Requiem for a great lady of the silver screen

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 30, 2003

Here is a requiem for a lady.

I'm not much of one to "ooh" and "aah" over celebrities. After my first close encounter of the Hollywood kind, which actually took place on Broadway, when I literally bumped into William Hurt after a matinee performance and became an instant babbling idiot, I swore I would always keep my cool when meeting Very Important People.

Until recently, I kept to that vow. I've interviewed Gordon Jump, Tiny Tim and Ralph Waite with a calm smile and ready pen. I ate breakfast with Al Gore and lunch with Judd Nelson without splashing coffee all over my dignity. I visited with authors James Dickey, Eudora Welty and Marion Zimmer Bradley without losing my command of the English language. In fact, the late great science fiction author Bradley and I had an incredible argument that lasted more than an hour. I guess she didn't hold it against me, since she was the first publisher to buy one of my fantasy short stories.

But there are a few

celebrities out there who I know would render me speechless if I ever met them. Paul Newman, because I love his work and because he looks so much like my dad. Pat Conroy, because I consider him one of the greatest living writers of the English language and Southern mentality. Brad Pitt, because.. well, duh. Even old married ladies can dream…

But there are fewer and fewer of them for me to fawn over. One of the greatest died this weekend. Katherine Hepburn is gone. Her death, following so closely on the heels of Gregory Peck's, makse me feel as though I'm watching the end credits roll on a wonderful movie…. are there any left of the Golden Era?

The first time I can remember seeing Katherine Hepburn was not in a film of her younger, more glamorous days, but as the mud-splattered, frazzled and fierce Rose in The African Queen. Her strength of character shone through, and one you knew what to look for, you could see it in all of her roles, even when she was a whispery ingenue of 19.

From Katherine Hepburn, I discovered it was possible to be strong and still be a woman, to be assertive and still be a lady. Her crisp, New England monied accent delivered scathing barbs and gentle endearments with the same sincerity, and her humor, subtle and understated, added a soft touch to the barbs and a human depth to the endearments.

This was a lady with class. If I had ever had the opportunity to meet her, I, no doubt, would have again been a blithering idiot, unable to do more than say "I'm your biggest fan!" over and over again.

It is hard not to be an old fogey when comparing the classic stars of yesteryear, like Kate and Bette and Maureen, to the actresses of today, and whine that "they don't make 'em like that anymore…" It's not true, of course. We forget that for every Katherine Hepburn there were dozens and dozens of "wannabes" whose names are now consigned to answers in the Trivial Pursuit game. Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow, Glenn Close… our generation is creating its own great ladies of the silver screen.

But there will never be anybody like Kate.

Thank heaven for VCRs and DVDs and all of those other wonderful preservers of time, which will keep Kate with us forever, spicy and funny and fragile and fierce. I would say "Rest in Peace, Katherine Hepburn," but I know that you would find peace far too boring. Somewhere, somehow, you are finding something to get into. After all, it was you who said, "If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun."

Have fun, Kate, wherever you are.