittleness both funny and sympathetic. Heiress roles did a lot for the actress in this period.

But no sooner had she become an icon of smart modernity than she was cast in a succession of period dramas. They flopped. Theater owners labeled her box-office poison. She retrenched, calling upon her tenacity. She returned to the stage, where she had begun acting in 1928, after talking a producer into giving her a walk-on in ''The Czarina.''

Bony, nervous, and at first too vocally high-pitched to make audiences comfortable, Ms. Hepburn worked at acquiring stage savvy. Her Broadway breakthrough came in ''The Warrior's Husband'' in 1932. She played an Amazon queen who enters with a slain stag slung across her shoulder, bounds down a steep staircase, flings the carcass down, wrestles her lover to the stage, and says in what already was the inimitable Hepburn drawl: ''Bring me a bowl of water would you? I'm in a terrible sweat.'' She was a sensation.

Several of her films originated as stage plays, among them Philip Barry's high comedy, ''Holiday'' (1938), in which she again stars opposite Grant as a spirited heiress, with Cukor, her favorite director, behind the camera.

Not all her stage appearances were successes. After sitting through a stiff performance by Hepburn in ''The Lake,'' Dorothy Parker wrote, ''Miss Hepburn's emotions ran the gamut from A to B.'' But the stage-to-film route saved her career a few years later, when Ms. Hepburn commissioned ''The Philadelphia Story'' from Barry. After starring in it on Broadway, she bought the rights, insisted that Hollywood star her in the movie (1940), and became a star all over again as the tightly strung heiress, Tracy Lord.

Again, Grant is her leading man. Although Jimmy Stewart emerged as the Oscar winner, ''The Philadelphia Story'' is the film in which Ms. Hepburn's patrician persona jelled.

She had always projected a tomboy quality. In ''Sylvia Scarlett'' (1935), her first assignment opposite Grant, she cut her hair and impersonated a boy. In her autobiography, she said she was liberated by an actress named Hope Williams, whose slim figure, boy's haircut, and arm-swinging gait she observed while understudying Williams on Broadway in ''Holiday'' in 1928.

It was in the air, that boy-woman, Ms. Hepburn wrote, adding that she incorporated a lot of Williams's manner into her own personality. The role of the Philadelphia heiress gave her the chance to tinge her tony, slightly snobby image with a kind of ferocity. Her aggressive way of projecting breeding and idealism, Ms. Hepburn said later in life, also masked shyness and nervousness.

In ''The Philadelphia Story,'' it was Grant who got past Ms. Hepburn's defenses. In a string of later pictures, it was Spencer Tracy. They met in ''Woman of the Year'' (1942), with Tracy as a salt-of-the-earth sportswriter and Ms. Hepburn as a political columnist modeled on Dorothy Thompson.

''Oh, Mr. Tracy, I'm afraid I'm going to be too tall for you,'' she said at their first meeting. Tracy replied: ''Oh, don't worry, Miss Hepburn. I'll cut you down to size.''

Ms. Hepburn enjoyed friendships with Leland Hayward, John Ford, Howard Hughes (who bought her the ''Philadelphia Story'' movie rights), and writer William Rose. But Tracy was the love of Ms. Hepburn's life.

They didn't marry. Tracy, although separated, couldn't bring himself to divorce. But they lived together, on and off, for 26 years, until Tracy's death in 1967, three weeks after filming ''Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.'' She respected his ability to make screen acting seem easy. After his death, she affectionately recalled his initial doubts about what he took to be her ambiguous sexuality.

Following ''Woman of the Year,'' they made ''Keeper of the Flame'' (1942), ''Without Love'' (1945), ''The Sea of Grass'' (1947), ''State of the Union'' (1948), ''Adam's Rib'' (1949), ''Pat and Mike'' (1952), ''The Desk Set'' (1957), and ''Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.''

''Woman of the Year,'' ''State of the Union'' and ''Adam's Rib'' are the best. ''Pat and Mike'' gave Ms. Hepburn a chance to display her prowess in golf, tennis, and swimming. It gave Tracy, as a slick sports promoter, the chance to utter his famous line about her: ''Not much meat, but what's there is cherce.''

The ingredients were similar from film to film: jangly Ms. Hepburn crashing against rock-like Tracy until she mellows out. The Hepburn-Tracy comedies are spirited, without the edge of the Hepburn-Grant comedies, but more humane. At their best - as opposing lawyers in ''Adam's Rib'' and Republican presidential candidate with an estranged wife hitting the campaign trail for appearance's sake in ''State of the Union'' - benevolence warms the battle-of-the-sexes stuff.

For years, they rented and sometimes lived in a small house on the grounds of Cukor's estate. In the '60s, as Tracy's health failed, Ms. Hepburn acted less, although she took time out to inscribe a heartbreaking portrayal of Eugene O'Neill's opium-addicted mother in ''Long Day's Journey Into Night'' (1962). Oscars followed her roles as a woman flustered by her daughter's black fiance in the insubstantial ''Guess Who's Coming to Dinner,'' as a convincingly queenly Eleanor of Aquitaine in the pseudomedieval ''The Lion in Winter'' and as the understanding wife of Henry Fonda, frightened of aging in ''On Golden Pond.''

She also enjoyed success on television, most notably opposite Laurence Olivier in ''Love Among the Ruins'' and in a revival of ''The Corn Is Green.'' She was touched by the way ''On Golden Pond'' served as the occasion for Henry Fonda to reconcile with his daughter, Jane, who also played his daughter in the film. In an eerie echo of Tracy's death, Fonda, too, died shortly after completing the film.

Ms. Hepburn was close to her parents, who initially had doubts about her choice of career. The second of six children born to Katharine Maria Houghton and Thomas Norval Hepburn, she was born May 12, 1907, in Hartford and grew up there.

When she was 6, the family began summering at the Fenwick section of Old Saybrook, where the Connecticut River empties into Long Island Sound. When a hurricane lifted the house off its foundations in 1938, they rebuilt. She inherited that house.

She also lived for years in a brownstone she bought in Manhattan's Turtle Bay section in 1937 for $27,500. She described herself as a homebody who didn't go out much, liked swimming and sports, and, later, gardening.

She did, however, return to Broadway in three slight vehicles, ''Coco,'' ''A Matter of Gravity'' and ''The West Side Waltz,'' after a couple of memorable seasons at the American Shakespeare Festival in ''The Merchant of Venice,'' ''Much Ado About Nothing,'' ''Twelfth Night'' and, opposite Robert Ryan, ''Antony and Cleopatra.''

Her first role, she was fond of saying, was as a little girl at a fairgrounds, passing out balloons urging voting rights for women. Her parents also campaigned for birth control, civil rights, and against teen prostitution.

Her father was a doctor. She attended Bryn Mawr because her mother did, in defiance of a disapproving rich uncle who headed the Corning Glass Works.

For a long time, the Hepburns had no money, except what they earned. But they had character. Ms. Hepburn wrote that she learned her way of soldiering through, no matter what, from the example of her parents after the devastating death of her older brother, Tom, who hanged himself when she was 14.

Ms. Hepburn leaves a sister, Margaret Hepburn Perry; a brother, Dr. Robert Hepburn; and 13 nieces and nephews.

At her request, there will be no memorial service, and burial will be private at a later date.

She will mainly be remembered for her black-and-white films that showed off her high cheekbones and large eyes as color film could not. And for becoming an American classic more universally admired and beloved than any of her films.