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Kate : At 84, Hepburn Still Has the Look, the Voice and the Attitude

September 01, 1991|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — For all the American girls whose mothers told them to never beat a boy at tennis, there was a small voice in their heads--that of a wildly beautiful woman named Katharine Hepburn--whispering in perfect, patrician diction to go ahead and beat him.

As several generations of women have learned from her movies, Katharine Hepburn would nevah, nevah not win. "I just think if I were mad about a man, I wouldn't play tennis with him if I thought I could smear him," she says.

It is a Wednesday in Manhattan, and just as she weathered Hurricane Bob, which left her beloved family home on the Connecticut waterfront unscathed, she is surviving a series of inquisitors from the media. A crew from "Entertainment Tonight" has just left her East Side townhouse, and Miss Hepburn, it is announced, is upstairs washing her face.

When she descends to the living room--stuffed with Hollywood memorabilia and Yankee bric-a-brac like wooden ducks and colored glass--she is sporting the Hepburn Look: pants. In recent years she has traded in elegantly pleated gabardine trousers for baggy khakis, which she wears today with a black turtleneck, red sweater-vest, heavy socks and white Reeboks.

She immediately apologizes as she enters the room. "I hope you don't mind, but I just had to take off the makeup," she declares. As she plops into an easy chair next to a black rotary telephone, Hepburn immediately offers a visitor cold beet soup.

Phyllis Wilbourn, her secretary/companion since the mid-1950s, totters in with a bowl of soup that Hepburn rejects: "I want it in a cup with a handle. I don't want a spoon, and no saucer. Just one of those lousy coffee cups. Thaaaaaaaank you, dear."

Hepburn also makes it clear she doesn't particularly abide celebrity interviews, but they are necessary these days because she is promoting a new autobiography titled, to the point, "Me: Stories of My Life." It is to be the grand summing up of the grandest actress, for which she reportedly was paid the grand sum of $4.5 million.

"It's none of your business how much they paid me," she says, establishing right off the bat her renowned candor, which borders on crustiness but carries no malice. "But they paid me so much I want the book to sell, so I'm talking to you."

At 84, Katharine Hepburn is no longer the colt with the alabaster skin. The skin is spotted red; the figure fuller; the head shaky. But just as Hepburn the actress was able to submerge herself in a dramatic role without losing her essential personality, Hepburn the beauty has not been masked by age. Like Manhattan's most fantastic structures, the confluence of cheekbones, chin and green-blue eyes still stands as a testament against time.

Obstinate yet funny, Hepburn also remains the epitome of every woman's secret wish to be loved not just for her looks but for her character--no matter how unconventional.

"There are things I now feel I have a perfect right to do, or can do," she says, jutting out that chin as if to invite a swipe. "So I do them."

She has always thought she had the perfect right to her privacy and rarely agreed to talk for publicity. Yet over the last decade there have been numerous interviews, often done in this brownstone she bought in 1937 for $27,000. Perhaps it is that Hepburn is no longer worried about being asked about her affair with the late Spencer Tracy. Perhaps it is pleasurable to sit in the snug living room overlooking a giant ash tree in the courtyard she shares with Stephen Sondheim and reminisce about the past.

She doesn't let on.

In fact, friends say, Hepburn is not the type to sit around analyzing her life, although writing the memoir prompted rare introspection. Musing over the young Kate, Hepburn in the memoir labels herself "bossy," "boring" and a "flash in the pan."

"I was so selfish," she says. "I was a real pig. Always worried about me, me, me."

Overall the book reads more like a theatrical script or one-woman show than a narrative biography. There is not a lot of pondering about her status as a legend. She has won four Academy Awards for best actress, more than any other performer, yet she barely mentions them.

When she is asked about younger women's regard for her as heroine of feminism, she seems to enjoy the opportunity to speak authoritatively but will not be drawn in too far.

"Women should act the way they are," she says, sounding every bit as rousing as attorney Amanda Banner in "Adam's Rib" or columnist Tess Gallagher in "Woman of the Year." "Their brains are just as good as men's. They could accomplish practically everything a man could accomplish. I mean, they can write, they can paint, they can play tennis so goddamn good."

But now she comes to the limitations. "I just hope women don't try to become men. I go mad when they become firemen, and I think of myself in this house if it were burning and women were holding the net. . . ."

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