More Than a Woman

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KateKate:  The Woman Who Was Hepburn
by William J. Mann
Henry Holt & Co.  656 pages, $30.

 

MAY 12, 2007, marks the first centenary of the birth of Katharine Hepburn, in Hartford, Connecticut—though Hepburn had always claimed a 1909 birth year until the publication of her memoir Me in 1991. As it happens, the unexpected discovery of Katharine Hepburn’s true birth date forms an integral part of the story of William Mann’s first significant exposure to the subject of his lengthy biography, Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn:

As a young reporter for a now-defunct magazine in Hepburn’s hometown of Hartford, I was assigned to write an article about her early years. She declined an interview, but I pushed on, discovering in the old Hartford city directories her true birth date, May 12, 1907, two years and several months earlier than the date she’d always claimed. At this point her memoir—which would finally admit the true date—had not yet been published. So it was with some awkwardness that I wrote my story. When the article appeared, I sent her a copy, along with a note hoping she didn’t mind my revelation. Back came a typewritten note with just one line of response. “Dear William Mann,” she wrote. “Good sleuthing.”

An actress’s decision to obscure her precise age is undoubtedly par for the course in Hollywood, though one has to be impressed by the unusual energy Hepburn expended to maintain this particular fiction, long after its revelation could have had any appreciable impact on her life, her career, or her relationships. But this bit of “spin” is merely emblematic of the lengths to which Hepburn would go, over many decades, to invent and re-invent herself in a pragmatic and calculated effort to exert control over both her career and her relationships—or at least, in the latter case, how they were represented in the Hollywood media machine.
William Mann’s previous nonfiction books—Edge of Midnight: The Life of John Schlesinger (2005), Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood (2001), and Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines (1998)—have established a high standard of research and writing in Hollywood biography and history, and Kate does not fail to meet and surpass one’s lofty expectations for this book.

From the outset, Mann sets himself apart from biographers who knew Hepburn personally or based their books on extensive interviews with the subject late in her long life. Instead, Mann holds fast to a scholarly method of examining “the relics she left behind.” (“[I]n writing this book, if I could not find a primary source for a story, I did not use it, no matter how many times it had been written before.”) And it yields an important payoff: what Mann discovers is the extent to which Hepburn’s previous biographers—because they were personally connected to her—have bought into and perpetuated the myths so carefully concocted by Hepburn over the course of her long career.

The extent to which Hepburn’s self-invention was a deliberate policy is nowhere more apparent than in the crises in her life and her career that occurred in 1938. Despite a number of early successes and an Academy Award in 1933 for her performance in A Bill of Divorcement, by the end of the decade, after a string of disappointing films, she had acquired the label “Box Office Poison.” In 1938, a hurricane that killed over 600 people and devastated the coast of New England destroyed the Hepburn family home, Fenwick, in Connecticut. It was in that year that she resolved, having lost just about everything, to rebuild her life and her career—and especially her public image—from the ground up.

Fast-forward to the late 1960’s. Spencer Tracy, with whom she’d been in a legendary romance for a quarter century, died in 1967, shortly after filming his final scenes in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which would net Hepburn her second Best Actress Oscar. Her third Oscar came a year later, for The Lion in Winter. She had now reached the age of sixty, but while contemporaries like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford found themselves reduced to appearing in horror movies in the Grand Guignol tradition, and Barbara Stanwyck was stuck in the grind of weekly TV production on The Big Valley, Katharine Hepburn was keeping busy at significant and meaningful projects, including her starring role in Broadway’s Coco.

Her performance in Coco was not without its detractors, and even before the curtain went up on opening night there was gossip surrounding the age-old question of Hepburn’s sexual orientation. As with many Hollywood actresses, there has been much speculation over the years about whether she was a lesbian. Certainly her preference for trousers raised eyebrows when she first appeared in her “mannish” wardrobe in the 1930’s and 40’s. Her choice of friends and companions, particularly Laura Harding, Constance Collier, and Phyllis Wilbourn, has also provoked speculation.

Even her longstanding relationship with Spencer Tracy does little to clarify the matter. Mann devotes several pages to Scotty—no last name is provided—Hollywood’s “famous male madam” (according to a Los Angeles Times reporter). It seems that “[w]ith his refreshing, unabashed love of sex, he was adored by homosexuals. [George] Cukor often invited him to dinner when it was just a small handful of gay friends. … Cukor might ask Scotty to wait in the guest room for visiting friends. And one night, soon after the end of the war, one of these friends was Spencer Tracy.” The encounters between Scotty and Tracy apparently took place over a period of years. Scotty told Mann in a 2004 interview that “Tracy would always be drinking when I arrived. He’d get so loaded. He’d sit there at the table drinking from five o’clock in the afternoon until two in the morning, when he’d fall onto the bed and ask me to join him. … And in the morning he’d act like nothing happened. He’d just say thanks for staying over.”

Hepburn, for her own part, undoubtedly had heterosexual relations with at least some of the men with whom she’s associated, but even here one senses that her role in these relationships was anything but typical. To allow Kate herself to have the final word on the subject: “When you come right down to it, I haven’t lived life as a woman at all; I’ve lived life as a man.”

 

Alistair Williamson, a former literary editor and frequent contributor to this journal, is an elementary school teacher in Ottawa, Canada.

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