June 29, 2003 01:00 PM

Legendary actress Katharine Hepburn, the feisty Yankee blue-blood who projected an image of determined female independence both onscreen and off, died Sunday at 2:50 p.m. at her home in Old Saybrook, Conn., following a long illness, according to news reports. She was 96.

Famous the world over for playing such roles as preachy spinster Rose Sayer in “The African Queen” and imperious yet vulnerable heiress Tracy Lord in “The Philadelphia Story,” Kate the Great made nearly 50 films and was nominated 12 times for the Academy’s Best Actress Award. (Her 12 nominations were the most in Hollywood’s history until earlier this year, when Hepburn was surpassed by Meryl Streep.) She won the Best Actress Oscar four times — for “Morning Glory” (1933), “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” (1967), “The Lion in Winter” (1968) and “On Golden Pond” (1981).

Tall and slim, with flyaway red hair, Hepburn presented herself in real life as the same kind of tough, spirited woman she portrayed throughout much of her screen career. She was determined, she said, “to paddle my own canoe,” and she did, according to her close friend and “African Queen” costar Humphrey Bogart. “She does pretty much as she goddamn pleases,” Bogie once remarked.

Born in Hartford, Conn., on May 12, 1907, Katharine Hepburn was the second oldest of six children born to “Kit” Hepburn, a pioneering suffragette and birth control activist, and Thomas Hepburn, a respected surgeon. Reared in a family that nurtured independence and self-esteem, she had a lively childhood that included marching in suffragette parades with prominent feminists like Margaret Sanger and participating in a daily regimen of strenuous sports.

While the Hepburn household was a privileged one (Kit was an heir to the Corning Glass fortune), Kate decided she not only wanted a career, she wanted to be famous. “We weren’t treated quite like the rest of the kids were,” she told TV Guide. “We children knew most people are raised to believe they are just as good as the next person. I was always told I was better.”

While attending Bryn Mawr College, she decided to become an actress and soon appeared on Broadway, where she was discovered by Hollywood producers. Her first film, “A Bill of Divorcement” (1932), made her a star, and a year later she won her first Academy Award (for “Morning Glory”). A series of hits quickly followed, including “Little Women,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “Stage Door” and “Holiday.”

In 1941, when she was 33 and he was 41, Katharine Hepburn met Spencer Tracy, the man who was to become her acting partner and the great love of her life for the next 27 years. From the first day of working with Tracy in “Woman of the Year,” Hepburn knew that she had met her match — “and then some,” she later told PEOPLE.

Hepburn had married once (briefly, in 1928, to Philadelphia socialite Ludlow Ogden Smith) and divorced, but Tracy was still married, although he was living apart from his wife and two children. The hard-drinking, no-nonsense Irishman and the Connecticut heiress formed what has been called the longest-running star partnership ever, onscreen and off, filming nine memorable hits, including “Adam’s Rib” (1949), “Pat and Mike” and “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.” The two were careful never to be seen together (outside of work), and they never married.

“At lunchtime they’d just meet and sit on a bench on the lot,” Gene Kelly told PEOPLE. “They’d hold hands and talk — and everybody left them alone in their little private world.”

When asked by TIME how she could have let herself become involved with a married man, Hepburn answered, “You don’t pick who you fall in love with. There are so few people to love. It’s hard for one adult to even like another. Almost impossible.”

After Tracy died of a heart attack in 1967, Hepburn turned her full attention to her career, appearing in numerous films, plays and TV productions until her final appearances in 1994, in “Love Affair” with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening and in the TV movie “One Christmas” with Henry Winkler.

In her 80s Hepburn wrote two bestsellers, one in 1987 on the making of “The African Queen,” the other, in 1992, an autobiography. (Writing, she told TIME, was so easy: “No makeup. No costumes. I wrote in bed every morning. Whatever came into my head. Someone types it up, and you have a book.”)

While she often became exasperated with people who thought she had everything — “They don’t understand, for example, that maybe they have five children, and I don’t have any,” she told TV Guide — she appeared to be satisfied with her life.

“In some ways I’ve lived my life as a man, made my own decisions,” she said during “All About Me,” a 1993 televised autobiography on the TNT cable channel, the New York Times noted. “I’ve been as terrified as the next person, but you’ve got to keep a-going; you’ve got to dream.”

Hepburn is survived by sister Margaret Hepburn Perry, brother Dr. Robert Hepburn, and 13 nieces and nephews, according to the Associated Press.

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