Only Incognito

Gaby Wood

  • Katharine Hepburn by Barbara Leaming
    Weidenfeld, 549 pp, £20.00, March 1995, ISBN 0 297 81319 6

Of all the Hollywood beauties of her time, only Katharine Hepburn had the grace to be irritating. She was beautiful, but not always, her looks could change from shot to shot. She was oddly elegant, sometimes bouncy, sometimes brittle. She was mocking, brash, hoity-toity. What she never was, in her films, was silent. John Ford admired her ‘strange, sharp face’ which made Tennessee Williams think of ‘a medieval saint in a Gothic cathedral’. Her voice has been described as ‘nasal’, ‘metallic’, and by one biographer as ‘a cross between Donald Duck and a Stradivarius’. She has been nicknamed ‘Katharine of Arrogance’ and she reminded Tallulah Bankhead of ‘a New England spinster’. Humphrey Bogart, her co-star in The African Queen, was clear about his first impressions: ‘She won’t let anybody get a word in edgewise and she keeps repeating what a superior person she is. Later, you get a load of the babe stalking through the African jungle as though she beat Livingstone to it ... About every other minute she wrings her hands in ecstasy and says, “what divine natives! what divine morning glories!” Brother, your brow goes up ... is this something from The Philadelphia Story?’

In her biography of Orson Welles, Barbara Leaming quotes his phrase ‘in life’ (‘Rita [Hayworth] in life’), and states that what she wants to show is Welles ‘in life’. This would seem to be what she wants to show of Katharine Hepburn too, since she doesn’t really write about Hepburn’s screen presence. But unlike the usual crumbling Hollywood lives, Hepburn’s ‘real life’ did appear to overlap unnervingly with her screen one. For Bogart she was like a nightmare flashback to something he had thought was only a movie. The Philadelphia Story was written specifically for and partly about her by Philip Barry. It had a two-year run on Broadway, and (since Howard Hughes had bought her the rights) she starred in the film version for MGM. Quite apart from the life it portrayed, for a time The Philadelphia Story was her life. Many scripts were written with her in mind, and Dudley Nichols wrote some of her best comic lines in Bringing Up Baby based on his observations of her bantering relationship with John Ford.

What separates her ‘in life’ from her in films are the silences she preserves. She has been reticent about detailing her personal life, and books about Hepburn (ten including Leaming’s, and Hepburn’s autobiography) have repeated the same anecdotes, often in the same order. Leaming has written a new and interesting story, although it is one which gives a disproportionate amount of weight to Hepburn’s family background and shows little of the person we know from the movies. What Leaming has set out to unearth is the ‘tumultuous family saga’, ‘the agonising questions that have shaped and driven Katharine Hepburn’ because of ‘the power of the past’. ‘No one,’ Leaming writes in her prologue, ‘has ever known the whole story until now.’ We might gather that this includes Hepburn herself, since in 1993 ‘she was still trying to find out about Fred and Carrie.’

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