Acting Legend Katharine Hepburn Dead at 96
NEW YORK (Reuters) – Actress Katharine Hepburn, who won an unequaled four best actress Oscars in a career that spanned five decades, has died at her home in Connecticut at the age of 96, police in her hometown said on Sunday.
Hepburn, whose health had been in decline for some time and had not spoken for several days, passed away peacefully, said her brother-in-law Ellsworth Grant.
“She’s the greatest actress of her age and with her passing that whole galaxy of great movie stars has ended,” Grant, who saw the screen legend shortly before she died, told Reuters.
He said the cause of death was “simply complications from old age.”
Hepburn won her first Oscar in 1933 for “Morning Glory” and won again for “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “The Lion in Winter” and “On Golden Pond.” She was nominated for the award eight other times.
Irreverent and feisty, Hepburn always spoke her mind. Her independent spirit made her a role model to many women, and she was voted America’s most admired woman in a 1985 Ladies Home Journal survey.
Hepburn also starred in film classics including “Little Women” and “The African Queen.”
Her last film was “Love Affair” with Warren Beatty, released in the early 1990s.
Hepburn was called the first lady of American cinema. Her trademarks: high cheekbones, auburn hair and a voice redolent of her upper-class New England origins.
“She is the person who put women in pants, literally and figuratively,” her biographer, Christopher Andersen, told Reuters in 2000. “She is the greatest star, the greatest actress, that Hollywood has ever produced.”
“With the passing of Frank Sinatra, and the death of Jimmy Stewart, she really was the last of that breed of Hollywood royalty,” Andersen said. “And she was by far the greatest.”
The actress did not escape criticism, however. Her performances were sometimes called cold, and it was of Hepburn that Dorothy Parker made her famous quip that she displayed “the gamut of emotions from A to B.”
Hepburn also starred in film classics including “Little Women,” “The African Queen,” “The Philadelphia Story,” “A Bill of Divorcement,” “Pat and Mike,” “Adam’s Rib,” “State of the Union” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”
Her last film was “Love Affair” in 1994, in which she played Ginny, aunt of ex-football star Mike Gambril, played by Warren Beatty.
She played opposite such leading men as James Stewart, Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne and Henry Fonda. But it is with Spencer Tracy that her name will be forever linked.
Not only did she make nine films with Tracy, but for 27 years she was the “other woman” in his life. Tracy, a Roman Catholic, would not divorce his wife. Hepburn, in a 1991 interview with ABC television, said she loved Tracy but did not remember if he had ever told her he loved her.
“We lived openly enough together,” she said. “I certainly had no intention of breaking up his relationship with his wife.”
Hepburn said she first met Tracy’s wife on the night he died in Hepburn’s house and she called his family.
In an interview four years before Tracy died, she said, “I have had 20 years of perfect companionship with a man among men. He is a rock and a protection. I’ve never regretted it.”
She had a 1930s affair with billionaire Howard Hughes, but recounted in her 1991 biography “Me” that she never loved him.
Hartford, Connecticut, native Hepburn in late 1996 gave up the townhouse on New York’s East 49th Street that she had kept since the 1930s. She retreated fulltime to the family mansion in Fenwick, an upper-class borough in Old Saybrook on Long Island Sound.
“Giving up the townhouse was a difficult decision for her; it was very wrenching emotionally,” said Andersen, author of the 1997 book “An Affair to Remember: The Remarkable Love Story of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.”
Hepburn lived a quiet, reclusive life in Fenwick, and was rarely seen in public. Friends and relatives said she suffered from short-term memory loss, but it was not clear if she had Alzheimer’s disease.
Despite her carefully guarded privacy that fueled occasional speculation that she was seriously ill, Hepburn surprised the world in March of 2000 — two months before her 93rd birthday — when she told a New York newspaper she was feeling fine.
“Tell everyone I am doing fine!” she told the New York Post in a rare interview published on March 10, 2000. “I am OK.”
Dressed in a purple jumpsuit and sitting by a roaring fire in her living room, the actress said she was still a big eater, enjoying homemade meals prepared by her cook.
Hepburn was an amateur painter of some skill and her work decorated walls at the New York townhouse that she shared with Tracy and where she lived for over 60 years.
Her career began an on the stage in the early 1930s, moved mainly to the screen and expanded to television in the 1980s.
She once said, I find myself absolutely fascinating … but I’m uncomplicated. When I’m supposed to talk, I talk. When I go to bed, I sleep. When I’m supposed to eat, I eat.
But summarizing a Hepburn film retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, critic Kenneth Tynan countered: “She is not versatile. She is simply unique.”
She told The New York Times in an interview published in September 1991 that her screen and private personas hardly differed. “I had a very definite personality and I liked material that showed that personality,” she said.
Katharine Houghton Hepburn was born May 12, 1907, to an upper-class doctor’s family in Hartford, Connecticut, but reference books listed her birthday as 2 1/2 years later, on Nov. 8, 1909.
Later in life she admitted that she had lied about her age, telling The New York Times that she knocked two years off when she approached 30 and had adopted the November birth date of her elder brother Tom, who killed himself when she was 14.
She discovered his body and, according to a recent biography of her by Barbara Leaming, Hepburn tried to become him, fulfilling his role as his father’s favorite child.
Hepburn was educated at home by tutors. She was a tomboy and at 15 cut her hair very short, wore pants and pretended to be a young man named Jimmy.
Despite her masculine tendencies, rumors that Hepburn was bisexual or gay were not true, author Andersen said.
Hepburn became interested in dramatics while attending college at Bryn Mawr, where she received a B.A. in 1928. After some summer stock success, she made her Broadway debut in a show called “Night Hostess.” The show was short-lived but it led to other Broadway parts and to her first big stage success, “The Warrior’s Husband,” which brought her film offers.
In 1933 she starred on screen in “Morning Glory,” winning her first Academy Award for her portrayal of a stage-struck tomboy.
She was married from 1928 to 1934 to Ludlow Ogden Smith, a wealthy Philadelphian, who changed his name to Ogden because she did not want to be known as Mrs. Smith. After the divorce she decided that “marriage was not a natural institution” and never remarried.
Impatient with the films she was being forced to make for RKO Pictures, Hepburn bought out her contract for $220,000 in 1939 and returned to the stage where she starred as Tracy Lord in Philip Barry’s 1939 comedy, “The Philadelphia Story.”
She also starred as a prim missionary in the 1951 film “The African Queen” with Humphrey Bogart and later wrote a book about her experiences on location in Africa with Bogart and director John Huston.
Acting Legend Katharine Hepburn Dead at 96