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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Perhaps no Hollywood personality is better known and simultaneously more enigmatic than the late Katharine Hepburn. In this memoir, A. Scott Berg promises a detailed picture of the celebrated movie star whose career spanned the greater part of seven decades. The eldest of six children, Hepburn was influenced by her physician father and feminist mother. In contrast to many women of her era, Hepburn was well educated and used to thinking and acting independently. She was arguably the most important movie star of her sex and of her generation. Her life has been addressed in an autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life (1991), and in a number of biographies. Her films are shown frequently on television and hold up well under modern critique. She has been honored in a successful one-woman show: Kate Mulgrew’s Kate Hepburn offered select biographical morsels that shed light on the rise and culmination of Hepburn’s expansive career.

Hepburn’s onscreen personalities have often hinted at her offscreen character; many parts seem more biographical than fictional. Audiences tend to accept the life-screen connection, from the determined ingenue in Stage Door (1937) to the savvy yet silly socialite in The Philadelphia Story(1940). They cheer the witty and athletic heroine in Bringing up Baby (1938) and the indefatigable English queen, Eleanor, whose imprisoned body could not chain her forthright and clearly caustic tongue in The Lion in Winter (1968).

Hepburn’s roles also demonstrate a consistency: Her heroines seemed always to stand by their flawed or frail men, as in On Golden Pond (1981) and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). This tendency is visible in Hepburn’s private life as well. The man with whom she was paired most often on the screen is the man to whom she devoted much of her real life. She was content to remain, by choice, the mistress of a married man. Actor Spencer Tracy, who played the priest in Boys Town (1938) and the title character in The Old Man and the Sea (1958), would die under Hepburn’s roof shortly after completing work on their last picture together.

In an era when women in films were often portrayed as submissive, starched-apron wives and mothers, Hepburn was able to maintain a demeanor of strength and independence. Even when scripts called for a traditional model of feminine compromise, she somehow seemed to be a stronger, more centered person than her contemporaries. Although filmgoers identified with her, her offscreen life remains illusively private and inaccessible to her fans as well as to her detractors. The author of the present memoir offers up the hope that, at last, this lacuna will be filled.

Berg introduces his audience to Hepburn in much the way he met the actor in real life. The reader paces with Berg as he nervously arrives early for his initial appointment with the movie star he has admired for years. The reader walks with him to Hepburn’s home, observes the details of the front door and...

(The entire section is 1,586 words.)