NEW YORK -- Katharine Hepburn comes to the front door herself, and there's no namby-pamby peering through a crack. She opens the door wide and stands there in khaki slacks and a black turtleneck and a red scarf loosely around her neck. And white Reeboks with sweat socks stuffed into them.

Her complexion is splotchy, her hair frizzily gray, her head shakes slightly, and she is startlingly beautiful. She ushers you right in and you don't dare dawdle.

"Well are you warm enough? Because if you want me to light a fire, I will," she says, leading the way to the living room at the back of her town house on the East Side of Manhattan. She bought it for $27,000 in 1931. "I'm well-known in the neighborhood," she says. "The people know me. Sometimes when I come out the front door, they say, 'Good morning, Miss Hepburn.'"

A mountain ash stands tall in the courtyard outside the window; Hepburn planted it herself, "about 20 years ago, I think." Inside, no fire will be needed. The light in her eyes is glow enough.

When Katharine Hepburn accepts one of the Kennedy Center Honors in Washington tonight, it will be the end of a long struggle -- the struggle by the center to give her the award. Year after year she was entreated to accept, and year after year she declined. Why? "Well that's 'cause I have to dress up and walk somewhere, you know?"

Even now she is apprehensive. "I'm hoping I may die before the second of December," she says irreverently. "And then everyone'll know how happy I am -- in the next world, looking down at them." She scolds herself. "No, no, I think it's very nice, I really do. I don't approve of my attitude at all. Mine is called the easy way out."

She has never been to, or seen, a Kennedy Center Honors program, but she knows what is expected of her: "I go to a hotel. Then I try to make myself look as well as possible. Then I go to the White House. Then I go to the Kennedy Center." Pause. "I'm not going to sit and have dinner with them," she says sternly.

Told that she will stand in a box to be cheered by the audience, Hepburn asks, "If they hiss, do you sit down again?"

Producer George Stevens Jr. is the man who somehow talked her into accepting the prize after so many years of politely ducking it. "I think that awards are embarrassing, but George Stevens, who's the father of this fellow, was a very very good friend of mine, and when he was not important at all he did 'Alice Adams' and he did a brilliant job and he was a brilliant director and a very handy fellow to know, because he really knew what was funny.

"And I love what is funny, you know."

Awards she does not find funny. Her four Oscars, the most won by any actress, are scattered around town and in Connecticut among friends. "I don't like having things like that around, no," she says, as if talking about dead crickets or dirty undies.

The room is incredibly cozy, filled with memorabilia, sketches of Hepburn and paintings of birds, one of which, two gulls on a rock, she did herself. "Is it brilliant?" she asks, standing next to it, and waiting expectantly for the inevitable "yes."

Her preferred chair, into which she now settles, has a support sticking out of it for the bum ankle she got as the result of a 1982 traffic accident. It was, she says, entirely her fault. "I ran into a damn telegraphic pole and really smashed this foot. I looked down and it was turned completely around. I had ski boots on, blood pouring out of the top! I had it operated on three times. And listen -- it's there. They didn't have to cut it off, thank God."

The mishap turned out to have its good side, because it got Hepburn laid up in the hospital. "Yeah, I was laid up. And then I have a fake right hip. That operation was 1973. I'm a good patient. Oh, yes. I love hospitals. Oh, yes! I love to stay in bed all day. Heaven, oh, heaven! Love all that! I'm such a Spartan that I force myself to get up most days, but when the doctor says you can't get up, then I'm happy."

But it's so hard to think of her sitting still. Her hands and arms are in motion as she talks, her eyes dart about almost wickedly, and she is known for her love of swimming, even in the coldest of weather, and bicycle riding and tennis playing. But that is the thing about Katharine Hepburn -- at 81 she still likes to spring surprises, still enjoys defying expectations.

Flinty, gutsy, candid and stalwart, Katharine Hepburn is not only our greatest living female movie star, she has become a near-mythic symbol of stubborn survival and Yankee pluck. She seems the very definition of the Remarkable Modern Woman.

"I get a feeling now that people like me more for what I say than for what I've acted," she says. "Funny." How does the word "legend" sit with her? "I think that's fine," she says, laughing. "Do you think that's wrong? Anyone who lives a long time becomes a legend. Especially if you're in a conspicuous business."

She does not consider herself a feminist -- "no, I don't" -- but doesn't mind that feminists hold her up as a role model. "Well, that's okay. My mother was a banner carrier. Oh yes, I mean virtually. She was one of the first suffragettes. I think today is a very difficult situation between men and women. You know -- unattractive. Women want to be men. I wanted to be a man so I lived as a man, and that was very satisfactory but it meant I didn't have any children, and it certainly didn't mean that I was dwarfing anyone's personality.

"And I had something I violently wanted to do. Now that's tough on a woman to have something she really wants to do. No, it isn't as tough now, but is it going to work? Is marriage going to work under these circumstances? That's what I want to know."

What Hepburn originally violently wanted to be was a doctor. "I was going to study medicine and I was going to be a surgeon and then I thought, 'The hell with that,' because they didn't let women operate in those days. Not back where I would have started. Then I just sort of played a few parts at Bryn Mawr and sort of fell into acting in a funny way. I don't really remember being stage-struck but I obviously was -- wildly."

The woman who likes things to be funny was perhaps at her most ingratiating in comedies, like "The Philadelphia Story" and "Holiday" and the great pictures she did with her beloved Spencer Tracy. But the serious dramatic triumphs were formidable too: "Long Day's Journey into Night" and "The African Queen" and David Lean's piquant "Summertime," shot in Venice. "Wasn't that a good picture?" she says, with the same enchanting smile she smiled in the Piazza di San Marco.

It is an in-love-with-life smile.

There were many so-so or outright dreadful pictures too, and sometimes Hepburn got blamed when it was clearly the picture that was at fault. Some of her films exist now in a kind of movie Twilight Zone. Did she ever really make a movie with Bob Hope? Yes, she did. "The Iron Petticoat." It's awfully hard to find nowadays.

"Well it was hard to find at the time," she says. "It was not a success. It's a different medium if he's in it, let me say. I played a Russian soldier; I don't remember what he was. But you know, Bob sold himself, and I was trying to sell the story. We were in different mediums. So it got sort of muddled up."

"I'd like to see it some day," her visitor says.

"I wouldn't," she snaps.

Some of the Hepburn films that weren't such colossal hits at the time are revered as classics now. Like "Bringing Up Baby," the exhilarating screwball comedy she and Cary Grant made for Howard Hawks. Hepburn begs to differ with Linwood Dunn, the special-effects man, who's suggested that the leopard with which she and Grant starred was for the most part inserted optically into the picture, that she wasn't anywhere near a real leopard (the eponymous Baby) most of the time.

"Oh, I was near a leopard!" she exclaims, leaning forward. "He's just cracked! He doesn't know what he's talking about! I'll say! I had one jump me and I finally stopped it. I used to work inside a cage where a woman -- what the hell was her name? Olga Celeste! -- was there to protect me. Cary wouldn't go anywhere near it. He hated cats, hated cats, and couldn't stand it.

"I used to do all the scenes with the leopard. They'd put perfume on my leg and the leopard would come and push against my leg and I'd pat him. Fool me! Then he jumped me and the studio said, 'No more.' And you can't tame them. They're funny. And they react to something sudden, and I made a sudden move with a skirt that flared and it jumped me."

All in a good cause, though, or at least for a good film. "You know, when my career nose-dived, I'd done a bunch of bores, and then I did 'Bringing Up Baby' and I did 'Holiday' and I did 'Stage Door,' and they were very good pictures."

The original preview trailer for "Bringing Up Baby" describes Susan, the character Hepburn played, as a "flutter-brained vixen." Even to vixens, she brought wit and grit. And Susan wasn't really flutter-brained anyway. She was very smart. She knew what she wanted and she got it. Cary Grant.

"Cary was brilliant, wasn't he? Oh, he's such a good actor! Cary's so funny. Oh he used to make me laugh." She tilts her head back. She is young again.

On this sunny and brisk Manhattan morning, Hepburn speaks fondly about most everybody one can think to mention, save Bob Hope and Linwood Dunn. Even hated Hollywood moguls like Harry Cohn get kind words: "He was great fun. Harry was a good friend of mine." And Louis B. Mayer of MGM: "I liked him." She liked David O. Selznick too.

"I think the secret is, they were all romantic. They loved the business, they really loved the business. They loved having stars and making them fascinating. They were romantic about the movie business and I must say, I was too. I think it's a great business, a great medium.

"I made movies when they were a little more fun than they are now. And there were a lot of fascinating personalities -- not just in the movies. Churchill was a fascinating man any way you look at it. Roosevelt was an extraordinary man. My father was an extraordinary man. Big personalities -- and there aren't as many big personalities today. Why? I don't know. Maybe it's a sort of even-ing down, an effort to even down everything to the same level.

"But everything isn't even, is it?"

John Huston, the difficult and cantankerous director of "African Queen," she found likable. Even his macho streak. "Well if that's the way you feel, and that's the way you are, I don't mind that," she says. "I like my macho stuff very much." She laughs.

George Cukor, who did several films with her -- "Little Women," "Adam's Rib," "Holiday," "Philadelphia Story," and "Love Among the Ruins" for TV -- remains her favorite director, and was one of her best friends. He brought Garbo over to her house once. Can one still argue with a director when he is a close friend? "Oh, I could still argue with any of them."

A new book of beguiling photographs by John Bryson, "The Private World of Katharine Hepburn," shows Hepburn working and playing at the town house in Manhattan and at the old place in Fenwick, Conn., where she spends three or four days of every week. Hepburn says she's also writing her own book, which she wants to call "Me by I," a grab bag of the stuff of her life.

"It's gonna be a bunch of stories, my observations, things that have happened to me. It's a funny book, my book, and I don't know if people will like it or not." Will there be much in it about Spencer Tracy? "Well I'm not going to tell you what I'm writing in the book! Buy the book!"

This is said not in a flash of temper but joshingly. One of the reputations that Hepburn has failed to live up to on this particular day, mercifully, is that of the crabby, fire-breathing dragon, which has been circulated quite a bit in recent years. "Oh terrible! Sounds awful, doesn't it? Someone who didn't know me must have spread that because that's not my method at all," she sputters. "I think it is mean."

Maybe people say it because she tends not to be very "wordy" on the phone, Hepburn says. A short time later, the phone rings. "Hello? Who is this? Yes. Yes. Now where is he?" Short staccato bursts. Then she points at her guest and says, "Write this down, will you?" as she repeats directions given to her over the phone.

Okay, she's "bossy." She admits that. But once you pass 80, your rights to bossiness are pretty much inalienable.

Turning 80 was not that much different than turning 70, Hepburn recalls. "I'm aware that it's more trouble for me to go upstairs than it used to be, and it's impossible for me to run. I still play tennis, but if anyone persists in hitting the ball too far away from me, I don't play with them again."

When she joked about dying before the Kennedy Center Honors, she mentioned looking down from the "next world." Does Hepburn believe there really is one?

"I don't spend any time at all thinking about it," she says. "My sense would tell me that what would happen to me is just what happens to my dog when he comes to the end of the trail. You know, I take him out, I bury him in the nicest place I can find. What are you gonna do?

"Some people are very afraid to die. Now I find life wonderful, but it's exhausting, and I think you wear out this thing that you know as 'me.' You get dizzy and you can't see all that well. It's no question that when you live to be as old as I am, you're in trouble in several departments."

She conducts a quick tour of her prized courtyard -- Stephen Sondheim lives next door -- and offers her guest cookies before departure time. "Are you hungry? You sure? Do you want to go to the bathroom before you set out? You should. Well, it's right there. You don't want a cookie? Are you sure?"

On the dining room table, near the cookies, sits this week's stack of fan mail, which she does try to answer. Being adored, she confesses, does mean something to her. "It's very nice, isn't it? I'm very spoiled. I've been very very very lucky.

"Now I don't send photographs, and I don't sign autographs. I don't think you're obliged. And so I do get some very rude letters at times -- people saying, 'Who do you think made you? It's the least you could do.' But I don't feel they did, entirely. I don't think they set out to make me.

"I think I set out to make myself."

Who could doubt it for a minute?