Happy Birthday Katharine Hepburn! Read William Mann’s Kate.

Posted on May 12, 2009
Filed Under Book Review, Happy Birthday! | 252 Comments

Today is Katharine Hepburn’s birthday.  It’s a good day to pick up a copy of William Mann’s Kate (available in paperback).  Here is my complete BlogSpot review:

Having read William Mann’s classic queer Hollywood history, Behind the Screen, I expected his new Katharine Hepburn biography to be very good. It isn’t very good. It’s great. Mr. Mann’s Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn may just be the best-written movie star biography ever. Without resorting to any tricks or gimmicks, he seems to inhabit the character of Katharine Hepburn. And, as a result, the reader comes to understand her in a profound way. It’s a rare achievement in literature–particularly rare in a film actor biography. But Mr. Mann chose his subject well. For Katharine Hepburn is one of the most paradoxical of all the Hollywood stars. A feminist icon who wore slacks and remained unmarried throughout her long screen career. An independent woman who somehow periodically became subservient to an alcoholic bisexual named Spencer Tracy. A liberal who never said a word against the Vietnam War. A cultural reactionary who denied the existence of (male) homosexuality and firmly advised women that they most definitely could not ‘have it all.’

At no point in Mr. Mann’s 656 page biography does he actually come out and say (for example): Katharine Hepburn was a lesbian who lived her life in the closet. Instead he brilliantly, painstakingly illustrates how Katharine Hepburn constructed a separate, alternate personality carefully designed for public consumption. The book takes its title from the name of this alternate personality: “Kate.” Friends and family would call her “Kath” or even “Katy,” but “Kate” became her public personna.

So while Katharine Hepburn could be verbally abusive on the set of a Broadway show, none of it ever happened to Kate. And while Katharine Hepburn had numerous lesbian relationships, none of it ever happened to Kate. And in later years, when Katharine Hepburn succumbed to drinking alcohol heavily, none of it ever happened to Kate.

Where Ms. Hepburn’s reality began and where the for-the-public’s consumption Kate version ended was an open question. The denial of her homosexuality (perhaps even to herself) was just part of the construction of Kate. Early on she was re-writing her gay brother’s obvious suicide as an accident. The truth is: Kate represented something Katharine Hepburn wanted to believe. She wanted to believe that her brother’s death was an accident. She wanted to believe that she was heterosexual–or at the very least, not a lesbian. So if Kate represented something the public wanted to believe about her, Kate also represented something she wanted to believe about herself.

Reading Mr. Mann’s book, it is difficult not to admire Ms. Hepburn’s accomplishments. At an early age she achieved success on Broadway in spite of the fact that quintessential New Yorkers like George S. Kaufman and Dorothy Parker despised her. Then she cleverly negotiated with film industry executives–leveraging the entirely false impression that she was rich in order to get more money. She had a very successful career in film. It was also a very long career: over sixty years. And yet, I must confess, I’ve never particularly been a fan of Katharine Hepburn. It always seemed to me that she was too controlled–that she was holding back. But the other day I happened to turn on TCM and there she was on the Dick Cavett show, her feet tucked onto the chair, hair occasionally falling into her face–delighted with herself. I was surprised at how much I liked her. She seemed so natural, I actually forgot that I was watching a performance–her greatest role of all: Kate.

William Mann’s Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn
is published by Picador.

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