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.’

The story begins in Corning, New York, with the suicide of Katharine Hepburn’s maternal grandfather, Alfred Houghton. Two years later his widow, Carrie, died leaving instructions for their daughters Kathy, Edith and Marion to be educated at Bryn Mawr College. In Kathy’s freshman year, her uncle Charlie committed suicide. This death reinforced the stigma of the earlier suicide the daughters were forced to keep secret and never discussed. A ‘hereditary predisposition to suicide’ was believed to run in families, and even M. Carey Thomas, the progressive president of Bryn Mawr, ‘placed considerable emphasis on students’ family back-grounds and the mental characteristics inherited from their parents’. In June 1904, Kathy, now Kate, married Tom Hepburn, a classmate of her sister Edith’s at Johns Hopkins Medical School. They moved to Hartford, Connecticut, where Tom became a surgeon, and where they both campaigned against the spread of venereal disease. Tom gradually became more successful, Kate was very involved in the suffragist and birth control movements. They had a son, Tommy, and finally, on page 128, they had a daughter, Katharine Houghton Hepburn. Kate junior was born on 12 May 1907. She had an energetic childhood, was encouraged by her father to be sporty and by her mother to be outspoken. She climbed trees and shoved balloons saying ‘Votes for Women’ into the hands of strangers.

In the spring of 1915, Charlie, Tom’s eldest brother, committed suicide. Six years later, Kate discovered her brother, Tommy, hanging from a noose he had made out of a ripped and braided sheet. Months later, Sewell, another of Tom’s brothers, was found dead in his garage with the car motor running. Kate, then 13, could not bear school and was tutored at home. She, too, went to Bryn Mawr College, where she decided to become an actress. Rehearsals for her first stage part began four days after her graduation in 1928. She starred in over thirty films and 15 plays between A Bill of Divorcement in 1932 and On Golden Pond in 1981. Leaming documents Katharine’s relationship with the poet H. Phelps Putnam, her short-lived marriage to Ogden Ludlow Smith (who seemed to think it was longer-lived), her affairs with her Hollywood agent Leland Hayward, Howard Hughes (producer, pilot and national hero), John Ford and Spencer Tracy. Neither Ford nor Tracy would leave their wives for her, both were prone to drunken binges, both were (Leaming borrows the phrase from Phelps Putnam) ‘born to dark hysteria’.

Hepburn took it upon herself to look after Tracy, and could be seen late at night ‘curled up asleep outside Spencer Tracy’s door’. After Woman of the Year, their first film together, Hepburn and Tracy became a strong screen duo. ‘In life’, Hepburn turned down films that didn’t include Tracy because she was afraid of his ‘capacity for self-destruction’ when left on his own. Leaming’s research is extensive and thorough, and all sources are acknowledged. She gives precise dates for all of Hepburn’s movements, and although we know where she was every day of every year, this means that our sense of the person keeps wearing off. The Tracy saga feels relentless (as it probably was), and after a while the reader might want to stop keeping tabs and watch one of their films. Surviving her mother and father, surviving Tracy and Ford, Hepburn still sees a lot of her four younger brothers and sisters, all in their seventies and eighties, and all trying to answer their own questions about the past.

Though Leaming is intent on unveiling ‘the whole story’, in this family’s case that would seem to be less a question of digging than of looking at the scrubbed-out surface. The whole story, if there is such a thing, would have to include the story of its own rewriting. Of Tommy’s death, Leaming writes: ‘Kate insisted she could no longer be sure what was true and what wasn’t in her memories of that terrible April morning in 1921.’ In her autobiography, this is the only account Hepburn gives:

‘A doctor. Get a doctor.’

I went downstairs and out the front door. I had seen a doctor sign on one of the houses across the street. I went to the door and rang the bell. It was about eight o’clock in the morning. The door was opened a crack by a woman peering out.

‘Yes?’

‘My brother’s dead.’

A moment’s pause.

‘What?’ she said.

‘My brother – he’s dead.’

‘Then the doctor can’t help him, can he?’

‘No.’

Bang.

This, Leaming says, ‘sounds unmistakably like the dream it probably was’, and she offers another version in which Kathy and the aunt she was staying with were questioned by the police. When asked about his son’s suicide, Tom Hepburn denied that Tommy had had St Vitus’ dance, a nervous disorder he had developed as a young child and which was known to be linked to worry and to the pressure of competition. Dr Hepburn said his son had been ‘suddenly afflicted with adolescent insanity’. Days later he changed his mind, decided Tommy must have been practising a trick of pretending to hang himself, and issued a statement to the press. ‘I have done the boy an injustice ... I am now convinced that the boy was the victim of an accident as a result of a foolish stunt.’ Mrs Hepburn spoke of her child who had ‘gone away’ or ‘left home’. Kathy abandoned her birthday of 12 May in favour of Tommy’s of 8 November, and ‘her parents co-operated with the practice.’

The family continued to write over history. After years of striving to ‘put this family back on the map’, Tom Hepburn lessened his devotion to his bloodline and forebears: when a new house was built, ‘it was understood in the household that things didn’t begin with them [the ancestors], they began with him.’ When Kate’s mother died in 1951, she and her father discovered the body together. Wanting to spare him, she told her father to go downstairs as ‘she erased the details of the death scene.’ She unclasped her mother’s still warm fingers and straightened the sheets, so that her father could later say her mother didn’t appear to have suffered. Soon afterwards, Kate’s brother Bob found his father ‘throwing away all of this socialist junk’, as Dr Hepburn said. He destroyed every trace of Mrs Hepburn’s political activity and ‘tossed out decades of women’s history’. Sometime defender of his ‘Powell inheritance’ and a firm believer in eugenics, Dr Hepburn was heard to say ‘what is past is past,’ as if trying to muffle the genes.

When Tom began work as a surgeon, 75 per cent of all gynaecological operations on married women treated the repercussions of gonorrhoea contracted from their husbands. Since the subject was taboo, many men who had unknowingly been the cause of disease in their wives and children divorced. Knowledge of venereal disease then became a cause for women’s rights. Mrs Hepburn, who was president of the Connecticut Women’s Suffrage Association, also informed wives about the disease and tried to arrange alternative employment for prostitutes. The birth control movement, which Margaret Sanger (who had known Mrs Hepburn as a child and knew her family history) led in 1914, primarily to emancipate women ‘enslaved by unwanted pregnancies’, linked in with family health and curbing the spread of venereal disease. It was also taken up by eugenicists to prevent the reproduction of ‘defectives and delinquents’. Leaming writes: ‘the Hepburns subtly expanded their ken to include inherited taints and defects not caused by venereal disease.’ They believed, along with other defenders of eugenics, that some people were ‘genetically unfit’; they believed in ‘the useful classes’ and in producing ‘a race of thoroughbreds’. Dr Hepburn was a leading figure in the Connecticut Society of Social Hygiene, ostensibly promoting hygiene in the habits of society but also cleaning out the society itself.

Even if these intersections between what now appear to be politically divergent beliefs were not unusual at the time, Leaming stresses the irony of this particular family’s involvement, given their fears about their own ‘inherited taints’. Leaming believes that these questions of heredity and the past are what has ‘shaped and driven’ Katharine Hepburn. She thinks that ‘she responded to the suicides in her family by turning herself into a relentless lifeforce,’ and that her relationships with self-destructive men were an attempt to find answers to her questions about her brother Tommy. Clearly the discovery of her brother’s suicide and memories of other events must have marked Kate, but by devoting so many pages to the story of Hepburn’s parents Leaming seems to be contributing in some woolly way to their notions of what is hereditary. It is one thing to ‘inherit’ a saga (‘Tommy and Kathy were enacting a drama that was not really theirs ... It was Dr Hepburn’s drama, and his mother’s’), but quite another to inherit genes. Because it was unclear what was genetically transmitted, and because the Hepburns were so concerned with ‘bloodlines’, these two things were wrapped together in prejudice and superstition.

Watching Katharine Hepburn’s screen test for RKO Studios in 1932, George Cukor was about to dismiss her ‘mannered style of acting’ when he noticed something. With her back to the camera, she lowered a glass to the floor. She has been striking in her small gestures ever since. The way she pulls a door shut with her foot, the way she patters across a room as if one earring were just slightly heavier than the other, the way she hands Spencer Tracy a drink, lightly and quickly ungluing her fingers one by one. Her body is sometimes long and fluid, sometimes thin and spiky. Her famous ‘flaw’ of talking too quickly gives her an astounding sense of comic timing. She runs sentences, paragraphs, conversations with different people into each other, making her audience dash about looking for the beginning, or the end, and leaving us to laugh in all the oddest places. In Adam’s Rib she passes her husband (Spencer Tracy) a morning cup of coffee. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she tells him he was making some funny noises in the night. ‘What kind of noises?’ ‘Well, I can’t remember exactly, naturally, but sort of like ...’ (she prepares, as if to sing a sluggish aria) ‘ahhhhhhhhh ... mm ... ohhhhh ... mmmmmm.’ She shrugs. ‘Like that’ – Tracy opens his mouth to speak, she carries on: ‘sort of’. She swallows, nods, slurps her breakfast, glances at the newspaper and shouts; ‘Hot dawg!’ Hepburn is just as unstoppable in her slapstick roles. In Bringing up Baby she is at a cocktail party and trying to flick olives into her mouth from the back of her hand. She misses, seems not to notice, and tries again. Cary Grant, desperately twitchy, walks by, slips on an olive and squashes his hat. She is charmingly unreasonable. ‘Well, you cahn’t do that trick without dropping some of the olives, it takes practice.’

‘To sit on my hat?’

‘Noooo,’ she oozes, smiling, ‘to drop an olive.’ She doesn’t quite turn the undignified into elegance, she screws it up into something funnier, something just as silly that doesn’t go with her lovely clothes. She never stops talking, she’s exhaustingly affectionate and tooth-grittingly stubborn, but she’s the only woman the man in any of her films could (eventually) want.

Leaming’s biography tries to show us the secrets that made Hepburn vulnerable, and the need to cover them up which made her brittle or strong. She wanted the past buried and explained. Her family were militant ‘performers’ but they feared publicity. She herself sought attention and privacy at once. Boarding a ship after receiving an Academy Award for Morning Glory, Hepburn ostentatiously ‘dashed to her stateroom’ and hollered at the press through the key-hole: ‘Can’t you see I’m incognito?’