Katharine Hepburn, the vibrant and indomitable rebel who became one of the American cinema's greatest actresses and most inspiring personalities--as well as a central figure in one of Hollywood's most moving love stories, with frequent co-star Spencer Tracy--died Sunday at her home in Old Saybrook, Conn.
Hepburn was 96 and, despite a remarkable constitution and a lifelong lifestyle of Spartan discipline and athleticism, had been in ill health in recent years. She died of old age, a spokesman said.
Her personality was incandescent, her talent immense, her discipline extraordinary, her spirit apparently unconquerable and her pre-eminence, by the end, almost universally acknowledged. Though some critics early in her career dismissed her acting as mannered or shallow--focusing on her tart New England accent, allegedly horsy features and the patrician manner she often manipulated to comic effect--Hepburn was one of the most versatile and brave actresses in the history of movies, taking on and mastering one fresh challenge after another.
With her death, she breaks our hearts one last time. But it's safe to say that Hepburn's name will remain a touchstone for cinematic and dramatic excellence.
Even among her few movie acting peers -- Bette Davis, Meryl Streep, Liv Ullmann and Vanessa Redgrave--she stands supreme: the generally acknowledged champion female performer. Hepburn's four best actress Oscars and eight near-misses remain records. In addition, she won three British Academy Awards, an Emmy, best actress prizes at the Cannes and Venice film festivals, and a citation from the American Film Institute as our greatest female screen legend.
Born on May 12, 1907, in Hartford, Conn.--a birth date she mysteriously fudged for much of her career--Hepburn was unique. She stayed a star film actress and leading lady across seven decades: from the 1930s, the decade of her first Oscar (as an aspiring Broadway actress in 1933's "Morning Glory"), through the 1980s, decade of her last best actress trophy for 1981's "On Golden Pond," right into the 1990s, when she starred in TV movies and narrated documentaries on her life.
Consummate in drama and romantic comedy, she gave superb, unmatched witty portrayals (with co-stars Cary Grant and Tracy) in the sprightly screwball classic "Bringing Up Baby" (1938) and the more elegant "Holiday" (1938), "The Philadelphia Story" (1940), "Adam's Rib" (1949) and "Pat and Mike" (1952). But she was equally effective in darker tones, as sharp-tongued Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine in "The Lion in Winter" (1968) and Tennessee Williams' eccentric diva Amanda Wingfield in the TV movie "The Glass Menagerie" (1973).
And in director Sidney Lumet's 1962 film of Eugene O'Neill's devastating autobiographical play "Long Day's Journey Into Night," she gave one of the screen's greatest tragic performances, a shattering portrayal of the character modeled on O'Neill's drug-addicted mother: grieving, hysterical, morphine-ravaged Mary Tyrone. Few dramatic moments in any film surpass her last close-up, staring into the darkness and murmuring: "Yes, I remember. I fell in love with James Tyrone and was so happy for a time."
A legendary love story
Her own happiness lasted longer. It was the legendary 25-year love affair between Hepburn and Tracy that most caught the public imagination. Beginning on the set of their first film together, "Woman of the Year" (1942), and ending shortly after the completion of their ninth and last, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" (1967), it was Hollywood's best-kept-secret romance. Though widely known by most of their colleagues and much of the press, the Tracy-Hepburn affair was not publicly revealed during Tracy's lifetime, partly out of respect for the Catholic movie star's desire to avoid scandal -- or divorce from his wife of 44 years, Louise Treadwell Tracy -- but also out of a widespread respect for the lovers, who had something close to "first family" stature among their Hollywood colleagues.
Their romance was complicated by Tracy's alcoholism, his infidelities (toward Hepburn as well his wife), his later illnesses and the need for a constant veneer of secrecy over their life together. Through it all, Hepburn, who never had children, stayed beside him. She was with him until the night of his death, discreetly withdrawing afterward for his family's sake.
Sixty years before that parting, Hepburn was born into a family she always insisted was far more interesting than she was. Her father, Thomas Hepburn, was a crusading doctor who rose from humble circumstances to become one of Connecticut's leading physicians. Her mother, Katharine Houghton Hepburn, defied her wealthy Connecticut family to marry the poor Dr. Hepburn and afterward devoted her life to liberal causes her relatives detested, notably Planned Parenthood and women's suffrage.
The Hepburns raised their children in a large, rambling house in conditions of remarkable intellectual freedom, tempered by strict physical discipline. Katharine, the second of six children, was the family tomboy and rebel. As biographer Christopher Andersen recounts, she was a daredevil who climbed the estate's tallest trees and, as a teenager, broke into her neighbors' houses, playing at being a burglar without actually stealing.
Her closest relationship was with her elder brother, Tom, who hanged himself in his room at age 15. For years afterward, Hepburn, without explanation, gave Tom's birthday, Nov. 8, as her own, also understating her age by two years.
Hepburn gained her interest in acting at Bryn Mawr College, a passion she eventually pursued with the tenacity that marked her entire career. Marrying Ludlow Ogden Smith, a socially prominent suitor who adored her (later changing his name to "Ogden Ludlow" to save his bride from the comic stigma of bearing the same name as rotund 1930s radio singer Kate Smith), Hepburn mounted a sustained attack on Broadway. It was an irresistible campaign that survived early firings and some witheringly bad notices--including New Yorker reviewer Dorothy Parker's famously acid dismissal of her in the 1933 stage play "The Lake": "Miss Hepburn ran the gamut of emotions from A to B."
Eventually winning overnight stardom for a show-stopping Amazon role in 1931's "The Warrior's Husband," she went to Hollywood in 1932 at the behest of David Selznick and director George Cukor, to play opposite John Barrymore in "A Bill of Divorcement." One year later, she appeared in the two films that galvanized her career: as the fiercely ambitious, aspiring Broadway actress in "Morning Glory" and, in the role that remained her all-time favorite, as Jo March in Cukor and Selznick's splendid adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women."
Afterward, her film roles, many designed as Hepburn vehicles, came thick and fast. Though her most frequent director and most congenial mentor was Cukor -- who went on to guide her in eight other movies (including "The Philadelphia Story," "Pat and Mike" and 1979's "The Corn is Green")--she was also the choice of some of the Hollywood Golden Age's greatest directors: George Stevens (1935's "Alice Adams" and "Woman of the Year"); Howard Hawks ("Bringing Up Baby"), John Ford (1936's "Mary of Scotland"); Gregory La Cava (1937's "Stage Door"); Vincente Minnelli (1946's "Undercurrent"); Elia Kazan (1947's "The Sea of Grass"), Clarence Brown (1947's "Song of Love"), Frank Capra (1948's "State of the Union"); John Huston (1951's "The African Queen"); David Lean (1955's "Summertime") and Joseph Mankiewicz (1959's "Suddenly, Last Summer").
She was deeply admired by most of them, and she was long rumored to have had romances with Stevens and Ford. Hawks once declared Hepburn one of the two sexiest actresses he had ever directed. (The other: his personal Galatea, Lauren Bacall.) After the Golden Age passed, Hepburn was still in demand by a newer breed--Lumet, Stanley Kramer, Anthony Harvey, Mark Rydell and Warren Beatty.
If her career went into overdrive in the '30s, so did her romantic life. After she divorced "Luddy" Ludlow in 1934, her next openly acknowledged affairs were with agent/ladies' man Leland Hayward (with whom she lived for four years) and aviator-tycoon Howard Hughes, who asked her repeatedly--and unsuccessfully--to marry him. The Hughes-Hepburn romance, carried on via Hughes' airplanes and in hotels around the world before agog reporters, was one of the most famous of the '30s.
But, in 1942, Hepburn met Tracy when he agreed to play opposite her in a romantic comedy she had developed with writer Ring Lardner Jr. about two famous journalists --a progressive political commentator (Hepburn) and a salty sportswriter (Tracy) -- who find that opposites attract. As legend has it, on their first meeting, the lanky Hepburn remarked to the 5-foot-9-inch Tracy, "You're not very tall, are you?" to which producer Mankiewicz replied, "Don't worry. He'll cut you down to size."
Tears at the end
After that prickly opening, the Tracy-Hepburn romance lasted until the night of his death in 1967, two weeks after completing "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" It is said that, after watching the shooting of their last scene together, most of the assembled company wept.
During all those years, Hepburn took on challenge after challenge, going after the best roles, meatiest scripts and most complex characterizations. In the early '70s, after her back-to-back Oscar wins in 1967 and '68, she was able to help mount film productions of top-rank playwrights such as Euripides (1972's "The Trojan Women"), Williams ("The Glass Menagerie"), Edward Albee (1973's "A Delicate Balance") and Jean Giradoux (1969's "The Madwoman of Chaillot").
She also survived numerous difficulties throughout her life, including the suicides of her brother and three other relatives early on, and a series of career setbacks, the worst being in 1939. In that year, an exhibitor took out an ad in Variety labeling her and other stars (including Mae West, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich and Fred Astaire) "box office poison." Later on, Parkinson's disease, which afflicted Hepburn for much of her last three decades as an actress, gave her a consistent shake, though audiences learned to ignore it.
Through her seven decades of stardom, she controlled her career and chose her films to an extent unmatched by any other American movie actress (and few actors) over even half that time. Through her personal guidance, she was largely responsible for many of the later professional choices of Tracy--regarded in that time as Hollywood's greatest actor. (Unfortunately he resisted intense entreaties by Hepburn and Lumet to play one of the American theater's finest roles, James Tyrone Sr., opposite her in "Long Day's Journey Into Night.")
Perhaps her greatest sacrifice came in 1962 when, after the towering achievement of "Long Day's Journey," she gave up acting for five years to be near Tracy during his final illnesses.
After Tracy's death, she became as close as we get to acting royalty--though her style was so informal and untraditional that she never, even after becoming a star, owned a dress or skirt. In recent years, as her shaking increased, and the effects of the '80s Hollywood youth obsession kicked in, her big-screen appearances became more infrequent, and she turned to other venues, including TV documentaries and, increasingly, writing. Her memoirs--chatty, free-form and utterly candid--were in a style all her own. One of them, the autobiographical "Me" (1992), became an international best-seller.
Hepburn, whose face, work and private life became known all over the world, remained a somewhat mysterious, contradictory figure: a fiercely independent woman and fiercely committed lover, a consummate actress who treasured the past but always moved forward. Perhaps her most striking quality lay in her ability to fully perceive life's complexities yet remain artistically simple and clear.
Writing about her years with Tracy in "Me," she speaks the words that might be her epitaph: "I have loved and I have been loved. The first is better." Yet, if Katharine Hepburn loved only one person with the singular selflessness of her devotion to Spencer Tracy, she was loved as well by millions more.