Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn

Only the dogged will survive "Kate," William J. Mann's exhausting attempt to deconstruct the many myths surrounding Katharine Hepburn's private life. Earnest and overwritten, it only truly comes to life when tackling Spencer Tracy's sexuality, but less determined readers will have long since given up on the book by then.

Only the dogged will survive “Kate,” William J. Mann’s exhausting — and frequently annoying — attempt to deconstruct the many myths surrounding Katharine Hepburn’s private life. No inconsistency or passing phase is too minor to mull over and over again in this hefty tome, which assumes familiarity with all previous works about the woman once considered box office poison. Earnest and overwritten, it only truly comes to life when tackling Spencer Tracy’s sexuality, but less determined readers will have long since given up on the book by then.

The big buzz around the book surrounds Hepburn’s sexual preferences. The actress, as Mann makes clear, was dogged by lesbian rumors almost from the start, but he contends many previous chroniclers have been unwilling to delve into them, lest they risk tarnishing the mythic romance between Tracy and Hepburn.

Mann doesn’t deny that Tracy and Hepburn had great chemistry — and love — for each other, but he does question how sexual their relationship was. He points out that the two never lived together and paints Hepburn as more caretaker than lover of the deeply alcoholic, and married, Tracy. What’s more, he suggests that Hepburn ginned up their romance after he died.

“In truth, she only started speaking out about Tracy after most of those who’d known them in their prime were dead,” he writes, listing George Cukor, Ruth Gordon, Joe Mankiewicz, Irene Selznick and his wife Louise. “For many of the people I spoke with, the question of Hepburn’s sexuality was the elephant in the room that they tripped over, time and time again, picking themselves up and dusting themselves off without ever admitting that they’d fallen.”

So, what was her sexuality? Well, she liked to wear pants when it was shocking for women to do so, had many lesbian companions, and once, at the age of ten, shaved her head and wanted to be called Jimmy. Mann makes much of that alter ego, relentlessly invoking the name Jimmy to the point of distraction. His ceaseless repetition of early nicknames “Kath” and “Kathy” — meant to remind us “Kate” was her public persona — is only slightly less irritating.

The scribe reads an awful lot into those nicknames — as he does other murky clues to Hepburn’s true preferences.

At the very least, Mann makes the case that, high-profile romances with Howard Hughes, John Ford and Tracy aside, Hepburn greatly preferred the company of women. And he’s pretty persuasive about her tendency to jettison galpals or cook up romances whenever the rumors — or the flops — became too dicey for her career.

Which leads us back to her frequent co-star. Mann suggests Tracy was equally fluid in his sexuality, describing his close friendship with playboy Tim Durant, before recounting his dalliances with a Hollywood “male madam” named Scotty. Almost in passing, Mann also mentions that Scotty set Hepburn up with femme consorts.

The book comes most alive here, perhaps because Mann’s relying on a source that hasn’t been exhaustively interviewed in previous Hepburn tomes — and one that’s far less coy than other contemporaries seem to have been. Alas, the book soon reverts to a tedious review of Hepburn’s later years. (The 621 page tome includes almost 90 pages of footnotes.)

For those willing it to slog it through, Mann does paint a detailed overview of Hollywood sexual politics of the 1930s and 1940s, and an intermittently compelling look at Hepburn’s circle of friends, Cukor especially. But mostly, it’s a reminder not to take stars at their words about their private life.

If only Mann had spared us the excruciating play by play — and not taken it all so seriously.

“I used to duck the press all the time, just for fun,” he quotes Hepburn saying. “I think it was sort of a game.”

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