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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1586

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...

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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 protected surroundings. One shares Berg’s sense of intimidation as he rings the bell and is ushered up a steep flight of stairs to have his audience with greatness. From the top of the stairs comes the voice of great Kate: “Did you use the bathroom?” Such an unlikely contrast to the expected grandeur is yet such a predictable informality to those familiar with Hepburn’s films.

The reader is given a detailed description of the cozy home that surrounds the legend. Only gradually does one snuggle into the sofa, accept the offer of refreshment, and begin with Berg the increasingly comfortable twenty-year relationship with this figure who stands so tall. Hepburn is described as many have seen her in television and stage representations of her life: “She was wearing khaki pants, a white turtleneck under a blue chambray shirt, and she had a red sweater tied loosely around her neck.” This is the energetic, if aging, Hepburn that everyone has seen before.

The reader meets Hepburn’s neighbor, composer Stephen Sondheim, who plays the piano loud and late, disturbing the actor. There are tidbits about Hollywood directors George Cukor, George Stevens, Howard Hughes, and John Ford, and these are just a few of the names dropped tantalizingly in the text and readily recognized by even the least of film buffs. Extended bashing, recorded by Berg but given energy by Hepburn’s neither insecure nor tentative opinions, is reserved for actor Warren Beatty and singer Michael Jackson, the renowned eccentric. The former comes off as self-centered: “This is Warren Beatty, the movie star,” is his first statement in a phone call to the author. Michael Jackson appears as entirely clueless. He claims to be a big Hepburn fan but is unable to say clearly which of her performances gave rise to his admiration. In fact, he appears to have seen none of her films. Apparently the only motion picture he could identify with Hepburn was Captains Courageous (1937), a Spencer Tracy vehicle without Hepburn among the cast. Further, Jackson is shown up by the author’s account as incapable of identifying a common vegetable served at Hepburn’s dinner table, even though he is a vegetarian.

Hepburn’s sequential female companions through the years, those not in the public spotlight, are included in Berg’s homey picture. Some hint of lesbian liaison is there, but it is neither explored nor exploited, perhaps to the disappointment of readers eager to be titillated. The work might be picked over for bits of gossip about persons other than the main character, but the nuggets about Hepburn are rather sparse.

Likewise, one looks in vain for much more about Spencer Tracy than what is already a matter of public record. Reprised is the instant chemistry between the two stars, who became star-crossed lovers. According to Berg, Hepburn was smitten immediately upon meeting Tracy. He turned out to be a needy lover who “brought out the missionary” in the independent Hepburn. Revisited is the story of Tracy’s death and the awkward call to his legal and public wife of many years, Louise, after he collapsed in Hepburn’s care. The revelation that Spencer once struck Hepburn is perhaps new but little else brings surprise. Berg merely confirms and repeats what has been detailed elsewhere. On the other hand, the book does detail Hepburn’s (and Tracy’s) film career, including why and how certain films were chosen.

All in all, this may be a very ordinary look at an extraordinary woman, but perhaps it is the ordinary that the reader craves, having seen The Philadelphia Story and other films that depict her as a regal socialite. Maybe the prolonged descriptions of Hepburn’s physical surroundings, meals served at intimate dinners in her homes, and winter morning swims are what the reader wants to peruse. Certainly these are the things that Berg preserves in clear, descriptive prose.

The flyleaf of the book promises the reader “intimate conversations, and much more.” At some level, this book provides a look at Hepburn that may be new; nevertheless, the delivery on Berg’s promise is elusive. What the reader gets in much of his book is, in many ways, the same intimacy with Katharine Hepburn enjoyed by filmgoers or television viewers. They have an appetite for more, but there is always a barrier separating the subject from those on literary pilgrimage. If there is more to show, Berg cannot bring himself to reveal it. Perhaps Hepburn herself cannot stoop to display all. Perhaps that is all there was.

This is not a critical biography in the sense that the author has an edgy perspective or takes the subject to task. Rather, it might be described as a protracted visit with one of the most enduring and productive film stars of the twentieth century. The double entendre in the biography’s title is confirmed by Berg’s introduction. This is not merely a memoir of someone who admired and loved Hepburn, first from a distance and then up close; it is likewise the cobbled collection of Hepburn’s memories of her long life and career and of the many people—some well known—who crossed into it. The book must be read with this in mind. Far from a disinterested account, Berg’s presentation of his favorite heroine is combined with Hepburn’s seasoning—slightly salty and sometimes bitter.

The description of the screen star’s final days comes off as the work of the scribe-disciple at the feet of greatness. There is, however, a tenderness, a delicacy, that Berg’s work exhibits. It is not unlike the description of Hepburn’s favorite flower, Queen Anne’s lace, in the final chapter. In life and on the screen, Hepburn was the “different” woman, the one with backbone and straightforward speech. In remembering, that is how she should be portrayed: no makeup, no special effects. Her substantive life ended on June 29, 2003. She was ninety-six. Her substantial body of work will keep her alive in the memories of many for a long time. Thanks in part to this hero-worshiping biography, she will remain Kate Remembered, even if she is really only the Hepburn of the silver screen.

Review Sources

The Advocate, September 2, 2003, p. 60-61.

Booklist 99, no. 22 (August 1, 2003): 1923.

Library Journal 128, no. 13 (August 15, 2003): 86.

London Review of Books 25, no. 17 (September 11, 2003): 25.

The New York Times Book Review, August 17, 2003, p. 13.

Newsweek 142, no. 3 (July 21, 2003): 58.

People 60, no. 7 (August 18, 2003): 47.

Publishers Weekly 250, no. 31 (August 4, 2003): 92.

The Times Literary Supplement, September 12, 2003, p. 20.

The Wall Street Journal, July 25, 2003, p. W7.

Women’s Review of Books 21, no. 3 (December, 2003): 20.

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