An American Original

updated 07/14/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/14/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Katharine Hepburn: 1907-2003

Last month Lauren Bacall paid what would be her final visit to Katharine Hepburn, her friend of more than 50 years. There were no grand goodbyes, no startling revelations. Instead their conversation was simple and direct, as was Hepburn's way. "She had difficulty speaking," says Bacall, "but she knew me, and I was able to talk to her about Spencer and Bogie and things that she understood and loved. She wasn't melodramatic about it. She was just Katie."

She always was. Three weeks later the 96-year-old screen legend, true to herself to the end, died on June 29 at her home in the Connecticut town of Old Saybrook. Dressed in a white nightgown and surrounded by family, Hepburn "was just watching what was going on in the room," says her brother-in-law Ellsworth Grant. "She couldn't talk, but her eyes were very bright." And she was content to spend her final hours in the home she had known for more than 60 years, a place where she had kept the fireplace going "no matter how hot a day it was," recalls friend Barbara Maynard, and where she had prized the wildflowers growing on her property. "There was a wonderful patch of Queen Anne's lace," says Maynard, "and if anyone mowed it, heaven help them."

Of course, trampling on Hepburn's turf was never a smart move, as anyone who has seen her movies—or heard one of her irascible soundbites—knows. Wickedly smart and unapologetically opinionated, Hepburn, who collected a record four Best Actress Oscars, was a genuine Hollywood trailblazer who helped clear a path for today's breed of business-savvy A-list women. Says Nicole Kidman: "She was a true original and such an extraordinary example as an actress and a woman." Five decades before stars like Julia Roberts and Drew Barrymore had formed their own production companies, Hepburn was developing many of her own projects and rewriting scripts to her liking. And in an era when studios told their stars how to dress and who to date, Hepburn took her own cues, becoming a singularly American style icon (her trousers represented "women who were proud to work," Calvin Klein has said) and maintaining a 27-year romance with the married Spencer Tracy. "The boat may be only a canoe," she once said of the flinty independence that helped make her a feminist role model, "but I'm paddling it."

With her Old Yankee voice and her angular body, Hepburn was an unlikely movie queen. "Not much meat on her, but what there is is cherce," Tracy famously put it in their 1952 movie Pat and Mike. Director David O. Selznick told Hepburn he would never give her the role of Scarlett O'Hara "because I can't imagine Rhett Butler chasing you for 12 years." What did he know? Through sheer determination, Hepburn sustained one of the longest careers in film history, winning her first Academy Award in 1934 and her fourth in 1982. In the best of their nine films together, she and Tracy did for romantic sparring what Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers did for dance, with Tracy the perfect immovable object to Hepburn's irresistible force. Offscreen Hepburn was often just as formidable. While filming 1957's Desk Set, "she caught me reading a magazine on the set one day," recalls costar Dina Merrill. "She looked at me and said, 'What are you reading? You are a beginner here and you should pay attention to what Spencer and I are doing and learn something.' "

Like the women she often played, Hepburn was feisty, self-reliant and rich. Born in Hartford, Conn., in 1907, she was descended on her mother's side from the founders of the Corning Glass Works and the publishing firm Houghton Mifflin. Hepburn's parents gave her an adventurous spirit and an unyielding sense of herself, "a freedom from fear," as she called it. Her father, Thomas, a doctor, led a lifelong crusade to inform the public about venereal disease; Hepburn's mother, Katharine, known as Kit, was an early campaigner for women's rights and birth control who helped found Planned Parenthood.

The second of six children, Katharine tried for a while to be more like her three brothers, especially the eldest, Tom. At 9 she cut her hair short and called herself Jimmy. "I resented being a girl," she said. When Tom hanged himself at 15, it was the 13-year-old Kate who found his body. The trauma marked her deeply for years.

As a student at Bryn Mawr College, she discovered theater, though on opening night of her first big performance in a Broadway-bound play she tumbled through her lines so rapidly that she couldn't be understood. Later canned after five days of rehearsals for Philip Barry's 1932 play The Animal Kingdom on Broadway, she called the playwright at home to protest. "Nobody with your vicious disposition could possibly play light comedy," he shouted into the phone. "I'm glad they threw you out."

It was during those discouraging early years that Hepburn entered into her only marriage, to a wealthy Philadelphian named Ludlow Ogden Smith. "Luddy," as she called him, met Hepburn in 1927 and soon became her first lover. Within months the pair married. A few years later they had separated, though they would not divorce until 1934. In her 1991 memoir Me, Hepburn denounced herself for relying on her husband's money while generally acting toward him like "an absolute pig." She even insisted that he use the name S. Ogden Ludlow so that her married name wouldn't be Kate Smith.

Hepburn managed to hold on to a few of her Broadway roles long enough to be spotted in 1932 by a Hollywood talent scout, which led to a film offer from RKO Pictures and a move to Los Angeles. There she became involved with her agent Leland Hayward, a notorious ladies' man. No slouch herself, Hepburn also had an affair with director John Ford and embarked on a three-year romance with millionaire aviator and film producer Howard Hughes, who was devoted to her.

The public was more fickle. For every hit like Little Women, there was a clunker like Christopher Strong. And a brief return to the Broadway stage in 1933's The Lake inspired Dorothy Parker's famous assessment: "Hepburn ran the gamut of emotion from A to B." In 1938 the head of a group of theater owners put Hepburn's name at the top of a widely publicized list of stars he termed "box office poison." But, before packing her bags, Hepburn made one more great (and money-losing) comedy, Holiday, from a play by the same Philip Barry who had once told her she lacked the disposition to earn laughs. Soon after, Barry offered her the lead in his new play—about a rich, brittle young woman whose second wedding day is turned upside down when her first husband arrives with a reporter and a photographer: The Philadelphia Story. The subsequent movie version broke box office records for 1940 and brought Hepburn another Oscar nomination. Two years after leaving Hollywood in disgrace, she returned in glory.

And ready to call the shots. When Ring Lardner Jr. brought her his script for Woman of the Year in 1941, she wouldn't sign on unless MGM could guarantee that her costar would be Spencer Tracy—whom she admired but had never met. Once on the set, their affair exploded. Tracy, then 41, was living apart from his wife, Louise, but as a Catholic he would not divorce. Reluctant to flaunt their relationship, he refused to appear in public with Hepburn. She agreed and prided herself on the fact that they were never photographed together as a couple.

"Spencer was like a baked potato," Hepburn would say years later. "He looked like that, and he gave good value." For most of the years that she spent with him, he was also an alcoholic, at times launching abusive rants before blacking out. For years at a time Hepburn would help him dry out, arranging her professional life around his needs. Still, during the 1950s Hepburn turned in acclaimed performances in dramas such as Summertime; Suddenly, Last Summer and the classic The African Queen. "She was a character...she was riding bicycles and picking up wildflowers in Africa!" recalls Bacall, who accompanied husband Humphrey Bogart. "Once we were driving in the Congo and suddenly she said, 'Stop the car! There's a bamboo forest! I've always wanted to sit in the middle of a bamboo forest!' The two of us went out there. Of course the men stayed in the car."

Near the end of Tracy's life Hepburn all but quit working to nurse him through repeated illnesses. In 1967 she persuaded him to make one last picture with her, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, which earned Hepburn her second Oscar. Seventeen days after the end of filming, Tracy died of a heart attack. Hepburn dealt with her grief by plunging into work. She won another Oscar in 1969 for The Lion in Winter. When movie offers began drying up, she turned to TV films, until Jane Fonda approached her in 1980 to make On Golden Pond. The 73-year-old actress "used to wake up at 5 in the morning and swim in the lake," recalls director Mark Rydell. "During rehearsals she entertained with these great stories about herself and Spencer Tracy. But I began to sense that she was alienating Henry [Fonda], making him feel excluded. So I whispered to her one day, 'Do something.' The next day she brought in Spencer's fishing hat and gave it to Henry. He wept, and he wore it throughout the film."

It would be Hepburn's last major performance—the signs of age were becoming harder to ignore. By the 1970s what was widely rumored to be Parkinson's disease (she denied it) began causing her head to shake visibly. From the mid-'90s infirmity forced her to give up pastimes like swimming and tennis, and she stayed close to the house she had shared with her brother Richard, a writer, until his death in 2000. "Life lacked its zing for her in the last few years," says photographer John Bryson, an old friend. Yet only three years ago, when interviewed by The New York Post, she insisted the newspaper "tell everyone I'm doing fine!"

Hepburn's own prickly memoirs notwithstanding, the best summation of her character is in her 44 films. That's where Hepburn's modern temperament combined with her New England bearing to convey an intriguing idea, that a 20th-century woman's assertiveness was merely an extension of American values: spunk, self-reliance and independence. Proudly nonconformist, Hepburn lived life on her own terms.

"If you obey all the rules," she once said, "you miss all the fun."

Richard Lacayo and Michelle Tauber
Tom Duffy in Old Saybrook, Liza Hamm and Natasha Stoynoff in New York City, Elizabeth Leonard and Champ Clark in L.A. and Ann-Marie Adams in Hartford

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