Kate The Woman who was Katharine Hepburn by William Mann
A biography gives us not just the facts, it also provides us with insights and analysis of a person’s life.It has a long history perhaps starting as early as 44 BC with Cornelius Nepos writing Vitae Imperatorum about the lives of commanders in the Roman army. James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson is considered the best biography written in the English language whilst Lytton Strachey’s 1918 Eminent Victorians is considered to have revolutionised the form thanks to his wit, his prose and his concise factual reporting. The genre itself is now so popular there are entire tv channels dedicated to it and several countries give an annual award to the best biography. In short they have a long tradition and are hugely popular. I am very partial to them myself and went straight from reading this one on Hepburn to one on Jimmy Stewart.
Now I will admit up front I am not a huge Katharine Hepburn fan. In fact, although I have seen a number of her films, and can appreciate some of them for what they are, I don’t get her appeal. So I read this book in an attempt to discover why she is so liked, so idolized, by so many. Perhaps if I knew more about her, got to know her story, it might help explain her allure. Well it did and it didn’t achieve that and I am still not a big fan, although I do now feel as though I sorta get her appeal. If that all sounds terribly vague and non-committal, that’s because it is. Kate read like that. Mann posed questions about Hepburn’s sexuality, her relationships, her character, but then never gave full, absolute answers.
But perhaps we can’t fault him for that. Early in the book, almost on the first page, Hepburn delightedly announces that ” no one can really know a person…..” and after reading this book, I don’t doubt that she was speaking from experience. What I do know is that to see her as a feminist icon is to confuse her choice in attire as something other than simple suitability, it is to infuse a preference with a political agenda that simply wasn’t there. It may have been remarkable for a woman to wear pants when she wore them, but that says more about the time than it does about her.
Her romance, relationship or whatever it was with Tracy occupies a space in our collective consciousness, the romance of the century for many, but Mann throws not one but numerous buckets of ice cold water on any such notions. In fact Mann must have been in training for the ice bucket challenge he doused so many preconceptions I had about Hepburn, Howard Hughes and … well I won’t spoil all the surprises.
Apart from the obvious and usual facts that a bio teaches us about its subject, Mann also teaches us that whatever her true nature was; whether she was male or female, straight or gay, blue blood or of the masses; fundamentally she was one of the most driven individualist’s that Hollywood has ever seen. And I think it is that which makes her so enduring, and why she holds the number one spot on the American Film Institute’s top 50 greatest screen legends of all time.
So to read or not to read..that is the question. Well I’d recommend reading it on the grounds that it was fascinating just hearing about the lives she and her friends led. It also made me question some of my own perceptions about gender, relationships , love – she defied convention in so much more than just that of her clothing, that it is a real pity she is remembered for that, and not all the other, far more important and controversial, mores she challenged.
So yes… to read.