Kate: The woman who was Hepburn, by William J Mann

Dubbed an 'oddity' and 'box office poison', Katharine Hepburn liked to goad the press and public with her eccentric behaviour and unconventional love life. But a new biography exposes the compromises that this scarily ambitious beauty was forced to make, says Tom Dewe Mathews
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One of the most important scenes that Katharine Hepburn played took place not in front of film cameras or on stage but before her parents. Just after she graduated from college the future star won her first professional role. The play was due to open in Baltimore in three days' time. Now, on the way home to Connecticut with her parents, she finally told her father the news. For the whole four-hour journey he remained stonily silent and once they arrived home Dr Hepburn could contain himself no longer. Acting was "a sordid lifestyle, one step up from the streets". If she persisted, he'd cut her off. "Then do it," she replied. He slapped her across the face. The 18-year-old didn't flinch or cry. She simply turned round, walked upstairs and started packing. Whatever happened she would be in Baltimore in three days' time.

According to William J Mann in his comprehensive new biography, that is emblematic of Kate Hepburn. At a time, he contends, when film studios created and honed their stars in the same way that Detroit turned out Ford T motor cars, Hepburn created herself, created her own lifestyle, acting style and image. Moreover, if the public failed to react with enthusiasm, or sensed an awkward truth lurking behind the projection, then Hepburn would reconstruct her image until a facet caught the limelight once more. Is such an untarnished attitude towards a screen goddess from Hollywood's golden age fair? And, even more importantly, is such an unglamorous explanation of her stardom realistic? On both counts, yes; but there are other facets to Kate Hepburn's appeal that Mann also brings to light.

For a woman who came from such a respectable backgound, Katharine Hepburn had a surprising amount to conceal from the press and public when she became a film star in 1934. Firstly, there was the family. From today's point of view, Hepburn's parents would bring kudos to anybody aspiring to be in the public eye. From a 1930's perspective of lowbrow, anti-sexual American society, however, her father's specialisation in sexual deseases and, even worse, her mother's activism for birth control threatened to abort Hepburn's new-found fame. Then, there was her sexuality.

Despite devoting fully 50 pages to the subject, Mann still pussyfoots around Hepburn's sexual orientation. Was she straight or bi? Butch or femme? Mann can't make up his mind, although from all his evidence it seems obvious: Hepburn wore pants, liked being affectionate with slim, boyish girls, socialised with gay men because they were't sexually threatening, and lived with women all her life. One of Hepburn's favoured calls to the press was, "Catch me if you can," and Mann wants to catch his subject in flagrante, but the nearest he comes is to note that Hepburn disliked "skin-to-skin contact". By contrast, Mann exposes Hepburn's famous long-term affair with the actor Spencer Tracy as a public relations scam, a convenience for both - particularly for the homosexual Tracy, who consoled himself for his apparent affliction with repeated returns to the bottle. But does this sort of detail matter? Yes, because again Hepburn's personal life would impact on her professional life.

Curiously, at the outset of her career, Hepburn did not try to hide her sexuality. During the making of her first movie, she laughed when she received the news that her current girlfriend, the heiress Laura Harding, had responded to the bald question, "Who are you?" from a RKO executive with "Miss Hepburn's husband." Also references in the press to constant "lady companions" would not have mattered, if Hepburn had not purposly chosen for her third movie to be an exploration of a female cross-dresser who attracts both men and women. Nowadays, Sylvia Scarlett is regarded as one of camp cinema's overlooked gems. It was public relations disaster for Hepburn. Critics accused her, of being an "oddity", a "freak of nature" who was a "better looking boy than girl". Hepburn got the message. Off-screen she would continue to live, albeit more discreetly, with Harding and successive women. On screen, however, her alter ego would learn the error of her ways.

A Philadelphia Story is a frothy, champagne comedy, yet Hepburn is chastised in the film not only by her uncle and father but also by both her ex- and would-be husbands. The first image we see is Hepburn being knocked to the ground and a door being slammed in her face. She's a punchbag, a flighty aristocrat brought to earth by a succession of manly men. Even so, the play and subsequent film were both concocted in close alliance with Hepburn. "Make her like me," she told the playright, Philip Barry, "but make her go all soft." The public lapped it up. And, again, 12 years later when her career was threatened by off-screen events and theatre exhibitors claimed she was "box office poison", Mann emphasises that Hepburn repaired the damage by changing her image on the screen.

Brought up by her parents in the East Coast Emersonian tradition of bringing morality to politics Hepburn was undoubtedly sincere in her defence of Communist colleagues when they were blacklisted by the studios during the McCarthy era. Unlike other liberals like Bogart or Ronald Reagan, she never recanted or backed down in her support. Still, she knew enough about public perception to recognise that she had to at least appear to bend to the political wind. So she sought the role of the gutsy, patriotic spinster in The African Queen and, despite playing a Brit became established as "an American exemplar", as Mann puts it.

Those two films defined Hepburn's stardom and Mann's book is an acute observation of a complicated and often contradictory woman. He is a persuasive writer with more than enough research at his elbow to make us aware that no matter how manipulative her behaviour Hepburn was also loyal and always generous. Yet there is one story about Hepburn which makes one pause. One night on Broadway in 1938, the star returned to her dressing room to find a burglar rifling through her jewel-case. Hepburn sent him screaming down 42nd Street with the yell, "Just what the hell are you doing?" After confronting all the self-determination in this thoroughly engrossing book, one can all too easily understand the robber's reaction.

Extract: From 'Kate: The Woman who was Katharine Heburn'

Laura was never "in the closet" because she didn't see the world in those terms. Sitting there at her window overlooking Fifty-fourth Street... she wasn't obfuscating the issue; according to her definition, she was not a lesbian, and neither could her relationship with Hepburn be described that way.

Yet it was sexual. Hepburn admitted as much to friends like James Prideaux, cutting him off with a shrill "Of course!' when asked, saying no more as if the subject were simply too obvious and boring to belabour. Another friend recalled: "She would speak to me of Laura in such a way that I understood. She knew that I'd get her meaning because I was gay myself." George Kukor, who became nearly as close to Laura as he did to Hepburn, also understood the full nature of their relationship. According to Gavin Lambert, Cukor's friend and biographer and widely considered the dean of Hollywood historians, "[Cukor] knew they were lovers. This he told me...when he mentioned Laura Harding, it was clear he was talking about Hepburn's lover, and that meant sexually."