By Katharine Hepburn (Random House, 420 pages, $33)
Katharine Hepburn has never been just an actress or even just a movie star. For the past 40 or more years, she has been a legend, famous for the Voice (New England patrician steel), that style (she practically invented trousers for women), those looks (cheekbones to die for) and most of all, her character (a kind of independence, and a feisty spirit), all of which, when put together, separated her from both the glamor queens and the serious actresses in show business. There is simply no one like her. And there is nothing like her autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life.
At times, when she writes of her last days with her dying lover, Spencer Tracy, the book is as confessional and immediate as a journal. At other times, it descends into coyness and evasiveness. But it is almost always a fabulous read, mostly because the Voice comes through
in every line. The prologue offers a hint of things to come, as the author, now 84, does verbal battle with her public persona, which she refers to as The Creature: “Shut up! I’m sick of you. I’m not going to hide behind you anymore. . . . You looked right. You sounded right. You were lucky. You caught on and got rich.. .. Now I’m going to take over.”
Taking over is something that to Hepburn, who starred in such classics as The Philadelphia Story (1940), Woman of the Year (1941) and The African Queen (1951), seems to come naturally. She credits her strength and most of her success to her remarkable Connecticut family. In three succinct lines, she sums up the Yankee gentility that nourished and, in some ways, imprisoned her: “Dad at the left of the fireplace. Mother at the right of the fireplace. Tea every day at 5.”
Her father, Thomas Norval Hepbum, was a doctor, and her mother, Katharine Martha, was one of a line of forward-thinking women. They championed unpopular causes such as birth control and female suffrage, and brought up their six children, writes Hepburn, in an atmosphere of warmth and freedom—“There were NO RULES.” Hepburn states flatly that her parents were “perfect,” an oddly unqualified conclusion from a mature adult, but one that underlines a childlike quality of the star. She writes: “I
loved Dad and Mother. They always had the last word with me. If they wanted it—I did it.” While she may have been seen as an independent careerist, in many ways Hepburn remained tied to her close family all her life, even to the point of never having one of her own.
At 12, she found the body of her beloved 14year-old brother, Tom, hanging from the rafters in her aunt’s attic, a tragedy that “seemed to sort of separate me from the world,” she writes. Her parents never mentioned Tom again after the burial, an example of Yankee rectitude that she extols—“They simply did not believe in moaning about anything”—but which modem psychologists would describe as the ultimate in denial. It is that attitude—a lack of self-reflection and a determination to get on with it—that characterized most of Hepburn’s behavior during her career, especially early on, when she was fired from numerous stage jobs in New York City. She recalls that the first time it happened, she made herself run all the way back to the theatre to congratulate her successor.
Her only marriage ended when her career took flight. Her husband was Ludlow Ogden Smith, whose name she insisted he change to S. Ogden Ludlow because, she wrote, “I didn’t want to be called Mrs. Smith.” Hepburn is very critical of her behavior during the marriage— “I was a terrible pig”—and confesses to an abiding selfishness: “My aim was ME ME ME. All the way—up—down—all about.”
Afterwards, she writes, “I just did not want to marry anyone.” She did have two highly publicized affairs, one with handsome theatrical agent Leland Hayward, and another with the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, with whom she got along famously because he did not like to go out at night either.
Hepburn leaves her love affair with Spencer Tracy to the last three chapters of the book. And along the way, she coyly admonishes the reader to wait for the good stuff: “More about Spencer later. Don’t be impatient. I wasn’t.” When she gets there, however, there is a lot of emotion, but precious little detail. Hepburn and Tracy starred together in nine movies, including Woman of the Year and Guess Who’s Coming for Dinner, and lived together for almost 30 years. Their romance began when she was 33; Tracy never divorced his wife.
It could not have been easy. Hepburn describes Tracy as a heavy drinker, an insomniac who was “tortured by some sort of guilt, some terrible misery.” And yet, she says, “We just passed 27 years together in what was to me absolute bliss.” In a moving section, she offers a description of what being in love with Tracy meant to her: “I liked to wait on him—listen to him—feed him—talk to him—work for him. I struggled to change all the qualities which I felt he didn’t like.”
It is not a description that is easy to reconcile with Hepburn’s famous independent spirit, or with modem feminist ideals. But Hepburn, true to form, leaves the contradictions unexamined, and the audience dying for more.
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