November 05, 1990 12:00 PM

It’s a bore,” says Katharine Hepburn, “B-O-R-E, when you find you’ve begun to rot. First I smashed this ankle”—she waggles it—”in an auto accident in ’82, and after that I walked in a funny position. Threw out my back,” She shrugs. “I’ll live forever, but I may not be able to move.”

So she claims. This morning, though, Hepburn is fully ambulatory. In fact, she doesn’t just cross a room. She’s a zoomer. The mere sound of her step on the stairs, as she descends from her bedroom here in her east Manhattan town house, can send word flashing among the staff: “She’s down!” At 83, somewhat hunched now, she still has the vitality of a flapping electrical wire.

At this moment, at rest in the living room, her legs crossed as idly as a teenager’s, the actress is reciting her regimen. She rises before dawn. Summers, she takes a freezing shower; winters, at her country home, a plunge in the freezing Long Island Sound (“just to irritate people”). She stands on her head for four minutes….

Does she consider herself eccentric? Hepburn thinks that one over. “Somewhat,” she says, judiciously.

She has always maintained a steel mesh of Yankee habits, but now she is breaking a big one. Ever since she became a movie star—in 1932, with her first picture, A Bill of Divorcement—Hepburn has resolutely guarded her privacy, usually treating the press as a bunch of low peepers. So some surprise attends the publication this month of a book of photographs, The Private World of Katharine Hepburn, shot over the past 15 years by John Bryson. It amounts to an auctioneer’s inventory of her homes, along with dozens of shots of, among other things, Hepburn playing Parcheesi, washing chicken and lying in bed, haggard in hair curlers. What’s more, here she is in her own house doing an interview. How come?

She laughs. “Soon it will be too late,” she says. Her voice quavers and cuts, like an old czarina’s. “And I’d rather do this myself than have others do it after I’m dead. They never get things straight.”

It’s hard to blame them. This living room alone, sumptuously old-fashioned, with its basic-black rotary-dial phone and folk-art rug, is strewn with scores of little objects only Hepburn could catalogue. Some turn out to be tiny sculptures of the lady herself: in tennis costume, in a sun hat, as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra…. Through an archway is visible a fine, large portrait of Hepburn, chin in hand. What saves the place from seeming like a shrine to herself is the spill of other curios here, including pre-Columbian statuary, lumps of crystal, a winning Wimbledon tennis racket from Martina Navratilova and a vast assortment of gawky sculpted birds.

From her living-room window Hepburn can look out across the back garden at the home of Broadway composer Stephen Sondheim. Several winters ago, when he was plunking out A Little Night Music on the piano at 4 A.M., she paid him a surprise visit. “I walked barefoot across the garden,” she says, “through snow this deep, in my pajamas.” Draping herself against his window, she stared in at him like an evil angel. Sondheim glanced up and froze. Then she vanished. “I’ve never heard another sound from him,” says Hepburn cheerfully. “We bow when we meet in the street.”

As full of charm and clutter as Hepburn’s town house (purchased in 1937 for $27,000) is, however, it is basically a grand pied-à-terre. Her true home is Fenwick. on the Connecticut shore. Ever since 1912, when her father first began summering the family there, Fenwick has been her heart’s ballast. Hepburn has always clung to family. In particular, she has a reverence for the memory of her mother and father that rivals the Chinese. In her words, “The single most important thing anyone needs to know about me is that I am totally, completely the product of two damn fascinating individuals who happened to be my parents.”

They were a formidable pair. Her father, Thomas Norval Hepburn, was one of Hartford’s foremost surgeons; he became notorious around 1910 when he marshaled a national campaign to publicize and find a cure for venereal disease. Meanwhile, his wife, Katharine Houghton Hepburn, was a leading tub-thumper for women’s rights; she was among the first supporters of both Planned Parenthood and the League of Women Voters. As a tot, daughter Katharine was blowing up balloons for suffragette parades and staggering about with signs saying VOTES FOR WOMEN. “They were interested in saving the human race,” says Hepburn today, “and they had the nerve to be unpopular.” They succeeded. Town leaders were always getting their knickers in a twist over the Hepburns’ crusades. “So we were snubbed as kids,” says the actress, “and that made us strong.”

Not just strong: The Hepburns were exuberantly self-sufficient. There were six children (Kate was the second), three boys and three girls. It was a Kennedy-style clan, all-for-one, sports-mad; while at the dinner table “every conceivable topic was discussed—venereal disease, prostitution, feminism, Marxism, Darwinism, Fabianism, even nudism.”

Perhaps life at the Hepburns was a little too splendid. “I was very close to my family,” says the actress, “so I didn’t need to go outside for entertainment.” As a result, she says, “I don’t make friends easily to this day.” Her lone-wolf tendency was certainly reinforced by the suicide of her older brother, Tom, at 15. He hanged himself, and Katharine found the body. Hepburn believes it was a prank gone awry, but whatever the truth, she says, “It made me into a slight recluse.”

Overall, though, she looks back on a luminous childhood, and she credits that legacy from her parents—everything from her cheekbones to her “nerve to burn”—with helping to make her an immediate star in Hollywood. “I was also lucky to just hit it right,” she says, “with the pants and the sort of dégagé air….” To date she has made 42 movies, earning 12 Oscar nominations and winning four times, more than anyone else. Her work, mannered at times, has nonetheless been extraordinary in its range. Who among her contemporaries could shine, as she has, in both Bringing Up Baby and Long Day’s Journey into Night?

But over the years, almost as striking as what Hepburn has done is what she has not done. While venerating her parents” example (“I was brought up to believe the most important thing you can do is to better man’s position in the world—and woman’s”), she has rarely campaigned for social causes herself. Even during the Hollywood blacklist—though she did make a speech against film censorship—she largely stayed out of the fray. “I didn’t go in for a great deal of protesting,” she says. Perhaps she has become more socially conscious in recent years. “I don’t know,” she says blandly. “Have I?”

Well, as a supporter of reproductive rights, she has lent her name to Planned Parenthood, her mother’s old cause, and last month she invited for dinner two ex-nuns, Barbara Ferraro and Patricia Hussey, who bucked the Vatican on abortion rights. Still, Hepburn has sometimes wondered aloud if she might have let her parents down. She once told screenwriter Garson Kanin, “I think [Mother] thought of most of the things I did as being sort of la-di-da commercial…. She didn’t think the things I did had enough to do with what really mattered in the world….”

And yet the great paradox of Hepburn is that by being, as she calls herself, “an aggressive, self-involved mutt,” she has become a social force after all. Her courage and brio have made her inspiring to three generations of women.

“Isn’t that funny?” she says. “I am aware of that. I think that’s because I’ve been independent, don’t you? Because I chose a road and stuck to it.”

Long ago, in 1928, Hepburn made a false start at the conventional life, marrying an insurance broker and sometime inventor named Ludlow Ogden Smith. But she parted from him after six years and thereafter, as she likes to put it, “lived like a man.” (She had already lived like a boy. From the ages of 9 to 13, she had shaved her head and called herself Jimmy.) Early on, Hepburn also ruled out having children, a decision she says she has never regretted. “I had such a wonderful upbringing,” she says, “that I had a very high standard of how a mother and father should behave. I couldn’t be that way and carry on a movie career.”

However, Hepburn continues, “Nobody’s completely independent”—an observation that leads her into some startling ruminations on the balance of power between the sexes.

“Women have been the slaves of men,” she says. “Now they’re less slavish. And sometimes to my way of thinking they should be a little more slavey. Then they’d have more fun. The relationships would work better if a man could protect and a women could do her chore of making him feel great. Someone’s got to make someone feel great.”

This is hardly what one would expect to find in the Hepburn handbook. “I know. But I think men and women have a sort of obligation between them,” she says, “to make life attractive and picturesque. And I think that’s one way of doing it.

“I mean, I can carry the logs up from the cellar and build the fire. I do all that. But if I were married to someone and I did it and he was sitting reading the paper, I would like him to feel”—Hepburn, as she often does, is laughing now—”that he’s a lazy son of a bitch.”

Perhaps her views here are colored by her life with Spencer Tracy. He was already married when they were partnered in 1942’s Woman of the Year (the first of nine movies together). Yet they sustained a fabled romance for more than 25 years, until his death. She once said she changed her style around him. (“I stopped being loud and bossy. Oh, all right, I was still loud and bossy, but only behind his back.”) Did she accommodate herself to Tracy? “Yes,” she says. “Because life has been easy for me, and I think life was difficult for him. So we fell into a certain kind of behavior. I enjoyed it.”

Suddenly she sits up. “Do you want to see something?” She sprints for the stairs. An instant later she has reached her bedroom and is plucking up something from her night table.

“Here’s Spencer!” she cries. “Oh, he’s falling out of his frame. Don’t look. Don’t look. Turn your back…. All right.”

She holds a small painting of Tracy she did many years ago. At least she says it’s him; seated in an armchair, he is reading a newspaper that obscures his face.

“I thought he had a great face,” she says, “but I couldn’t paint it. I could paint his silhouette.” Now she produces a two-inch bronze head of Tracy. It fits the hand like a grenade. “Then I did this of him,” she says. “I think that’s rather good. I’m just sorry no one really did him because he had a great, great head….”

Though she may be alone these days, Hepburn is hardly solitary; she lives in a surge of family, staff and old friends. Besides painting, she says, trooping back downstairs past several of her own canvases, she reads through scores of new scripts; she mostly doesn’t like them (“terrible old ladies”) and doubts she will act again. She ventures out to galas (“I’ll be at the Kennedy Center in Washington Dec. 2. I think I’m one of the honorees”). She doesn’t go to church: “I’m not opposed to religion. I just never found it a necessity.” Is she afraid of death? “Not at all. Be a great relief.” She smiles benignly. “Then I wouldn’t have to talk to you.”

Still, it’s good practice for next August, when her autobiography appears. That will really have the media leaping and squeaking for interviews. With a $4.25 million advance, the actress spends much of her time these days writing it, in longhand on legal pads. “It hasn’t a beginning, middle, end,” she says. “It’s a bunch of stories, Observations.”

She also goes to the movies. The other evening she saw Clint Eastwood’s White Hunter, Black Heart. Years ago, says Hepburn, she tried to get that book—about John Huston’s big game hunting while on location for Vie African Queen—made into a movie. “My conception of it would have made a brilliant picture.” she says. “I wanted to play the lead, Thought it would be more interesting to have a woman going against the elephants.”

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