The Great Kate Returns—Cancer Fears and Sunset Years Be Damned
updated 03/14/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 03/14/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST
The winter light slants through shutters across fresh flowers, well-used antique furniture and Impressionist-style paintings, many of them done by Hepburn herself. Dressed in her trademark turtleneck sweater and pants, she's still a luminescent beauty, her eyes and smile undimmed by the decades. After more than 50 years on the screen, Hepburn is the only four-time Oscar winner, and she's still hard at work. Starring this Monday (March 7) in an NBC TV movie, Laura Lansing Slept Here, she's a little bemused at having become some sort of national treasure. "When people have known you all their lives, it puts you in the queer position of being everybody's grandma," says Hepburn. "Then there are people who come up to me on the street, throw their arms around me and then say, 'It's you—Audrey Hepburn!' "
The downstairs door leads to a kitchen that smells like Christmas. Norah Moore, the cook, is making oatmeal cookies, and Phyllis Wilbourn, Hepburn's secretary-companion of 28 years, is ladling vegetable soup for lunch. Up at dawn every day, Hepburn runs the place like a pension for her friends. "I come from a big family, and I'm a good organizer," she explains. "Besides, if you can't boss the show in your own home, they'll boss you." Today she's planning dinner for Laura Harding, her lifelong friend and traveling companion from Hollywood in the '30s. On the phone to a young writer-friend, who's complaining about her Hollywood career, she advises, "That's what you get for writing for money."
The words are abrupt, but the tone is caring; it's like your mother telling you to stand up straight. "The first time I met her, I was so intimidated by the idea of working with Katharine Hepburn that my hands were shaking and I had tears in my eyes," says actress Karen Austin, who co-starred with Hepburn in Laura Lansing. "Instead of noticing my distress, she graciously looked me up and down, patted me on the cheek and said simply, 'You'll do.' "
In the TV movie, Hepburn's fifth in 15 years, she plays a wealthy novelist who boards with a suburban family and learns something about life. In reality it was Hepburn who taught the cast a lesson in living. As production began in Vancouver last fall, Hepburn made a frightening discovery. "I was in the first rehearsal with the cast," she says, "and suddenly I could not speak." The initial diagnosis: cancer of the vocal cords. Hepburn, who simply overwhelms the indignities of her nervous tremor, was typically stoic. "I thought, 'Well, I've got cancer of the vocal cords. So, lots of people get cancer of the vocal cords.' " She kept her concerns from her co-stars. But when an old friend phoned her from New York, he recalls, "It broke my heart to hear how Kate sounded. That old Yankee spirit was gone."
Fortunately, a biopsy showed that the growth was not cancerous. Still, with their star facing surgery, the producers decided to suspend filming indefinitely. Hepburn made the announcement to the cast herself, then underwent surgery in Vancouver. The doctors said she could return after four weeks of recuperation. Hepburn wasn't sure she could make it. "I'm a perfectionist, and I had no range in my voice," she says. "But then I thought, 'These people have all signed up to see what the old lady can do, and now you've held them up.' " She decided that production had to continue. "It was awful at first because I really felt choked. But then I got used to it, and the filming got to be fun."
By the time the movie wrapped, she was back to peak form. When Karen Austin, who played the suburban wife in the film, was rehearsing a scene in which she faints, Hepburn suddenly said, "This is how you faint" and dropped dead away into Austin's arms. "She caught me completely by surprise, and she knew she scared me," says Austin. "Suddenly, from this lead balloon in my arms, I hear a wicked chuckle, 'Heh, heh, heh.' "
Hepburn hates talking about her ailments—"I was brought up to think that's not a very interesting topic," says this doctor's daughter—but her vocal-cord surgery wasn't her only close call in recent years. In 1982 she severely injured her foot in an automobile accident. While driving to New York from her country home in Fenwick, Conn., she crashed into a telephone pole after slipping off the snow-covered road. The doctors considered amputating her foot, which had been completely turned around, but after three operations Hepburn managed to recover. "I trained myself not to limp, but it still doesn't feel all that comfortable," she says.
You'd never know it. A pro-quality athlete in her youth, Hepburn today outpaces people half her age. During her weekends in Connecticut at an airy beachfront house built by her parents in 1938, she takes a daily swim in Long Island Sound and plays a vigorous game of tennis. "She always bats the ball back," says theater writer Stuart Little, a onetime tennis opponent. "Anything she does, she damn well does it fully."
Playfully swinging her leg above a living-room chair, Hepburn is a class act among optimists. "Someone might ask, 'Does your foot hurt?' Yes, it hurts, but it's there. Look—I can wiggle it." She even takes a practical attitude toward death, regarding the afterlife simply as a neighborhood she hasn't yet visited. "I'm very literal minded," she says. "If it's something that nobody can know definitely about, it doesn't bother me. I'll just do the best I can in this life."
That's not to say she doesn't think about the people she's lost—particularly Spencer Tracy, who died in 1967. "Spencer was like a baked potato," says Hepburn. "He looked like that—and he gave good value." And lasting value too. Although they never married—Tracy, a Catholic, wouldn't ask for a divorce from his wife, Louise—he and Hepburn stayed together for 27 years. The chemistry they displayed in their remarkable comedies (Woman of the Year, Adam's Rib, Pat and Mike) was duplicated offscreen. The intimidating, independent Hepburn could be surprisingly soft and girlish around Tracy. "I think every woman wants to look up to a man, if she has any sense," she says. "If you're a definite sort of person, you have to learn to change a little bit if you want the relationship to work." She laughs, "I'm not bossy—I'm adorable."
She has regrets about what went unspoken with Tracy. "It seems to me that we spend our lives just missing people. You look at someone, and you know they're tortured. Then they die, and you think, 'Why didn't I say it?' "
But she refuses to live in the past. "You think about people who were dear to you, of course," Hepburn says. "But it's not to be plumbed, not to be held on to. You cannot live with yesterday's tragedy. You must go onward, onward. It's like swimming in the Long Island Sound. You just have to dive in and do it."