The woman who gave us 'calla lilies' - and more

It somehow seemed in character for Katharine Hepburn to say she didn't want a memorial service. In her famous independent spirit, we who've known her all our lives will have to go it alone. After the lights on Broadway dim in her honor Tuesday night, after the voluminous obituaries on an icon's passing Sunday are filed, each of us has our Hepburn as vivid as at any time in her 96 years.

I was 12 in a Midwestern town when "Stage Door" opened and she said, "The calla lilies are in bloom again...." I remember it from years later when a young woman quoted it in the Hepburn voice, making us both feel so sophisticated. Who knew it had become a staple of Hepburn imitators in the big city? Who knew what a calla lily was?

Flash forward. Can you imagine the thrill of seeing in "Adam's Rib" a shot of the steps leading to one's own New York walkup? That film was a peak in Miss Hepburn's screen sparring with Spencer Tracy, whom she later called the love of her life. They one-upped each other all the way to what might be called the reconciliation of the sexes.

Earlier she had shown the gift for patrician comedy with Cary Grant. And there was the dirty-faced spectacle of the proper lady straightening out - and being straightened out by - the rough Humphrey Bogart character in "The African Queen."

For all the record four Oscars and the 12 Oscar nominations, Hepburn kept going back to the stage. She even tried singing in "Coco," the musical about Chanel. Composer Andre Previn had written songs so that Hepburn's "indulgent cackle" could manage them, as critic Walter Kerr put it. To Kerr it was less about Chanel than "an open palm of respect" for Hepburn, her gala benefit performance, "for our benefit." Perhaps she had her memorial service in advance.

For some time in New York she's been portrayed on stage in "Tea at Five." How many players have had plays about them during their lifetimes?

Hepburn was social graces and mateyness and clear-eyed intelligence glinting during Depression years. Only later did we know she'd grown up with a father who made a theater in the backyard and a mother who had her passing out balloons for women's suffrage.

She later expressed gratitude for those parents and for the all but unknown husband of her early marriage, whom she felt she had treated badly. The angular artist had some softer edges. The obits quote her as saying "life is what's important..., acting's just waiting for the custard pie."

Yet it's not the Hepburn bio that made her a must-see during a career with its ups and downs (she was "almost ideally miscast" as Viola in "Twelfth Night" on the stage, said one account).

It is the acting that keeps the lights from dimming in our memories. The skill and the persona, the stride, the standup air, the emotion brimming beneath the enamel, and, yes, the cackle was indulgent.

Roderick Nordell is a longtime Monitor writer following arts and culture.

A record four Oscars

Hepburn's Oscar nominations, winners in bold:

Morning Glory, 1933

Alice Adams, 1935

The Philadelphia Story, 1940

Woman of the Year, 1942

The African Queen, 1951

Summertime, 1955

The Rainmaker, 1956

Suddenly, Last Summer, 1959

Long Day's Journey Into Night, 1962

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, 1967

The Lion in Winter, 1968 (tie with Barbra Streisand for "Funny Girl")

On Golden Pond, 1981

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