Essays (book reviews)

Me: Stories of My Life
by Katharine Hepburn
(New York: Viking, 1991)


Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003) was always a private person, giving away little in interviews about her intimate life. Her thirty years spent with Spencer Tracy were kept so private that, at his death, even his wife believed their relationship had been merely “a rumour”. The publication in 1991 of Me was an irresistible media event.


The book’s subtitle, “Stories of My Life”, is apt. It is a lightly Proustian autobiography, written (as Hepburn puts it) in “flashes” of anecdote and reminiscence. This means, somewhat disconcertingly, that certain details are retold many times, while others are left out altogether. In fact, the book contains very little of the star’s life past 1940.


Hepburn’s writing falls between showbiz gossip and purple prose. She aims for an impressionistic style: “I stood–my mother–dead–my darling mother–the only mother I’ll ever have–gone”. One chapter suddenly becomes a screenplay; another offers an extended meditation on gardening as a metaphor for life.


What mercifully pulls all this together is the theme of ego – Hepburn’s inner “me” who can finally speak, now that her body is frail. She is very candid about her ambition and narcissism, and her constant, prickly need for reassurance. In the very touching chapter entitled “Voice”, she recounts her vain, lifelong dream to be a singer. Of her movie roles, she self-mockingly remarks: “Naturally, I’m adorable in all of them”.


Hepburn’s feelings about feminism are fascinatingly mixed. On the one hand, she is fiercely proud of her suffragette mother, her hard-won business sense, and her spirit of independence. On the other hand, she misses the olden days, before “the male hero slid right down into the valley of the weak and the misunderstood”, and women “began dropping any pretense to virginity into the gutter”.


This ambivalence is further reflected in Hepburn’s relations with men. She recounts her affairs with Howard Hughes and Leland Hayward as modern, sophisticated, no-nonsense arrangements. With these “beaux”, Hepburn lived for the moment, integrating work with pleasure, like a heroine from a smart 1940s comedy such as His Girl Friday.


However, her relationship with Spencer Tracy (tantalisingly withheld until the end of the book) was rather more conventional. In Hepburn’s terms, this was truly love, not a “wonderful cocktail party”. Tracy demanded – and won – complete sacrifice and self-effacement from Hepburn. The account of her total devotion to him is both moving and disturbing.


Hepburn is surprisingly timid about sexual matters. For instance, her only allusion to director George Cukor’s gayness is in the priceless explanation of why she did not use him on Woman of the Year (1942): “This script had to be directed by a very macho director from the man’s point of view and not the woman’s”.


Hepburn’s remark about an early boyfriend is typical: “We weren’t wasting our strength rolling around”. Hard work and sporting fun seem to be the main drives of her life. The book repeats her stoic philosophy of life almost ad nauseam: keep a stiff upper lip, never moan and “ keep a-goin’”.


The most surprising and disappointing aspect of Me is Hepburn’s lack of insight into her own, immortal film roles. She recalls her movie career solely in terms of the fun she had, the trouble she took, or the deal she managed to swing behind the scenes. Yet, at the time, she was intimately involved in the creation of an extraordinary screen persona.


As Andrew Britton remarks in his fine 1984 study Katharine Hepburn: The Thirties and After (reprinted with the stronger subtitle Star as Feminist by Columbia University Press in 2003), she was the most radical of the screen’s New Women of the 1930s and ‘40s. In the tradition of Henry James’ heroines, her roles combined intelligence and vivacity with a severe questioning of all social conventions. This is the Hepburn we see in the classics Holiday (1938), Adam’s Rib (1949) and Christopher Strong (1933).


Yet, these very qualities that made Hepburn so attractive to audiences of yesteryear were also deeply threatening. Hepburn became box office poison at the height of her career. Her return to popularity was marked by roles in which her independence was diminished, even punished. Eventually, she settled into one of the most demeaning stereotypes of patriarchal culture: the Monstrous Mother.


Both Hepburn’s life and her films express the limits and contradictions of this century – so many doors to personal and social freedom simultaneously flung open and slammed shut. As we re-watch her luminous screen performances today, the question we must squarely face is: are we yet ready, or willing, to embrace the revolution she offers?


© Adrian Martin November 1991

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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