All In The Family (bio of Katherine Hepburn)

katherine hepburn

Hepburn’ Picks Up Where `Me’ Left Off

April 09, 1995|By JOCELYN McCLURG; Courant Book Editor

So far this decade, Katharine Hepburn has dashed off a smash-hit autobiography, done star turns in several TV movies and played matchmaker for Warren Beatty in “Love Affair.” Next month, the legendary actress celebrates her 88th birthday. Piece of cake.

“I’m in awe of her strength. She’s a life force,” says Barbara Leaming, the latest biographer to take a crack at the Hepburn mystique.

“Katharine Hepburn” (Crown, $27.50) is a big, ambitious, unauthorized biography that tries to tell “the rest of the story” — to fill in the holes Leaming thinks Hepburn left in her bestselling 1991 memoir, “Me: Stories of My Life.”

“I didn’t just want to know what she did,” Leaming says. “I wanted to understand why.”

Leaming, who lives in New Milford, has written biographies of Roman Polanski, Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth and Bette Davis. For many years she taught film history and theory at Hunter College in New York, leaving in 1993 to devote herself full time to writing.

Leaming bubbles over with enthusiasm when she talks about her Hepburn book. She takes off unprompted on a 2 1/2-hour romp through Hepburn history, barely pausing to take a breath or a bite of her Oriental chicken salad during an interview at The Bistro Cafe in New Milford.

“It’s the only book I’ve ever done where the day I typed the last word I cried because I was so upset to have it over,” says Leaming, whose loquaciousness doesn’t extend to revealing her age.

Leaming believes — as does her publisher, judging from the push Crown is giving the biography — that “Me” only whetted the public appetite for information about Hepburn, who grew up in Hartford.

“The wonderful thing about `Me’ is that you really

hear Hepburn’s voice,” Leaming says. “But there was a sense of frustration. People loved `Me,’ but they felt, `What is she hiding?’ What is she not telling them?” Hepburn, Leaming says, is a person of “action rather than introspection.”

Revealing family history

Leaming doesn’t play armchair analyst in “Katharine Hepburn,” although she dispenses theories galore about Hepburn’s life over lunch. She does, however, reconstruct a meticulous, revealing family history. Researching the biography “became a detective game,” she says.

“Katharine Hepburn” begins Oct. 28, 1892, the day Fred Houghton, Katharine Hepburn’s grandfather, committed suicide. Suicides haunt “Katharine Hepburn,” the biography, just as they haunted the Hepburn family. When she began her research, Leaming knew only that Katharine Hepburn’s grandfather and her brother Tom had killed themselves. By the time she finished her research — which included reading reams of family letters and Hepburn’s mother’s unfinished autobiography — she had uncovered three other family suicides.

Leaming sees Hepburn’s life as shaped by two powerful forces: the strong, feminist women in her family and the suicide of her older brother Tom. Kate was 13 when she discovered her brother’s body. He had hanged himself. (Katharine Hepburn’s father believed that Tom’s hanging was a prank gone awry, but Leaming has no doubt it was a suicide. Katharine Hepburn herself seems unsure in her description of her brother’s death in “Me.”)

What emerged for Leaming in writing the biography is the “courage and bravery of Katharine Hepburn which enabled her to survive and prosper and take chances” despite early tragedy.

For the Hepburns, “what is past is past,” Leaming writes. The family didn’t talk about Tom’s death. Katharine Hepburn’s mother forged ahead with the fight for suffrage and birth control.

“Where did Katharine Hepburn get her strength from?” Leaming asks. “She was shaped not just by tragedy but by the struggle for the vote, for birth control, for reforms in social hygiene. All of those battles that were being fought in her family’s house.”

But guilt Hepburn suffered over her brother’s death influenced her relationships with the two most important men in her life, Spencer Tracy and the director John Ford, Leaming says.

Both were self-destructive alcoholics. Hepburn, of course, had a famous 27-year affair with the married Tracy, her on-screen partner. Off-screen, the picture was darker. Leaming describes a devoted Hepburn sleeping outside Tracy’s hotel room when he would go on a bender.

Mysterious men

“I felt strongly that she was drawn to these very wounded, mysterious and enigmatic men because with them she was playing out the enigmas of her brother’s suicide, and in very simple terms she was trying to save them in a way that she had not been able to save her brother,” Leaming says.

Rather than criticizing Hepburn for sticking by the troubled Tracy, Leaming sees the actress as a “life force giving of itself to somebody who didn’t have a life force.”

At the same time, Leaming says Hepburn has a vulnerability that emerges on screen.

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