The Biographer Besotted: Hepburn’s Posthumous Power

Kate Remembered , by A. Scott Berg. Putnam, 370 pages, $25.95.

There’s a scene in David Lean’s Summertime that has always seemed to me to capture the essence of its star.

Katharine Hepburn plays an executive secretary from Ohio who has come to Venice for the first time. Dazed by sensory overload, she’s sitting happily on the patio of her hotel overlooking a canal, meeting the other guests. But then everybody else drifts away, to their friends, to their pre-arranged dinners. She’s alone. She gets up, surrounded by the colorful explosions of begonias, caladiums and geraniums. Quizzically, she tilts her head and then walks in the direction of the tilt-a charming acting trick favored by Hepburn-with Lean’s camera tracking slowly with her from left to right. He cuts to a close-up of her reacting to the sensuality of Venice-the pale silver light on the water, the echoing cries of the gondoliers-then dissolves to her sitting, still alone, on the patio. We know everything she’s feeling-she’s as lonely in Italy as she was in Ohio, but she’s trying not to tip over into self-pity. (As Chaplin knew so well, the combination of loneliness and gallantry is immensely poignant.) She rises, calls down to a cat. The cat ignores her. She turns around, her eyes welling up, then makes a decision. She briskly decides to get moving-to move out toward life.

Conventional wisdom has it that Katharine Hepburn’s acting stock-in-trade was a haughty upper-crust intelligence, but her greatest dramatic gift was for pain and social awkwardness, as she showed in Summertime , or in Alice Adams , 20 years before.

Hepburn was more than a movie star, of course; she carefully sculpted her career and the public perception of it so that she became a living metaphor for women in the 20th century. She was an actress who would willingly attempt anything except a character who was stupid. In her early films, she personified the shock of the new-there was no actress of her generation with a comparable clarity or intelligence except, perhaps, Carole Lombard, and Lombard’s talent didn’t come into focus until later in the 30′s. And just as Hepburn was the heroine for a lot of people’s lives, so she was certainly the heroine of her own.

Several memoirs, an autobiography, documentary films and hundreds of interviews apparently being insufficient, Hepburn gave her friend A. Scott Berg leave to write Kate Remembered , so long as it was published posthumously. Kate Remembered is partly biography at a trot, partly memoir, and considerably more interesting as the latter than the former-not always for reasons that were intended.

Any book on Katharine Hepburn inevitably circles around the quarter-century she spent with Spencer Tracy. On-screen, Tracy was a stolid, know-it-all Oberon who learned a few overdue lessons from her dancing Ariel. He stared and fumed; she smiled and moved languidly away. He kept her from getting too flighty, made her girlish, and she could calm the grumpy bear.

Off-screen, the situation was rather different. More treacle has been spilled about Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn than any couple since Abelard and Heloise, and Mr. Berg doesn’t help much. This is possibly because all the treacle was either spilled or stage-managed by Hepburn-and she’s still doing it, even though she’s dead.

Mr. Berg sees her clearly, but only up to about arm’s length. He says, correctly I think, that “[Tracy] and Katharine Hepburn experienced the ups and downs of any married couple; but in never sealing their arrangement legally, they were able to retain an element of unreality in the relationship, a false quality based on neither of them being locked in.”

So far, so good. But when he asks Hepburn why nobody ever tried to get Tracy into Alcoholics Anonymous, she responds with a stuttering explanation that encompasses several different rationales, all blatantly phony: She points to Tracy’s own psychological cover-up that told him that as long as his drinking didn’t interfere with his work, it wasn’t really a problem. She also says, “Spencer Tracy was the biggest star in the world, and I don’t think he would have been anonymous there for very long. And news of this sort would have killed his career.”

So she and, apparently, Mr. Berg would have us believe that Howard Strickling, the vice president in charge of publicity (or lack of it) at M.G.M.-the man who could cover up news of Tracy’s room-shattering destruction, brawls, liaisons of various degrees of seriousness, not to mention boorish behavior that was by no means limited to the times when he was drunk-would have been powerless to suppress the news of Tracy’s going to A.A. Mr. Berg’s acceptance of this manifestly lame rationale proves only that he was utterly besotted by Hepburn.

The truth is that nearly every quasi-romantic relationship that Hepburn had-Leland Hayward, Howard Hughes and John Ford as well as Tracy-was with a man who was completely unsuitable for any conventional relationship. Hepburn wanted men who were as gifted and cantankerous as she was-especially if they were tortured Irish alcoholics-but she only wanted them up to a point. Co-existing with her caretaker streak was a strong sense of self-preservation: Tracy could never push her too hard about anything because he was basically dependent on her, at first because of his guilt over his drinking, later because of the interior and exterior corrosion wrought by the drinking. Hepburn would only have left Tracy if he’d gotten divorced-and sobered up.

Likewise, Mr. Berg seems unaware of, or unwilling to acknowledge, her capacity for duplicity-one that rivaled Eve Harrington’s. At the same time she was touring with Jane Eyre and sleeping with Howard Hughes, she was writing love letters to John Ford back in Hollywood that expressed abject devotion.

Hepburn was a hard-core liberal-she once wore a red dress to a Henry Wallace rally-but one of her favorite people was the extremely conservative Louis B. Mayer. Tracy said that she thought him “big time,” and Mr. Berg quotes Hepburn saying, “He was the most honest man I ever met in Hollywood. A straight shooter. We closed our deals with a handshake in his office.”

What was at work between Hepburn and Mayer was a mutual recognition that politics was superficial compared to what really mattered: show business. Mayer may have been a reactionary, but when it came to movies-a dangerous affair of the heart requiring a duelist’s steady hand and a gambler’s belief in instinct-he was profoundly romantic. For Mayer, Hepburn was a blessed relief from the bawling, overgrown children that surrounded him, proof that one could have talent without undue temperament. Between two honorable people who understood and respected each other, a handshake was more than enough.

There’s something key about this. Personally as well as professionally, Hepburn was provocative but never actively dangerous; quite beautiful, but lacking in anything approaching an erotic quality.

She never walked out on a contract à la Davis or Cagney because she believed in the artist’s paramount responsibility: to her own talent. To risk damaging that talent, or to create an environment in which that talent could not be exercised, was anathema. Correspondingly, she believed in herself in a way that is usually forbidden to people, if only out of manners or modesty. She admits to selfishness, but what we’re really talking about here is something approaching megalomania. “I would defy anyone to be as good as I was in Little Women ,” she tells Mr. Berg. That she happens to be right doesn’t make her any less insufferable.

On the upside, this self-confidence drove her to play Shakespeare and Shaw on the stage, and O’Neill in the movies; on the downside, it impelled her to give terrible performances in terrible movies like Spitfire and Dragon Seed . She didn’t know what she couldn’t do.

Most actresses’ careers flicker and recede in their 40′s and 50′s; the public’s interest fades with beauty and desirability. But her lack of conventional sensuality meant that Hepburn could age on-screen with complete conviction and still compel our interest. Indeed, Hepburn’s middle age was the time of her deepest work. Besides Summertime , there was a turn into villainy with Suddenly, Last Summer , and a harrowing Mary Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey into Night . Eventually, somewhere after Lion in Winter , she entered that phase of a career where every appearance was essentially a vehicle for the display of her mannerisms, and she became America’s favorite old aunt. The films and TV movies were second-rate or worse, the performances mostly bossy and one-note.

A. Scott Berg’s memoir/biography is unlike his other books, which are usually focused, painfully fair-minded and a trifle chilly, perhaps because he’s drawn to subjects (Max Perkins, Lindbergh, a forthcoming book about Woodrow Wilson) who often seem clinically repressed. The exception is Sam Goldwyn, but then Mr. Berg wanted to write about a primary figure of the movie industry, which is a halfway house for exhibitionists. Most biographers write out of restrained passion, pro or con, but Mr. Berg has always seemed to work from restrained dispassion.

But here he’s in an unaccustomed emotional mode, and sometimes it washes over the sides. He seems to have seen Hepburn as part pal, part surrogate mother, and the relationship was clearly a validation for him. Of course, the parents we choose rarely disappoint us like the parents who have been chosen for us.

Putnam rush-released Kate Remembered , a book whose composition had been kept a secret. The implication was that at last the full truth would be known: Hepburn had unloaded extraordinary and intimate revelations on Mr. Berg. Actually, there’s nothing here we haven’t already read or intuited about Hepburn. She adored Tracy and found her greatest satisfaction in selflessly taking care of him; she didn’t care about having a family; and so forth. The book is far more revelatory about the author, who displays a perceptible passive-aggression toward practically anybody else accepted into the gravitational pull of the star, and also offers a curiously contemptuous portrait of an unnamed female editor at Knopf.

Putnam’s release strategy was, of course, all about commerce, and quite unnecessary. Even awash as we are in the constant, maddening heroin rush of the media, are we likely to forget the maddening, valiant, indefatigable Katharine Hepburn? Not bloody likely.

Scott Eyman’s Lion of Hollywood: The Life of Louis B. Mayer will be published next year by Simon & Schuster.