Katharine Hepburn dies at 96. The screen titan won a record four Oscars

By Gary Susman
Updated June 30, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
Katharine Hepburn: Nancy Kaszerman/Zuma Press/Newscom

Katharine Hepburn, generally regarded as the greatest film actress of the 20th century, died Sunday afternoon at her home in Old Saybrook, Conn., announced Cynthia McFadden, her friend and executor of her estate. The screen titan, whose career spanned more than 60 years and earned her an unsurpassed four Academy Awards for Best Actress, was 96 and succumbed to old age, McFadden said.

Hepburn, known for her Yankee assertiveness, her clipped New England speech, her fierce independence, and her pre-feminist trendsetting, starred in numerous classic movies, proving equally adept as a heroine of screwball romantic comedies and searing dramas. Her first Oscar came with her third picture, ”Morning Glory” (1933); her fourth came half a century later for ”On Golden Pond” (1981). In between came such landmarks as ”Bringing Up Baby” (1938), ”The Philadelphia Story” (1940), ”The African Queen” (1951), ”Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (1962), and 1968’s ”The Lion in Winter” (the source of her third Oscar). She was nominated for 12 Academy Awards, a record that held for more than two decades until Meryl Streep broke it this year. Her last movie was 1994’s ”Love Affair,” with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening.

Hepburn was perhaps best known for her partnership with Spencer Tracy, which ran for nine movies and 27 years on- and off-screen, from 1942’s ”Woman of The Year” to 1967’s ”Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” which won her a second Oscar and was completed just days before Tracy died. Their affair, surely the most legendary in Hollywood history, was an open secret among the film community but was discreet by modern standards; Tracy remained married to his wife Louise the entire time, and Hepburn never commented on the relationship until after Louise died nearly 20 years after her husband. Hepburn herself was married only briefly, to Philadelphia socialite Ludlow Ogden Smith, from 1928 to 1934.

Hepburn had a similarly celebrated career on stage, despite an early review from Dorothy Parker that said Hepburn ”ran the gamut of emotion from A to B.” Her screen classics ”Holiday” and ”Philadelphia Story” both started as Broadway hits in the 1930s, and she continued to delight Broadway audiences through the ’50s and ’60s in plays like ”As You Like It” and the musical ”Coco.” On Tuesday, the lights on Broadway will be dimmed to honor her memory.