Quod erat Hepburn

John Bayley

  • Katharine Hepburn: A Biography by Anne Edwards
    Hodder, 395 pp, £12.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 340 33719 2

As Sartre demonstrates in his play Kean, the great actor, however many different roles he plays, has to become an actor in the absolute sense, has to play that role in life, so that living and acting can no longer be distinguished. Waiters pretend to be waiters, until it becomes their proper nature. It is the same with writers and artists. Byron or David or Robert Lowell cannot slink off and become their ordinary selves in the intervals of being poets and painters and men of the age. Greta Garbo is always Greta Garbo, once she has found the part.

But there is quite a different category of actor, as of artist. Shakespeare seems to be its chief exemplar. There are a few moments in the sonnets when we can be fairly sure that he is drawing attention to the fact, of which he is well aware, that he has to behave in a different manner as writer, lover, man of the world, from what he feels in his private being. One such is Sonnet 111, ‘O for my sake do you with fortune chide,’ in which he refers to his occupation and its ‘public means, which public manners breeds’.

Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
And almost thence my nature is subdued
To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand.

Sonnets 29 and 121 (‘No, I am that I am ...’) make essentially the same point: that the real self is not involved in these occupations, whether of poet or playwright, courtier or lover. And the implications of this are extraordinary, for we have come to take for granted, as part of the romantic legacy, that an artist is never more truly himself than in his art. It is fascinating that the greatest writer owes much of his fascination as a writer to what he has in common with the humblest performers and politicians: our sense that they are just ‘putting it on’; that their true selves are not involved in the performance; that, like Dr Johnson’s butcher, when they tell you their heart bleeds for the country they really feel no uneasy sensation.

A related phenomenon would be something like the Emperor Hirohito, whose whole self is destined to be an emperor, but whose secret yearning, possibly, is to be the greatest marine biologist in the world. Nero and Commodus may even have lost their thrones and lives for the same reason: that their incompatible ambition was to be the greatest artist or the greatest chariot-driver. And something a bit similar gives its interest to the career of Katharine Hepburn, making this biography of her as a film star more than readable. She was, as it were, born with a very definite and accepted self, the inherited and environmentally-conditioned personality of a ‘great lady’ on the eastern seaboard of America, destined to follow her mother in being a gracious hostess, golfer, lady bountiful, social arbiter, benefactor of hospitals and causes.

She seems to have had the right self for the part too. And like Shakespeare she never lost or rejected that self. It seems to have survived all the ghastly absurdities of Hollywood and film-making, and no doubt it contributed, visibly and invisibly, to her success. It may even have been what Frank Capra had in mind when he produced the somewhat confused statement that ‘there are women and there are women – and then there is Kate. There are actresses and actresses – then there is Hepburn.’ The Garbos and Monroes had been nothing until they were stars, and then they could only be themselves as stars. Hepburn remained Hepburn. Sumus quod sumus was the motto of the citizens of Lake Wobegon, according to Garrison Keillor. Perhaps they got it from Shakespeare’s sonnet. At any rate, when the play of Jane Eyre opened in New Haven on 26 December 1936, in a stage version by Helen Jerome, the critics wondered ‘if it is not easier to see Katharine Hepburn in Jane Eyre than Jane Eyre in Katharine Hepburn.’ Mr Rochester, incidentally, was played by Dennis Hoey, whose most famous role was to be that of Inspector Lestrade in six Sherlock Holmes films during the Forties. One of the virtues of Anne Edwards’s book is that she gives in a footnote a potted biography of every actor and actress she mentions. These notes have great period interest, as well as commending themselves to film buffs.

The Depression was on when Jane Eyre was produced, and Hepburn wanted to commute from the family home in West Hartford and return each evening after the theatre. A chauffeured car was not easily to be had in town and the manager discovered that the only one available was owned by Weinstein’s Funeral Home. Fortunately Hepburn was Mr Weinstein’s favourite film star, so he drove her every night himself in his black undertaker’s suit. She enjoyed his Yiddish stories. After a drive in an ice-storm one evening she asked him in for something to eat and drink, but he said he only ate kosher food.

‘My wife would kill me if I ate traif.’ He thought a moment. ‘But then, on the other hand, she’d kill me if I didn’t go in and see your house.’ And he followed her to the door.

Anne Edwards begins in medias res with the collapse of the Hepburn reputation in 1938 – the Hollywood columnists crowed that she had got ‘just what she deserved’ – and her resignation from the RKO studios after six years of being a film star and the production of ‘seven straight flops’. She was offered minor parts, but born to the purple as she was, or as she considered herself, she turned them down and went home to the East. Her arrival in Hollywood had been equally unpropitious. When she walked into the studio restaurant wearing the very expensive dress her parents had given her for her Hollywood debut, she seemed to the professionals ‘a bizarre-looking creature, wearing something designed for the Mexican army to go ski-jumping in’. Even George Cukor and David Selznick, who had backed a hunch about her, were appalled.

The turning point came a few months later, with her return to the stage in Philadelphia Story. The famous surgeon her father had given her sage advice and financial backing: she put up a quarter of the production costs herself. But, characteristically, she was happiest at this time in having left Hollywood and come back to her own world, the blue-blooded world in which her mother held a dominant place, airing her painlessly left-wing views and labelling all her conventional conservative acquaintance ‘hopeless untouchables’. One knows the type, which sounds like a sort of Philadelphia equivalent of Cliveden and Bloomsbury. ‘The family was instantly and intensely excited about anyone doing something interesting or wanting to talk about something interesting.’ Life chez the Hepburns must have been something of a strain. But in no time Katharine had got over her disappointment at not having got the part of Scarlett O’Hara in Selznick’s Gone with the Wind. She also gave a diplomatic congé to Howard Hughes, who not only wanted to marry her but who had just become the most famous man in America by flying round the world in record time.

Various people in Hollywood had also wanted to marry her, including Leland Hayward, the agent and producer, and she had been nearly raped by John Barrymore, according to whom she had backed away against the wall of his dressing-room stammering: ‘No, no, my father doesn’t want me to have babies.’ Her mother, after all, apart from her social grandeur, was a serious and distinguished pioneer in the American birth-control movement. And Katharine herself had, in fact, already been married, though in name only, to a charming and handsome young Philadelphia patrician, educated in France, who remained devoted to her in the most gentle and chivalrous manner. Quite why she married ‘Luddy’ Ogden Smith remains something of a mystery, but he was a good friend, kind and sophisticated, who must have been a reassurance and who made no demands on her. When she obtained a Mexican divorce it was widely supposed she wanted to remarry. But she preferred men as friends, although – according to them – she sometimes flung herself at their heads. Jed Harris, who produced The Lake and took all the money he could off her, seems to have been an infatuation who also brutally undermined her confidence. But she got over him. And she always had a steady girlfriend. The later entanglement with Spencer Tracy owed much to his status as a father figure and an actor whose talent and personality she deeply admired.

The most intriguing thing about her, and perhaps also the source of her power, remains the paradoxical combination of her passionate desire to succeed, to win the game she had chosen to play, together with our sense of her ultimate indifference to it. Something else gave her reality, possibly the something Fitzgerald had in mind when he remarked that ‘the very rich are different from you and me.’ Other stars were just as rich but they had put their whole lives into making it, and Hepburn knew – ‘deep in her heart’, in Fitzgerald’s words – that she was better than they were. Henry James would have been greatly taken with the theme of a character with such a strong and outgoing will who yet remained totally and securely imprisoned in a family setting and background. Not that she had a sheltered life. Her younger brother died by accident or suicide; she found him hanging and tried to resuscitate him. Apart from the seven flops, and all that went with them, her acting in her early plays was so appalling that anyone less determined would have given it up. She has suffered all her life from weeping eyes caused by the chemicals stuffed into a Venetian canal in which a director required she should be immersed. Her trials in Africa were on a level with those of the heroine of The African Queen – perhaps her best part. Not only did she succeed, at least in its earlier stages, in creating the idea of a personality more comically touching and more effective even than C.S. Forester’s original heroine, but she was able to use the full natural resources of her ‘class’ personality, as opposed to her actress’s attainments, on dominating the self-made Bogart. The relationship between the two, which seemed social and inadvertent instead of a performance by two masters of their profession, was a delight to watch. They became involuntarily more tender, as if they had fallen in love by a bizarre chance, which perhaps indeed they had.

Anne Edwards does an excellent job of presenting her heroine. She refrains, obviously, from asking any of the questions which a novelist might ask, and this works well, for the reader is left to have his own impression that a variety of strong and not always flattering opinions might have been held about Hepburn by persons not consulted, or at least not allowed to record them. That is as it should be. If real persons can be imagined as encountering Tolstoy’s Anna, or Jane Austen’s Emma, they might have carried away a very different opinion of them from the ones that writers contrived, and readers accept.