Kiss Me, Kate
The Woman Who Was Hepburn
By William J. Mann
Henry Holt. 621 pp. $30
"I think the less said, the better."
That's what Katharine Hepburn told me 20 years ago when, as Gloria Steinem's assistant, I found myself playing go-between in negotiations for Hepburn to be interviewed for Ms. magazine. The answer to the interview request was "No," but what 25-year-old feminist wouldn't be thrilled to speak with that familiar imperious tremolo?
The movie about which Hepburn was being so closed-mouthed was "Grace Quigley," not one of her more auspicious outings. And her response to the magazine's offer bespeaks her careful cultivation of her own image and career, a canniness that biographer William J. Mann shrewdly deconstructs in Kate . Books have already been written about Hepburn, but this is a particularly comprehensive and absorbing account of her life and legend and the way she exerted her ferocious will on creating both.
Reared in Hartford, Conn., by a prominent physician and a mother who was active in political and feminist circles, Hepburn was a tomboy growing up, taking on the persona of "Jimmy" to play with her adored older brother Tom, who died -- most likely a suicide -- at 15. The image of the boisterous, happily sparring family later purveyed by Hepburn when speaking of her early life was marred further by Dr. Hepburn's competitive streak and Mrs. Hepburn's absence. The near constant pressure to perform and prove herself to these distant paragons, Mann posits, was just one spur to Hepburn's burning ambition as an actress. And her alter ego, Jimmy, was just the beginning of the androgynous sexuality that would define her appeal.
Of course, Hepburn always insisted that she didn't hew to the ways of typical Hollywood careerists; to hear her tell it, the celebrity and success (a record four Oscars) were simply born to her, like her cheekbones. But Mann meticulously makes the case that Hepburn wanted very much to be famous, took a close interest in even the tawdry details of the movie business ("We've got to cook it up," she would say when she wanted to punch up her publicity) and cared deeply about her image.
The latter concern, Mann writes, led to Hepburn downplaying her relationships with other women, which in the case of such companions as Laura Harding and Phyllis Wilbourn, were ardent and long-lasting. It led her to unceremoniously drop her husband, Ludlow Ogden Smith, whom she had married before going to Hollywood. And it led her even to manipulate the public profile of her most famous liaison, her long-running relationship with Spencer Tracy.
Indeed, the big news in Kate isn't about Hepburn's sexuality but about Tracy's, which Mann suggests ranged just as far. (The most frequently cited source in this regard is a mysterious man named Scotty, who worked at a garage and apparently served as a homosexual procurer.) What's more, the author suggests, it was Hepburn herself who portrayed their relationship as an epic love affair long after it had settled into friendship, realizing how that romantic fairytale burnished her own persona.
His more controversial suggestions about Hepburn and Tracy aside, Mann delivers a close and astute reading of how their on-screen roles reflected their off-screen alliance, which the author maintains was predicated more on an emotional and temperamental connection than on sexual heat. Of the verbally sparring couple in "Pat and Mike," he writes: "After they finally admit their love for each other, this is the payoff we get: they shake hands ."
Though Hepburn emerges as a willful fame-seeker in Kate , Mann is never less than respectful and even-handed when discussing aspects of her life she may have preferred stay in the shadows. The sexual peccadilloes of Hepburn, Tracy, director George Cukor and their cosmopolitan circle could certainly be fodder for a more salacious account, but Mann handles the material with clear-eyed equanimity. Some of the most revealing passages of this biography have to do with Hepburn's remarkable third act, when in later life she exerted her indomitable determination to create yet another version of herself: not headstrong ingenue or glamorous star, but cherished American treasure. Mann offers a corrective to the hagiography that has often passed as her personal history (up to and including her own memoirs), but nonetheless manages to keep intact her image as rebellious icon, screen goddess and American original.
The fact that that image now co-exists with another, perhaps less noble one -- the desperate-to-please daughter who grew up into an ambitious, sometimes ruthless manipulator of her own myth -- does nothing to threaten Hepburn's enduring fascination. In this case, at least, the more said, the better.
Ann Hornaday is a film critic for The Washington Post.