HARTFORD, Conn., June 29 (UPI) -- Katharine Hepburn, a strong, no-nonsense woman who emerged as a movie star in an era when the most admired actresses were glamour goddesses, won great respect in her field and was the only performer to win four best acting Oscars.
Hepburn died Sunday at the age of 96.
Her career spanned more than six decades. She could be adorable, she could be arrogant, but to her fans she was simply the greatest actress ever to appear in movies. In their widely-held view, other actresses came close but none quite matched her or her class.
The American Film Institute, in a 1999 polling, chose Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, with whom she starred in 1951's "The African Queen," as the greatest American screen legends.
It was a fine tribute indeed for someone once considered "box office poison."
She won Academy Awards for best actress of the year for her work in "Morning Glory" (1933), her third film; "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" in 1967; "The Lion In Winter" the following year; and "On Golden Pond" in 1981. Three of the Oscars came after she was 60 years old. She was nominated eight other times.
The independent tomboy daughter of a surgeon and a suffragette arrived in Hollywood in 1932 after a brief, ultimately successful fling on Broadway. She was an unconventional beauty with copper hair, blue eyes, an angular figure and a bumper crop of freckles, sporting slacks and a Bryn Mawr accent, refusing all efforts by Hollywood to make her over in its image.
She was there to co-star with John Barrymore in "A Bill Of Divorcement" at RKO, a plum role. She had earlier refused a Paramount contract to stay on the stage, commenting scornfully that Hollywood was no place for her. But, she wisely accepted RKO's offer, "Divorcement" was a smash hit and she was on her way in the movies.
Hepburn worked hard behind the scenes to land the lead role in "Morning Glory," originally intended for Constance Bennett, then the studio's top star. She got it through persistence and won her first Oscar.
Among her other early hits at RKO were "Alice Adams," "Little Women," "Mary of Scotland," "Stage Door" and the definitive screwball comedy "Bringing Up Baby." Oddly, "Baby" was a theatrical bomb when it came out in 1938; today it's considered a classic. Critics of the day saw it as just another Hepburn flop and labeled her "box office poison."
Hepburn bought out her contract at RKO and returned to Broadway in 1939 (after failing to land the role of Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With The Wind") to star in "The Philadelphia Story" as the haughty young society dame Tracy Lord, a part written for her. She later bought the film rights and sold them to MGM under the condition she would be the star. It was a huge hit in 1940 and Hepburn's career was relaunched.
In 1942, MGM cast her opposite Spencer Tracy in "Woman Of The Year." It was the first of nine movies they would make together, the last being "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" in 1967, shortly before Tracy's death. Off screen, they were inseparable. Though they never married -- he was unable to divorce his Catholic wife -- Tracy was forever the love of her life.
"My greatest strength," she once said, "is common sense. I'm really a standard brand -- like Campbell's Soup or Baker's chocolate." She was a regular fixture on any list of the world's most admired women. As she put it, she was "revered rather like an old building."
In later years she turned mostly to television work, such as "Love Among The Ruins" with Laurence Olivier, which won both Emmys.
Despite deteriorating health, she continued to work and won her fourth Oscar for 1981's "On Golden Pond." She was nearly killed in as car crash in 1984 but survived to carry on her regimen of work, icy showers and chocolate candies. In 1987 she had surgery to remove a growth, a keratosis, from a vocal chord.
She once said she took five baths a day. She wore little makeup and wore slacks and flat shoes in public long before they were common attire for women.
She called her memoir simply "Me."
Hepburn appeared in some two dozen stage plays, including "The West Side Waltz" on Broadway in 1980. In 1969 she starred in "Coco," a musical in which she made her singing and dancing debut at the age of 60, followed by "A Matter of Gravity" in 1976. Showing little proof of things to come, she was fired from two leading roles early in the career and was lampooned by critic Dorothy Parker who wrote Katharine ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.
She returned to the movies in 1994 to co-star with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening in "Love Affair," Beatty's remake of "An Affair to Remember." Hepburn's performance as Beatty's wise aunt frequently was the lone bright spot in otherwise negative reviews.
She was nominated for Oscars for her performances in "Alice Adams" (1935), "The Philadelphia Story" (1940), "Woman of the Year" (1942), "The African Queen" (1951), "Summertime" (1955), "The Rainmaker" (1956), "Suddenly Last Summer" (1959) and "Long Day's Journey Into Night" (1962).
Katharine was born in Hartford, Conn., May 12, 1907, the second of six children of Dr. Thomas N. and Katherine Houghton Hepburn. Her father was a prominent physician and her mother was a pioneer in the birth control movement. She once picketed the White House in behalf of the movement.
As a child, Hepburn often fought with boys. "And I was tough," she once recalled. "I usually won my fights, too."
She attended Bryn Mawr College, graduating with high grades in history, and then began her acting career. She pestered producer Edwin H. Knopf until he gave her an acting job in his Baltimore stock company in 1928.
That was the year she married Philadelphia socialite Ogden Ludlow Smith who had an impeccable Social Register background. However, she was busy pursuing her acting career and he divorced her in 1934, charging desertion.
It was her only marriage and she said later: "I don't believe in marriage because marriage is not a natural institution. Why sign a contract for it?"
Her early stage career was unspectacular. She was fired from the leading role in "The Big Pond" in 1928 and also from "Death Takes a Holiday." Then, after a run of successes, Hollywood beckoned. Like many actresses in Hollywood she wanted to play Scarlett but producer David O. Selznick told her, "I just can't imagine Clark Gable chasing you for 10 years," and the part went to Vivien Leigh.
Away from the cameras, the actress enjoyed walking, tennis, swimming and golf. She once was runner-up for the Connecticut women's golf championship.
Hepburn was one of a kind.
"I came along when people were encouraged to be outrageous personalities," she once said. "Humor is the great basic element of a personality. Humor gives one a perspective of one's self and work."
Most of her time was spent in her beachfront house in Fenwick, Conn., overlooking Long Island Sound.
"I swim all winter in Long Island Sound," she told an interviewer in January 1988. "I swam the other day with the ice and the snow. I think the temperature was around 4 degrees."
Hepburn also had a four-story townhouse in New York City's historic Turtle Bay district that she first rented in 1931 for $100 a month. Its prized possessions include a mantle clock she called Ethel for its previous owner, Ethel Barrymore, and a tennis racket that belonged to Martina Navratilova.
In an interview in March 1986, Hepburn proved unaffected by the adoration heaped upon her by fans and critics.
"If you have a very good part, unless you are an awful frump, you're going to win an Academy Award," she said, smiling, her frizzled gray hair pulled back in a bun.
"I have a happy nature. I mean, I like good food and chocolate and I like laughter. And why not?
"I go to bed early and I get up very early. It's the habit of a lifetime. That's why, I suppose, I always liked the movies. I think trying to be fascinating at 8 o'clock at night is my idea of something absolutely hellish.
"I take a nap, eat a steak, I eat a bowl of ice cream with a lot of chocolate sauce and I hope I wake up."
She said she enjoyed her backyard garden, walks in Central Park, bicycle rides around her neighborhood, and sun shining through the windows.
Referring to herself, she said, "As long as the car goes, I'm going to be driving it. I think I've had wonderful use of it so far."
Hepburn said she never fully understood Tracy.
"Life is really tough. The terribly tough thing is we don't understand each other. As well as I knew Spencer, I didn't really know him. Did he know me?"
She said such questions began to nag as she neared "the end of the trail."
"I am not trying to make myself a comfortable bed in the next world. I feel we're here to do the best we can....
"I've had it very lucky. I was born at the right moment for what turned out to be me."
Notable Films of Katharine Hepburn
Katharine Hepburn made more than 40 films. Among the best known:
"A Bill of Divorcement" 1932
"Morning Glory" 1933
"Little Women" 1933
"Alice Adams" 1935
"Mary of Scotland" 1936
"Bringing Up Baby" 1938
"The Philadelphia Story" 1940
"Woman of the Year" (1942)
"State of the Union" 1948
"Adam's Rib" 1949
"The African Queen" 1951
"Pat and Mike" 1952
"The Rainmaker" 1956
"Suddenly Last Summer" 1959
"Long Day's Journey into Night" 1962
"Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" 1967
"The Lion in Winter" 1968
"A Delicate Balance" 1973
"Rooster Cogburn" 1976
"On Golden Pond" 1981