Katharine Hepburn, Legend of Stage and Screen, Dead at 96

Obituaries   Katharine Hepburn, Legend of Stage and Screen, Dead at 96
Katharine Hepburn, the legendary Oscar-winning actress whose heart always remained close to the live theatre, died June 29 at her home in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, a few miles from where she played early stage roles.
Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story (1939).
Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story (1939).

Ms. Hepburn, who inspired generations of actresses to be who they are and play fiercely on stage and off, was 96. She died of complications from old age, according to her estate's executor and the Connecticut authorities, who told the Associated Press of her passing.

Old Saybrook is a 15-minute drive from Ivoryton, CT, where a stage manager and director named Milton Stiefel started a professional summer stock house in an old community hall more than 70 years ago. Hepburn played a number of roles there in the 1930s. In her varied career, she played Broadway, tours, stock, TV and films.

Among her stage roles was playing Coco Chanel in a 1970 Alan Jay Lerner-Andre Previn musical, Coco, and in Broadway's The West Side Waltz, by Ernest Thompson, author of On Golden Pond. Her early Broadway triumphs included the original production of Philip Barry's The Philadelphia Story. She famously starred opposite Henry Fonda in the film version of On Golden Pond.

She won four Leading Actress Academy Awards in her lifetime and was nommed 12 times in the category.

On the personal side, she was known for her 25-year relationship with actor Spencer Tracy, and was a lady who wasn't afraid to wear slacks in public in a time when Hollywood stars desperately protected their images. Katharine Houghton Hepburn was born May 12, 1907, in Hartford, CT, to a prominent doctor father and a mother who was a suffragette.

Her Broadway appearances began in 1928, with a play called These Days, followed by Art and Mrs. Bottle (1930), The Warrior's Husband (1932), The Lake (1933) and The Philadelphia Story (1940). She bought the film rights to the last play at a time when she was labeled "box office poison" in Hollywood, and made a movie comeback when the comedy was turned into a film in 1940. Her other Broadway credits include Without Love, another Barry play, As You Like It, a Theatre Guild production in which she starred as Rosalind, The Millionairess, A Matter of Gravity (1976) and 1982's West Side Waltz, her final Broadway appearance. She was nominated for Tony Awards twice: for Coco and The West Side Waltz.

Her niece, actress Katharine Houghton, recently told Larry King (before her aunt's death) that Ms. Hepburn will be remembered as "the icon of the 20th-century woman."

"Those of us who knew her well and loved her will miss her terribly, but through her films, generations to come will discover her humor and grace...and her soaring independence," said executor Cynthia McFadden, in a statement to the press.

Ms. Hepburn was also known for playing famous stage roles in film versions of plays. Among those titles are "Summertime" (based on The Time of the Cuckoo), "The Madwoman of Chaillot," "A Delicate Balance," "The Rainmaker," "Suddenly Last Summer," "The Lion in Winter" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night."

Her films included "Bringing Up Baby," "Little Women," "Alice Adams," "Morning Glory," "Stage Door," "Adam's Rib," "Woman of the Year," "Pat and Mike," "Rooster Cogburn," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "The African Queen." Her first movie was 1932's "A Bill of Divorcement."

A one-woman stage play about Ms. Hepburn's life and career, Tea at Five is currently playing Off-Broadway's Promenade Theatre starring Kate Mulgrew.

Katharine Hepburn in <i>Coco.</i>
Katharine Hepburn in Coco.
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