Essays (book reviews)
Me: Stories of My Life
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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”.
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.
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.
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”.
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’”.
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
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
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.
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