Katharine Hepburn, who transcended her screen roles by showing several generations how to be a woman in a way that combined sublime beauty and sexuality with fiery intelligence, died Sunday. She was 96.
Her executor, Cynthia McFadden, said Hepburn died at 2:50 p.m. EDT at her home in Old Saybrook, Conn. She was surrounded by her family and died of complications associated with aging, McFadden said. Hepburn had been in declining health for several years, suffering from tremors similar to Parkinson's disease and from the effects of hip replacement surgery.
But even more than for her voice, Hepburn will be immortalized for the ground she broke for women. With her unique personal style -- the trousers and the sleek high-necked dresses -- she played a strong female presence within traditional boy/girl stories. The American Film Institute recently named her the top female screen legend.
"I think every actress in the world looked up to her with a kind of reverence, a sense of 'Oh, boy, if only I could be like her,' " Elizabeth Taylor, who starred with Hepburn in the film "Suddenly Last Summer," said Sunday. "We never looked at her with envy or jealousy, because she worked with such grace and wit and charm. You only wish that one day you could be like her. I am so glad that she and Spence are finally together again," referring to Hepburn's longtime companion, the late actor Spencer Tracy.
Sidney Poitier, who starred with Hepburn in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," said Sunday from his home in Los Angeles: "We've lost a truly remarkable artist, a fantastic human being, a spectacular presence in the American cinema and a first-rate lady."
Hepburn effortlessly created characters, such as Tracy Lord in "The Philadelphia Story" (1940) and Tess Harding in "Woman of the Year" (1942), who had all the force of the feminists to come two decades later, without violating the decorum of the day. The similarities between Hepburn's film persona and her own strength of personality and will made her a role model for generations of women. In both areas, she had the added quality of privilege, which, as she acknowledged, played a huge part in her success.
"I was a success because of the times I lived in," she told The Times in 1991. "My style of personality became the style. I was sort of the New Woman at a very early point."
Her patrician good looks also set a new standard for beauty. She was stunning -- with alabaster skin; high, pronounced cheekbones; and a Modigliani neck -- but in a complicated way that, if you knew anything about class in America, was understandable.
One of the rare Hollywood icons whose performances lived up to her legendary status, Hepburn displayed a remarkable longevity. Her film career spanned seven decades, and she won three of her four Oscars for best actress after the age of 60. No one has surpassed her record of four Oscars for best actress and 12 nominations in the best actress category. (Meryl Streep bettered Hepburn's nominations total only this year with 13 nominations, but they came in both actress categories.)
Hepburn won Oscars for "Morning Glory" (1933), "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967), "The Lion in Winter" (1968) and "On Golden Pond" (1981).
In a screen career that spanned the evolution of movies from the first talkies to films in surround sound with space-age special effects, Hepburn stayed true to what she believed was any movie's true foundation: good acting.
But of acting, she once told The Hartford Courant: "I think you either can do it or you can't do it.... I don't think it requires any special brilliance."
And although Hepburn began her long acting career far ahead of her time, years later she was known for her capacity to keep pace with actors half her age.
Critical to her success were her collaborations with Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and, most famously, Tracy, whom she first appeared opposite in "Woman of the Year" in 1942.
Though she was romantically entangled with dashing men of her day, notably millionaire Howard Hughes and agent Leland Hayward, Tracy was the love of her life. Their on-screen chemistry carried nine movies, with Tracy proving the perfect backboard -- a strong, secure man -- for Hepburn to bounce her feminist ideals off. Her romance with the married Tracy endured for more than 25 years until his death on June 10, 1967. Tracy, a devout Roman Catholic, and his wife, Louise, had long been separated, but they never divorced.
"Her best films were when she was presented as a woman on her high horse with slightly pretentious, often comically stated ideas about the world," said Richard Schickel, Time magazine film critic and film historian. "It was for men to bring her down and get her to reveal herself as quite a good gal, sporty and democratic. We liked the idea that aristocratic people would be humanized by democratic values -- in her case, by slightly rough-necked and good-natured males."
Hepburn's upper-class background was good training for the characters she would play in the movies. The second of six children of Thomas Norval Hepburn, a prominent New England surgeon, and Katharine Martha Houghton, a committed suffragette and early crusader for birth control, Hepburn adored her parents and was devoted to the family atmosphere of spiritual freedom and physical discipline.
She once said: "The single most important thing anyone needs to know about me is that I am totally, completely the product of two damn fascinating individuals who happened to be my parents."