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The Legacy of Katharine Hepburn

Aired June 30, 2003 - 20:47   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: Sophisticated, sharp-witted, classy and sassy, this weekend, the world lost more than a legend of the silver screen.

(voice-over): Katharine Hepburn once said, "The single most important thing anyone needs to know about me is that I am totally, completely the product two of damn fascinating individuals who happen to be my parents." The daughter of a doctor who was a pioneer in the fight against venereal diseases and a suffragette who was a strong advocate of birth control, Hepburn was always encouraged to speak her mind, and with what a voice.


KATHARINE HEPBURN: Oh, we're going to talk about me, are we? Goody.


ZAHN: But she is perhaps better known for the voice she gave to others -- sexy, smart and foremost independent.


KATHARINE HEPBURN: All I'm saying is, why let this deplorable system seep into our courts of law, where women are supposed to be equal.


ZAHN: Hepburn was a role model, not just setting trends, like her signature trousers, but defining a new role for women.

KATHARINE HEPBURN: In some ways, I've lived my life as a man, made my own decisions. I've been as terrified as the next person, but you've got to keep going. You've got to dream.

ZAHN: Hepburn taught generations to dream. When asked what it was about her that struck people, she said she had an angular face, an angular body and, quote, "an angular personality which jabs into people."

KATHARINE HEPBURN: There, that's better.

ZAHN: We'll miss the jabs. Hepburn died Sunday at her home in Connecticut. She was 96.


ZAHN: Hepburn is survived by a sister, Margaret (ph), and a brother. And her brother, Dr. Robert Hepburn, joins us tonight from Canton, Connecticut. Good of you to join us, sir. And our condolences to your family. You've probably heard a lot of the tributes to your sister today. So much has been said about her professional life and her personal life. And I'm just wondering tonight if you'd like to share something with us that you don't think most people in the audience know about your sister.

DR. ROBERT HEPBURN, BROTHER: Well, I don't think that they know how perceptive she was into the feelings of people. And I think that that quick perception and her speed of mind was what made her the personality that she was.

ZAHN: What kind of a sister was she?

ROBERT HEPBURN: She was generosity itself. And she had the tendency to sort of take care of anyone who needed taking care of. And we were pretty good at playing that. But I would say that she was a wonderful sister, always coming back from New York with some dresses and various things for her two little sisters. And for me, she would send me pieces of cloth from England to make a suit out of and things like that.

ZAHN: Well, Dr. Hepburn, I know that you all came from an exceptionally close family. And I appreciate your sharing some of your memories with us this evening. Right now, Dr. Hepburn, we're going to move on and talk to a woman who also thought very highly of your sister, Barbara Leaming, who is the author of a Hepburn biography.

Nice to see you, as well. You've had a very interesting point of reference about what Katharine Hepburn should represent to women today.

BARBARA LEAMING, AUTHOR, "KATHARINE HEPBURN": Yes, I think Katharine Hepburn's legacy -- and a lot of this I owe to Bob Hepburn, who was just -- he made Kate talk to me, if nothing else. But I think that Kate's her legacy is a complicated one. It's much bigger than a movie legacy usually is because, somehow her story can never be separated from her mother's story.

Kate's mother was one of the leaders of women's movement in the United States and the fight for -- first of all, for women's education, and then the fight for the vote, and then finally, the fight for birth control. And Kate grew up in the war room of the women's movement, in the most violent period, when women -- this little girl would be sitting there, and women would come in from the demonstrations and they'd have been beaten up. The men were attacking them in the streets in Washington. She'd see them after they'd been force fed, or she'd see them after they'd been thrown against the bars in jails. And Kate was shaped by all of that into, first of all, the most courageous, physically brave human being that I've ever encountered, but also, I think, into what became the symbol of modern women. And so I think what's fascinating about her is that her legacy is that she was the image of the modern woman that her mother helped to create. And it's much bigger than any kind of Hollywood story usually is.

ZAHN: I guess what I was struck by when I had the opportunity to interview her, I think it was two or three times, by her candor. And the one thing that surprised me -- back in 1990, I asked her if she ever had any regrets about not having children, and she said absolutely not. She said, I wanted to be a star, and I knew if I had a child, my child would be compromised and I wouldn't get where I wanted to in my career. How driven was she? How important was that to her?

LEAMING: Well, I think it's partially true and partially not true. I had always accepted that as a given until I saw something that was left behind by her closest friend and roommate at Bryn Mawr, a woman called Alice Palosh (ph). And Alice Palosh told this incredible story about how much Kate really did want a child, how desperately she wanted it. In fact, she wanted it so desperately that, at one point, she came up with the idea that Palosh should have a baby and let Kate raise it. And it was sort of -- it made me rethink everything.

I think one of the things about Kate that to me was so fascinating was how different she was in life from her image and from the character that she played, not just on the screen but in the books she wrote and most of the time in the interviews. When she was giving an interview, she was Katharine Hepburn as we knew her from the Garson Kanin movies and the Ruth Gordon movies. I think the real woman led a much sadder life, in many ways, because, remember, I mean, this was somebody who at the age of 13 found her 15-year-old brother hanging by the neck. And it was a whole family legacy of suicides. I mean, Tom, her brother, was not the only one.

And I think that, for example, in her relationship with Spencer Tracy, Tracy became the brother that she couldn't save, and she kept Tracy alive for 30 years by making sure that he had everything that he needed, but at great personal cost to herself.

ZAHN: But what a legacy the rest of us get to enjoy on film.

LEAMING: Oh, yes.

ZAHN: A stunning legacy, isn't it? Barbara Leaming, thank you very much for spending some time with us this evening.

LEAMING: Thank you, Paula.

ZAHN: And continued good luck with your writing.


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