Katharine Hepburn made the world safe for women in pants. Not pig-tailed farm girls or slinky vixens of ambiguous sexual proclivities, like her movie-star sister-in-slacks Marlene Dietrich, but offhandedly stylish, forthright women who held their heads high and strode through life to the beat of their own hearts. With her tall, angular figure, clipped speech patterns and candid but understated sexiness, Hepburn didn't fit the female stereotypes vamp, flapper, tough-talking dame, simpering ingenue that were popular when she began her career. She never tried to change herself to fit the fashions or fads of the day, and she's now one of the classic stars whose performances look consistently modern and unselfconscious.
Hepburn was born in Hartford, Conn., on May 12, 1907, though for years she claimed her birthday was in November, an eccentric homage to her older brother, Tom, who committed suicide as a teenager; he had a November birthday. She also shaved nearly two years off her age by claiming to have been born in 1909. Ever true to her Yankee roots, Hepburn died in nearby Old Saybrook, on June 29, aged 96. Hepburn grew up in a household that valued brains, determination and candor. Hepburn's mother, after whom she was named, was a crusader for women's rights and birth control, while her father, urologist Dr. Thomas Norval Hepburn, waged a public battle against venereal disease. Both had the courage of their convictions and spoke their minds freely about controversial subjects, encouraging their children to do the same.
Hepburn conducted her private life with discretion she never courted publicity for her romances, social appearances or attention-getting antics; in fact, she hardly ever gave interviews or posed for pictures and an utter disregard for convention. She insisted that her first husband, socially prominent Philadelphian Ludlow Ogden Smith, change his name to S. Ogden Ludlow so she wouldn't be called Kate Smith as though anyone would have dared. They were married in 1928 and, not surprisingly, divorced six years later. In 1942, Hepburn met actor Spencer Tracy and began a relationship that lasted until his death in 1967, despite the fact that he was married and, as a Catholic, would never divorce his wife. The couple made nine films together and established an instantly recognizable romantic comedy model: Their on-screen chemistry was equal parts dissension, competition, affection and mutual respect. To this day, actors try to duplicate the Tracy/Hepburn rapport, only to find that it's not as easy as they made it look. Tracy and Hepburn's life partnership outlasted most Hollywood marriages by decades.
Professionally, Hepburn infuriated directors, producers and Hollywood studio directors with her strong opinions and stronger will from the time she was a fledgling performer. But she stuck to her guns, worked until she was in her 80s and was eventually nominated for 12 Academy Awards. She won four best actress Oscars, three of them for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968) and On Golden Pond (1981) after the age of 60. She won an Emmy for Love Among the Ruins (1975) and was nominated for a Tony Award for the Broadway musical Coco (1969), in which she played fashion designer Coco Chanel. With characteristic frankness, Hepburn called her 1991 autobiography Me.
Hepburn began acting in amateur productions at age 12, gained dramatic experience while attending prestigious Bryn Mawr College, and made her professional stage debut in 1928 with a Baltimore-based regional company. Within four years she was starring on Broadway; her success in The Warrior's Husband, a comedy about gender reversal, earned her a contract with RKO. After heady initial success in movies, culminating in her first Oscar for 1933's Morning Glory (only her third film), Hepburn decided she missed the stage. Her comeback in The Lake was unsuccessful and waspish writer Dorothy Parker notoriously quipped that Hepburn's performance "ran the gamut of emotions from A to B." Hepburn returned to Hollywood and made a string of fine movies, including Alice Adams, the astonishing gender-bender Sylvia Scarlett (1935) and the classic screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938) with Cary Grant, as well as a host of lesser efforts. Most of them were financial disappointments, and a leading exhibitor declared the unconventional Hepburn "box office poison." She left Hollywood and swore she'd come back only on her own terms. A less steely star might have started down an E! True Hollywood Story road of failed projects and self-destructive despair, but Hepburn brushed herself off and went back to work in the theater, making a canny deal to star in the witty The Philadelphia Story that included the film rights. The film version was both a hit and a critical success, putting movie star Katharine Hepburn back in business.
Her subsequent career had its ups and downs, but she never compromised professionally or personally. Hepburn stood up to the House Un-American Activities committee in the late 1940s and worked sporadically in the '60s, when Tracy was frequently ill. When aging contemporaries like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford were reduced to making horror films and other tacky ephemera that capitalized on their fading glory, she held out for substantial projects like Tennessee Williams's lurid-but-literary Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), Long Day's Journey Into Night (1962) and The Madwoman of Chaillot (1969). Starting in the '70s, she worked regularly in high-profile made-for-TV films and made the occasional foray into features, including the 1981 paean to love in the twilight years, On Golden Pond (which earned her one last Oscar), and black-comedy misfire The Ultimate Solution of Grace Quigley (1984). As her health became more fragile among other things, she developed the Parkinson's-like tremors apparent in her last performances Hepburn slowed down and finally retired from public life.
In 2002, the two-act, one-woman play Tea at Five, a tribute to the indomitable Hepburn, opened at Connecticut's Hartford Stage Theater. One-time Star Trek: Voyager star Kate Mulgrew played Hepburn at two pivotal points in her life: in 1938, when it seemed her career was over, and in 1983, after Hepburn was injured in a car accident. The critically acclaimed show moved to New York's Promenade Theater later that year, and is scheduled to run through July. Even death, it seems, can't dim Hepburn's enduring luster.