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Kate : At 84, Hepburn Still Has the Look, the Voice and the Attitude

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For all the American girls whose mothers told them to never beat a boy at tennis, there was a small voice in their heads--that of a wildly beautiful woman named Katharine Hepburn--whispering in perfect, patrician diction to go ahead and beat him.

As several generations of women have learned from her movies, Katharine Hepburn would nevah, nevah not win. “I just think if I were mad about a man, I wouldn’t play tennis with him if I thought I could smear him,” she says.

It is a Wednesday in Manhattan, and just as she weathered Hurricane Bob, which left her beloved family home on the Connecticut waterfront unscathed, she is surviving a series of inquisitors from the media. A crew from “Entertainment Tonight” has just left her East Side townhouse, and Miss Hepburn, it is announced, is upstairs washing her face.

When she descends to the living room--stuffed with Hollywood memorabilia and Yankee bric-a-brac like wooden ducks and colored glass--she is sporting the Hepburn Look: pants. In recent years she has traded in elegantly pleated gabardine trousers for baggy khakis, which she wears today with a black turtleneck, red sweater-vest, heavy socks and white Reeboks.

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She immediately apologizes as she enters the room. “I hope you don’t mind, but I just had to take off the makeup,” she declares. As she plops into an easy chair next to a black rotary telephone, Hepburn immediately offers a visitor cold beet soup.

Phyllis Wilbourn, her secretary/companion since the mid-1950s, totters in with a bowl of soup that Hepburn rejects: “I want it in a cup with a handle. I don’t want a spoon, and no saucer. Just one of those lousy coffee cups. Thaaaaaaaank you, dear.”

Hepburn also makes it clear she doesn’t particularly abide celebrity interviews, but they are necessary these days because she is promoting a new autobiography titled, to the point, “Me: Stories of My Life.” It is to be the grand summing up of the grandest actress, for which she reportedly was paid the grand sum of $4.5 million.

“It’s none of your business how much they paid me,” she says, establishing right off the bat her renowned candor, which borders on crustiness but carries no malice. “But they paid me so much I want the book to sell, so I’m talking to you.”

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At 84, Katharine Hepburn is no longer the colt with the alabaster skin. The skin is spotted red; the figure fuller; the head shaky. But just as Hepburn the actress was able to submerge herself in a dramatic role without losing her essential personality, Hepburn the beauty has not been masked by age. Like Manhattan’s most fantastic structures, the confluence of cheekbones, chin and green-blue eyes still stands as a testament against time.

Obstinate yet funny, Hepburn also remains the epitome of every woman’s secret wish to be loved not just for her looks but for her character--no matter how unconventional.

“There are things I now feel I have a perfect right to do, or can do,” she says, jutting out that chin as if to invite a swipe. “So I do them.”

She has always thought she had the perfect right to her privacy and rarely agreed to talk for publicity. Yet over the last decade there have been numerous interviews, often done in this brownstone she bought in 1937 for $27,000. Perhaps it is that Hepburn is no longer worried about being asked about her affair with the late Spencer Tracy. Perhaps it is pleasurable to sit in the snug living room overlooking a giant ash tree in the courtyard she shares with Stephen Sondheim and reminisce about the past.

She doesn’t let on.

In fact, friends say, Hepburn is not the type to sit around analyzing her life, although writing the memoir prompted rare introspection. Musing over the young Kate, Hepburn in the memoir labels herself “bossy,” “boring” and a “flash in the pan.”

“I was so selfish,” she says. “I was a real pig. Always worried about me, me, me.”

Overall the book reads more like a theatrical script or one-woman show than a narrative biography. There is not a lot of pondering about her status as a legend. She has won four Academy Awards for best actress, more than any other performer, yet she barely mentions them.

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When she is asked about younger women’s regard for her as heroine of feminism, she seems to enjoy the opportunity to speak authoritatively but will not be drawn in too far.

“Women should act the way they are,” she says, sounding every bit as rousing as attorney Amanda Banner in “Adam’s Rib” or columnist Tess Gallagher in “Woman of the Year.” “Their brains are just as good as men’s. They could accomplish practically everything a man could accomplish. I mean, they can write, they can paint, they can play tennis so goddamn good.”

But now she comes to the limitations. “I just hope women don’t try to become men. I go mad when they become firemen, and I think of myself in this house if it were burning and women were holding the net. . . .”

In her book, Hepburn delivers a series of chaotic flashes describing her career and romances--but mostly observations about people like Louis B. Mayer and George Cukor. Only in the last few pages does she take the reader deep in to her confidence.

She reflects movingly--although not in detail--on her 27-year relationship with Spencer Tracy, which they kept private. Tracy was a devout Roman Catholic who was wracked by guilt that he was estranged from his wife, who was taking care of their handicapped son.

In a chapter entitled “Love,” Hepburn writes--and there is the sense she is writing this for the first time--"I loved Spencer Tracy. He and his interests and his demands came first. . . .”

They never discussed marriage, says Hepburn, and she never asked him to divorce his wife. She wonders, though, if they all wouldn’t have been better off if he had.

Yet even after Tracy died with her in the next room, she stayed away from his funeral. Rather, she and Phyllis Wilbourn went to the funeral parlor, helped lift Tracy’s casket into the hearse and followed it nearly to the church. She writes, “Goodby, friend--here’s where we leave you. . . . And we turned and went back home.”

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Hepburn doesn’t think about what it would have been like if the relationship had been conducted now, rather than the 1940s and ‘50s, when the notion of what was proper was narrower.

“I would have done the same thing today, because I don’t think it’s proper to hurt people when you can avoid it,” she says adamantly. “That’s my notion of what is proper.”

Yet the tenor of the times also made Hepburn’s career difficult. In Hollywood, among the moguls and the exhibitors, she sometimes ran up against conventions. But, as she points out, “being different” also helped her career.

“I was never a victim of the times I lived in,” she says, scoffing at the idea of herself as a star in the ‘90s, now that mannish fashions and independent women are in vogue. “In fact, I was a success because of the times I lived in. My style of personality became the style. I was sort of the New Woman at a very early point.”

But as important as her style was her will.

From the start, Hepburn’s fierce determination got her past obstacles. As a pre-adolescent she wanted to be a boy, so she shaved her head, wore pants and called herself “Jimmy” until finally she lost interest in the idea. When the parents whom she so idolized made it clear they were against her acting career, she also persisted.

Hepburn has remained close to her big family and frequently flew back to Connecticut between movies and relationships. Her father, a Hartford urologist, managed her money and paid her an allowance. She admits that the attachment to the Hepburn clan left her little need to be close to many in Hollywood. Plus, she adds, she liked to go to bed early.

If her parents imbued in her Yankee inner strength and discipline, they also taught her to face trauma coolly, almost frighteningly without emotion. When Hepburn was just 14, she discovered her older brother, Tom, hanging from the rafters of an aunt’s house by a torn sheet, dead from an apparent suicide. It was “Kath” who cut him down.

Hepburn’s father was convinced that the son was experimenting with a prank that the father had told him about and that the death was accidental. On the ride to the crematorium, Hepburn writes, she saw her mother cry for the first time: “And I never saw her cry again. Never. She was stalwart.” The Hepburns also never mentioned Tom again. “They moved on into life,” she writes.

Hepburn also had a way of moving on into life without agonizing over loss or failure--and in her early years in the theater, that took considerable doing. There were many failures.

As Hepburn tells it, she was great at getting Broadway parts in the early 1930s but inevitably would be fired. A scrawny ingenue, she would become petrified before a performance and lose control of her metallic voice. Finally, she landed the part of Antiope, an Amazon, in “The Warrior’s Husband,” and from that came a screen test with RKO and stardom playing John Barrymore’s daughter in “A Bill of Divorcement.”

Hepburn’s recollections of her first day in Los Angeles read like a script from a screwball comedy. Apparently, somewhere along the train trip from New York to Los Angeles, several tiny particles of steel rail became embedded in her eye. She got off the train wearing a giant, saucer-like hat slung low over her reddened eye. Her agent, Leland Hayward, and Myron Selznick, who met her at the station, didn’t even notice. She spent the rest of the day desperately trying to convince them she needed to see a doctor, but they had no time for the simpering starlet’s problems.

Hepburn had come West with her best friend, a moneyed young actress named Laura Harding, and they were always getting into amusing scrapes and moving from house to house in different Hollywood canyons. Everyone thought they were lesbians, says Hepburn, which apparently bothered Harding but not her.

“Two women just couldn’t live together in those days,” she recalls, laughing.

That first trip to Hollywood also turned out to be the beginning of the end of Hepburn’s marriage to Ludlow Ogden Smith, an insurance salesman/inventor to whom she describes losing her virginity (“I mean--we did it”). She had gotten him to change his name to S. Ogden Ludlow so she wouldn’t have to be Kate Smith, but they divorced after six years of marriage and he remained a lifelong friend.

Hepburn says she never had children with him or anyone else because “I was too selfish to be a mother.” She says of her childlessness: “No regrets. No regrets.”

Yet over the years, Hepburn has had some of the pleasures of close attachments to young people. She has been patron to several young women, including two whom she supported through their educations and paid for their weddings.

Hepburn’s career in Hollywood was plagued by the same ups and downs she suffered on Broadway. After making a couple of hits in the late 1930s, she made several bombs, earning the label of “box-office poison.” The stigma was partly because of the bad movies, but also because Hepburn baffled the industry with her boyish body, strident opinions and reputation for rudeness.

Unflagged, she bought herself out of her RKO contract and returned to Connecticut. By this time she had gone through a four-year romance with Hayward and had taken up with Howard Hughes, who later told an interviewer that Hepburn’s big attraction to him was that she took showers three times a day.

They broke up amicably when she headed East and he stayed in the West, but not before he bought the movie rights to a fabulous play written expressly with uppity Hepburn in mind--"The Philadelphia Story.”

If ever a character came close to her personality, it was Tracy Lord, the rich girl who mouths off readily but gets her comeuppance. First in the play and then in the movie with Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant, Hepburn reignited her career.

Success never mellowed Hepburn. Yet for all her reputation for being difficult on the set, she speaks fondly of almost all the people she worked with in Hollywood. She even speaks well of Louis B. Mayer, the Old World studio boss who insisted people had to see Hepburn humiliated in “Woman of the Year” and changed the ending to have her in the kitchen attempting unsuccessfully to make Tracy breakfast.

All this talk about the old days always comes back to the difficult and troubled Spencer Tracy, who battled alcohol and insomnia with her at his side.

For Hepburn, he is always the example of the finest actor and funniest friend. She has often been quoted as describing Tracy as a baked potato because he was “so basic, so simple and good.” This has prompted her in numerous interviews to respond that if he was a baked potato, she was an ice cream sundae with chocolate sauce.

But on this summer day, she is either feeling more substantial or just hungry. She has a different answer: “Me? I’m filet steak!”

This is a woman who loves to eat almost as much as she loves to talk and when she is asked if she has had to change her diet because of her age, she shakes her head violently

“I enjoy life. As it is,” she says.

She still swims in Long Island Sound all year round, still travels, still bikes. She is painting regularly and has written a screenplay entitled “Me and Phyllis” about her life with Wilbourn, also an octogenarian.

“I’m the villain and she’s the heroine,” says Hepburn. “It’s very funny. . . . I love to make people laugh.”

She rarely goes to the movies or theater these days.

“There’s a curious lack of humor today. . . . I mean, funny to them is a bit boring to me. They laugh at jokes, but there’s not much wit.”

Slowly, she moves to the edge of her chair and stands up. The interview is over. “Thank you, thank you,” she says and begins to escort a visitor to the door. But, always in charge, she first insists, “You do want to use the john before you go, don’t you?”

Eventually she takes no for an answer, but when a dime is discovered on the ground outside her front door, she is skeptical again: “Oh, it’s a phony, isn’t it?” She examines it closely, flipping it over and over, then, flinty but convinced, concludes: “Well, I guess it’s good. Thank you, thank you.”

Popping the dime in her pocket, she bows slightly and closes the door.


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