Beyond being a prototypical American actress, Katharine Hepburn became the prototypical modern American woman.
Born of progressive New England parents, she parlayed Yankee flintiness, determination, and independence into one of the most successful stage and film careers ever - a career that unusually stretched over more than six decades. In doing so, she became the cultural model of the ambitious, smart, and savvy career woman now familiar from coast to coast.
Her politically active parents raised her to think for herself - her mother marched for women's voting rights and both parents campaigned for civil rights and birth control.
Miss Hepburn gained her fame, not because she was beautiful as Hollywood counts beauty, but because she showed that an intelligent, athletic, and independent woman could be as appealing as - if not more than - a blonde bombshell. She was a real person using her real name. She never had a press agent and often refused to cooperate with studio publicists, angering the movie moguls.
As much as anyone ever has, Hepburn did it her way. When the owner of a chain of theaters labeled her "box-office poison" and her career tanked in the late 1930s, she returned to the New York stage. Foreshadowing today's actor-producers, she bought the stage and movie rights to "The Philadelphia Story," which brought her an Oscar nomination and helped relaunch her in films. She pioneered women's fashion, wearing pants and mannish shirts in an age when few women did, and preferred life in New York and her beloved Old Saybrook, Conn., to the glitz of Beverly Hills.
She blamed her career ambitions for the failure of her short marriage. In divorce also she trod a path many American women have followed. But she later put her career on hold to care for the love of her life, actor Spencer Tracy, during his final illness.
In the cultural history of 20th- century America, she will loom especially large.