In the Golden Age of Hollywood, studios worked hard to create a positive image for their stars. Details about their lives were given a different spin, not quite false, but having just enough truth in it to keep the public interested and wanting more. A story would be told so many times that it became the absolute truth and the stars themselves began to believe it as fact. Katharine Hepburn is one of the stars who fell victim to the publicity wagon, partly because of the studio, yet just as much coming from the great star herself.
In his biography of Hepburn, William J. Mann does extensive research, spending a great deal of time peeling back the layers to get to the real Hepburn, or Kath, as she was called. He starts in 1934, the day after she won the Academy Award for Morning Glory. Hepburn took a ship to Paris, running away from bad reviews of her recent movie Spitfire and her play The Lake. The critics were being ruthless, taking great delight in her failures, and she felt humiliated. But ten days later, she sailed back and straight into history.
Mann takes us through Kath’s childhood, describing life with her demanding father, Dr. Thomas Hepburn, and her loving, but liberated mother, Kit. Living a rather privileged life, Kath longed for the same attention that her father gave her older brother, Tom. She even went so far as to cut her hair and change her name to “Jimmy” for a short period of time. After Tom’s death, she finally became the apple of her father’s eye, eventually discovering that it wasn’t enough to make her happy.
It was through her mother that Katharine was introduced to a group of women who would become central figures in her life. They were women who did not need a man to feel complete, but were content in the company of each other. Kath turned to them whenever a relationship with a man fell apart. While the names would change over the course of her lifetime, she was never more herself than when she was in the midst of these women.
Mann points out that there were several reincarnations of Katharine Hepburn throughout her career. From the rabble-rouser of the 1930s who played pranks on people, the outspoken subversive of the 1940s and the adorable, tough spinster of the 1950s to the survivor in her later years, these versions of “Kate” Hepburn were created to counter the negative aspects of her personal and/or professional life. Because of these creations, Mann says, the real “Kath” Hepburn was buried so deep that not even Hepburn herself could tell the difference between the truth and fiction of her life.
But Mann does not stop there. He shines the spotlight on the twenty-seven-year “love affair” between Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, dismantling one of Hollywood’s most beloved romances. Here too, we find that Hepburn is responsible for many of the misconceptions about their relationship. She added fuel to a fire that had actually died long ago to keep her name in the public eye, pushing for the immortality that she had strived for all her life.
While Mann’s book does become overwhelming at times, you are drawn into the mystery, urging him on, breathlessly waiting for another layer to disappear. What you find is a woman who was just as human as the rest of us. With the astonishing revelations in his book, Mann has made sure that Katharine Hepburn will always be remembered.