Jonathan Keates

One of those who simply are

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Kate: The Woman who was Katharine Hepburn

William J. Mann

Faber, pp. 621, £

‘I don’t want to act with you ever again,’ Katharine Hepburn told John Barrymore after appearing with him in A Bill of Divorcement. ‘I didn’t know you had,’ came the smart rejoinder. Hollywood stars divide into those who do and those who are. The divine Kate, with her sawn-off cheekbones, narrow eyes and weird Yankee version of a Southern drawl — ‘Yow owuld foowul!’ she shouts at Henry Fonda in On Golden Pond — belongs firmly in the latter category. None of her performances, not even in The African Queen or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, involves overmuch histrionic ingenuity. The woman on the screen is all the more entertaining for doing her usual shtik as the feisty, crap-cutting amazon staking her claim on male territory.

An honorary boy was indeed Hepburn’s vision of herself during a girlhood spent trying to please her father, the granite-jawed disciplinarian whose bullying eventually drove her brother Thomas to suicide. Calling herself ‘Jimmy’, she developed a tomboy competitiveness which provided the basis for her controversial outdoor-girl publicity image, making her ideal casting for the rebellious Jo March in Little Women. Bored and fretful as a Bryn Mawr student, she joined a drama company in Baltimore. Between shows, she found time to get married, largely through pique at having been dumped by the poet Phelps Putnam, the only man she ever allowed herself to fall helplessly in love with.

Leaving her easygoing husband behind, Kate headed for Hollywood, where her arrival was greeted with dismay. David O. Selznick, on first seeing her, was supposed to have swallowed a chicken wing whole, groaning, ‘Oh God, that horse face!’ In her debut picture she quarrelled with her co-star Leslie Howard, alienating everyone else on set by her arrogance and rudeness. Hepburn’s potential as a rabble-rousing oddball was spotted by George Cukor, who initially described her as looking like a boa-constrictor on a fast, but went on to direct some of her finest pictures, including The Philadelphia Story and Holiday.

Cukor, discreetly gay himself, took a benign view of his favourite star’s oblique sexuality. ‘People who want to be famous are really loners,’ Kate later observed, ‘or they should be’, and none of her mature relationships with men was built to last. Her affair with Howard Hughes seems to have consisted largely of aviation stunts and photo opportunities. With John Ford she developed an amitié amoureuse while filming Mary of Scotland, that hardboiled director’s hymn to her captivating alloy of sophistication with jeune-fille silliness. Otherwise her most solid attachment was to the millionairess Laura Harding, who followed her to Hollywood and, as ‘Kate’s cosy companion’, was widely credited with turning the betrousered, cigarette-puffing star into a lesbian role model. Though Laura was finally given her marching orders by a worried agent, their affair survived, in all its fitful intensity, until her death in 1994.

As for the famous screen chemistry with Spencer Tracy, this was fuelled, as Mann suggests, more by country walks and a shared fondness for landscape painting than by sultry nights at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The passionate affair later portrayed by Garson Kanin in Tracy and Hepburn suited Kate’s purpose in reinventing herself, during the 1970s, as a cheery old cracker with a touch or two of her youthful naivety left unscathed by Hollywood cynicism.

She certainly wasn’t going to spill the beans about Tracy’s suppressed homosexuality, but Mann has no such qualms. Scrupulously fair to his subject, he balances her incessantly manipulative callousness against loyalty to close friends and an admirably no-nonsense attitude towards both the McCarthyite purges and the various unAmerican activities they were intended to deal with. As for the movies themselves, he makes an excellent case for the later Hepburn, in works like Long Day’s Journey into Night and The Lion in Winter, as opposed to the larky heroines of Bringing Up Baby or Woman of the Year. With only occasional lapses into biographer’s rhetoric — ‘Helping Kate slip into the crushed white velvet dress with antique gold embroidery, what was going through Mrs Hepburn’s mind?’ — the book looks its star coolly in the eye and finds her still incandescent. Trying on a scarf in Macy’s, she turned to the crowd gathering around her and announced, ‘I’m not the person you think I am.’ Bang right.