Screen legend and Hollywood icon Kate Hepburn has been written about for years, the public endlessly fascinated by a woman who found her niche on the silver screen after a few years attempting Broadway with little success. Even though her screen career had a rocky start, the camera loved her and Hepburn persisted, making friends with Hollywood insiders who guided a career that would span decades.
The most obvious facts are found in all the biographies: the easy successes, the stage attempts, the early films and the larger-than-life romance with fellow actor Spencer Tracy. Later years brought a more irascible image, as well as celebrated roles in The African Queen and On Golden Pond, not to mention the ground-breaking Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
But Mann does more than ruffle the surface of this woman’s life: he delves deep into Kate’s personality and drive for success, the marriages, the relationships and the carefully scripted image that was parceled out to an adoring public. Having learned the harsh lessons of too much exposure in her more impulsive years, the mature Hepburn called her public self “The Creature,” carefully orchestrating appearances and statements, even going so far as to reinvent the truth about the great romance of her life with Tracy.
Well-heeled and ever rebellious, Kath, as she was called as a young woman, adopted a particular style that did much to cement her image as an iconoclast, but her insecurities were rooted in a need to please a distant and critical father. Indeed, her two marriages were with older men, acting out perhaps the endless drama of parent and child.
Even more striking, however, was the sexual ambiguity of Kate’s husbands, both supposedly avid womanizers but with hidden homosexual tendencies. Kate had no problems with gender identity, surrounded by a mixed crowd since her early days in Greenwich Village, morality never a cause for concern in her crowd.
Although Kate was uncomfortable with the thought of two men together, she readily associated with openly lesbian females - but then, New York and Hollywood, pre-Legion of Decency, exemplified the bohemian lifestyle, anything available for libertines who appreciated the scene. The image of Kate as a tomboy was flaunted during her first years on the screen; it was common to see her sporting trousers and mannish costumes at social events.
Later, when the studios became more image-obsessed, Kate was groomed to look the lady, but her personal life was defined by many close friendships with women, some of whom lived with her and knew her best, who supported her in her old age. Mann has received some criticism for his biography, but I found it entertaining and revealing, dispelling long-held myths while exposing a complicated woman who took hold of her own life from childhood, a definitive character as well as a legend.