In consenting to a secret biography, Katharine Hepburn confided many revealing insights about her life and loves and her complex attitudes toward celebrity.
A. Scott Berg pulled off a coup a couple of weeks ago, proving to the media world that it’s still possible to keep a secret. Not just a secret, but an entire secret book. The book in question is called “Kate Remembered,” a biography of the late Katharine Hepburn that no one knew was even in preparation.
Gracefully written and richly detailed, Berg’s book told me several things I never knew about Hepburn: that the most transforming and passionate relationship of her life was with Howard Hughes; that the patrician and prissy Hepburn was secretly embarrassed about the fact that “she lived like a man”; that the seemingly cool actress was so ambitious about her career that she spat in the face of one director who, she felt, handled her poorly; that Louis B. Mayer kept nagging her to do some mentoring for his troubled child star, Judy Garland, but that Hepburn found her a lost cause.
In delivering this unexpected book, Berg also re-opens intriguing questions about the nature of stardom, for Hepburn was surely one of the last of those special studio-bred superstars who could rivet your attention simply by walking across the screen.
Do stars like this exist any more?
Berg, who previously chronicled the lives of Samuel Goldwyn and Lindbergh, reminds us that Hepburn was at once brilliant and utterly neurotic, empathetic yet egocentric. She was the perennial rich girl from Bryn Mawr who disdained the rough-and-tumble world of show business, yet was so driven she would stop at nothing to land a desirable role.
As her father once explained to one of her boyfriends: “My daughter is like a young bull about to charge and she will do everything she can to seduce you, but if you lay a hand on her, I’ll shoot you.”
Hepburn’s father surely would have run out of bullets had he followed through on his pledge.
Berg first interviewed this elegant and ferocious star 20 years ago for a magazine piece, but they became friendly and apparently made their secret pact. Berg would write the book but lock it away until her death, which occurred June 29 at the age of 96. By July 1, Berg had put his finishing touches on the book. The first printing of 500,000 was shipped to bookstores July 11 — surely a speed record for the languid publishing industry.
Given his unique access, Berg makes no effort to conceal his unbridled admiration for his subject.
Hepburn, in his judgment, “established the greatest acting career of the 20th century, perhaps ever” — a claim that already has nettled cinephiles. Richard Schickel was quick to point out that at least three of her contemporaries — Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Irene Dunne — demonstrated greater range.
In praising Hepburn’s feisty feminism, Berg also has irritated other feisty feminists who, upon contemplating the star’s symbolic stabs at domesticity, give her at best marginal marks.
Maureen Dowd reminds us that the supposedly bold characters Hepburn portrayed consistently were cut down to size in order to capture their men — witness hot-tempered Tess Harding in “Woman of the Year” cooking breakfast to woo back her husband.
Feminists, too, are critical of Hepburn’s submissiveness to Spencer Tracy during their 26-year relationship. Even Berg does not disguise his impatience with Hepburn for overlooking Tracy’s drunken rages and womanizing. From 1962 to 1967, she essentially retired to care for him. As far as Berg was concerned, Tracy was the drunk and Hepburn “the enabler.”
Hepburn herself never was able to explain this curious interdependency. Some weeks after Tracy’s death, she decided to call Tracy’s widow to offer condolences. Louise Tracy seemed stunned by the call.
“I thought you were only a rumor,” she remarked to the woman who had lived with her husband through most of their alleged marriage. This remark left Hepburn speechless for perhaps the only time in her life.
Berg clearly looked more kindly on her relatively brief fling with Howard Hughes, who later confessed that not marrying Hepburn was the biggest mistake of his life.
Would Hepburn have approved of Berg’s intimate, albeit respectful, view of her life? I suspect her emotions toward the book, as toward most things, would have been mixed.
Berg quotes her as saying that stars receive too much attention.
“Let’s face it, we’re prostitutes,” she told him. “I’ve spent my life selling myself — my face, my body, the way I walk and talk. Actors say, ‘You can look at me, but you must pay me for it.’ ”
Well, she may have a point. But a lot of us were more than willing to pay for it, and were delighted with what we got.