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Last Updated: Monday, 30 June, 2003, 15:42 GMT 16:42 UK
Hepburn's spirited legacy
By Sheridan Morley
Katharine Hepburn biographer

Katharine Hepburn was one of history's most influential and iconic actresses.

Her father was a radical doctor who specialised in venereal disease and a mother who was a campaigner for women's suffrage and also an early crusader for birth control.

Katharine Hepburn
Katharine Hepburn broke the mould for Hollywood actresses

Hepburn herself went on to encourage the careers of many younger stars.

She demonstrated that it was possible for even a strong-willed independent woman to survive the male-dominated studio system.

She started out on Broadway, where her most successful role was as the original Tracy in Philip Barry's the Philadelphia Story, later turned into the musical High Society.

She always retained the stage rights in the play and when it came to the end of a long road tour in 1939 she insisted that the curtain stay up on the last night, announcing that it would never fall on her favourite play.

Her starring role in the film version of The Philadelphia Story was the start of a long and usually triumphant career.

Katharine Hepburn
Hepburn could be glamorous when she wanted to be

If Garbo was the first actress to give the cinema its true and subtle sexuality, then Katharine Hepburn was the first to give it spirit and verbal intelligence.

Before her, women in films were either silent pioneers like Lilian Gish or sex objects like Mae West.

Hepburn, alone in her time, brought a mind and an intellect to her movies.

She was the first woman on screen to suggest that she had actually thought long and hard about what she was to say next.

Hepburn on her life, love and work

It was with her that women on the screen came of age.

As her most constant and characteristic director, George Cukor once said, "Kate did not grow up to Hollywood, Hollywood grew up to her."

But the fact that she came of an already rich East Coast family, had started on Broadway, and went back to the theatre whenever possible, did not endear her to the Hollywood establishment.

Studios she could take or leave, and often she left them.

Katharine Hepburn
Hepburn's loyalty to Spencer Tracy never diminished

Outraged distributors once classified her as "box office poison'" but her support came from the press and the public and with that she triumphed.

She had no children and the three things she most cared about were Spencer Tracy, her privacy, and her career, in roughly that order.

She once said that when she died she expected people to miss her, "just like they'd miss a very old monument".

Her films are an essential ingredient in the history of world cinema.


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