Interview: August 8, 2003
August 8, 2003
In 1983, at the age of 75, four-time Academy Award-winning actress Katherine Hepburn began a very special friendship with biographer A. Scott Berg, who for the next 20 years chronicled her thoughts and feelings on a wide variety of issues. The stories from these intimate conversations are lovingly told in KATE REMEMBERED, Berg's touching tribute to this legendary star. In this interview Berg talks with Bookreporter.com co-Founder Carol Fitzgerald and Bookreporter.com's Reviewer Roberta O'Hara about the writing and publication of the book, as well as some of his favorite Hepburn films, the ambitious project he is currently working on, and much more!
BRC: The act of publishing this book must have been bittersweet. While it was a chance to share the story you had kept secret for so long, its publication meant that you had lost a very dear friend. Can you share your feelings about this?
SB: Actually, both the writing and the publishing of the book were "bittersweet"; I'm full of mixed emotions, and you're going to get a somewhat mixed answer. After my biography of Lindbergh was published in 1998, I decided the time had arrived for me to write a book about Katharine Hepburn, as she and I had long discussed my doing one day.
By 1999, when I actually started writing, Kate's quality of life was starting to decline; and while I didn't want to dwell on that fact, it was hard to deny. Writing about her was actually quite a tonic for me, enabling me to recall so many of the hilarious times we had spent together. I felt reconnected to her Life Force. And so it has been with the publication of the book --- as I now have the opportunity to share my experiences with readers and to talk about her inspiring life. And while her death, after ninety-six extremely rich years, was not exactly a tragedy, it was very sad for me...and I know once a lot of the excitement surrounding this book has died down, grief will inevitably descend.
BRC: Hepburn clearly loved to give direction and speak her mind. Is there a particular piece of advice she gave you that influenced you? What do you miss most about Hepburn and the time you spent together?
SB: "Go, go, go," she often said, probably more than she said anything else, in fact. My own character was pretty well defined by the time I met Katharine Hepburn, but her "Go-go-go" attitude constantly spurred me on, urging me to be more of myself; and I still often hear her whispering it into my ear. That spirit was largely behind my getting KATE REMEMBERED written when I did...and in the form I did, as a memoir, which was something of a bold departure for me. So, while I'll always carry her on my shoulder, I will miss the feeling of revitalization I always felt after each visit with her --- even my last visit, one month before she died.
BRC: A particularly poignant passage is where she asks you, "What do you think was Spencer's problem?...Why do you think he drank?" And with great candor, you told her. Afterwards her only acknowledgment was, "You should write all that down." Clearly she felt you had captured something very special there. Were there other moments when she would say something like this to you?
SB: I say in the book's introduction that Kate used me less as a sounding board than as an anvil, hammering thoughts and stories out. Sometimes she'd just launch into a story, other times she'd encourage me to ask her questions, periodically she'd solicit my answers to her questions; in all three instances, she would periodically tell me to get it all down on paper. I specifically remember her urging me to do so after our conversation about gossip columnists, and again about the making of The Philadelphia Story. Toward the end of the book, there are a few discussions about the meaning of life and religion; and she made it clear then that she thought/assumed I was going to get all that on paper. For the rest, she simply presumed I was getting all the good stuff down.
BRC: Much as been whispered about Hepburn's bisexuality. You make only one reference to it as Irene Selznick refers to her as a "double-gater," but it is never delved into more than this. Is there a reason you chose not to speak about this or explore it further?
SB: Because I was in Katharine Hepburn's life as a friend more than as a chronicler, I never felt it was my place to probe into deeply personal areas, to ask questions that a journalist might but a friend might not. I would say sex and money were the two areas into which I didn't delve. Often she brought those subjects up, and I would pursue those conversations as far as I felt was comfortable. But again --- as with the night we discussed Spencer Tracy's drinking, for example --- I was pressing the conversation as her friend, trying to hammer out subjects I felt she wanted to discuss.
BRC: At one point you catch Hepburn in your room going through your things. At any point did she ask to see what you were writing so she could add comments, additions or criticisms? Was there ever a moment when you thought, "I want her to read this book"?
SB: Except for the notes I took after our dinner with Michael Jackson, she never asked to see anything I had written, other than my published work --- which included, by the way, a short article about her for ARCHITECTURAL DIGEST in 1990, one she had asked me to write, as the magazine was about to assign the piece to a writer she didn't like. Katharine Hepburn was an extremely intelligent and shrewd woman; and I felt within two weeks of our meeting --- when she gave me the key to her house --- that she trusted me to make the best and most of all the stories she shared with me. The only times I really wished she could read the book were when I was writing up some of the small moments (like when she pushed her ice-cream cone into my face) and the larger vignettes (the Michael Jackson dinner) --- because I knew they would make her laugh.
BRC: The act of growing old has so much indignity attached to it. You captured this with a few paragraphs on page 312 --- you arrived at Fenwick for dinner, Hepburn had forgotten you were coming and she is embarrassed. Were those moments more painful than her actual death as you watched her slip away?
SB: Those moments weren't really more painful, because the changes from visit to visit were usually so small, so subtle; and I simply seldom allowed myself to think the worst. In the final few years, when I began to add all those changes up in my head, the feeling of pain began to sink in for me. By my last visit, I really felt she wanted to let go; and that was actually something of a relief.
BRC: The photo of the two of you working on what looks like a screen door on the house on the back of the book sets the perfect visual tone for your prose. How did that selection come about? The only photos in the book are some stunning glamour shots of Hepburn and one of her with Spencer Tracy. Why was a decision made not to use any candids, other photos from her movies, or those of her family and friends?
SB: I selected the picture on the back of the jacket --- of the two of us putting up some screens --- because it is the only picture of the two of us that I am aware of. Most of our time was spent alone, usually the two of us having dinner in New York City or spending weekends together in Fenwick. I didn't especially want to use candid photos of Kate, because I didn't want to suggest that I ever took those pictures or that I was trying to appropriate somebody else's image of her. I write in the book that I consider Katharine Hepburn a great icon of romance; and so, I wanted the few photographs in the book to show that --- somewhat formally, in contrast to the much more casual nature of the writing.
BRC: What do you think Hepburn would have done if she was not an actress?
SB: It's hard for me to imagine. I think she could have been a professional athlete; she could have been a politician; she could have been a terrific businesswoman. Or, with some study and practice, she probably could have become a painter --- at least she would have liked to.
BRC: Do you have a personal favorite Hepburn film? Which do you feel most defined her?
SB: I have several, each of which displays a different aspect of her character. I love her portrayals of yearning young women in Little Women and Alice Adams. I adore the physical comedy and self-assurance of Bringing Up Baby and Holiday. I think her beauty and wit and her ability to question herself and grow was never more brilliant than in The Philadelphia Story, which I consider the "Dom Perignon" of movies. Her best sparring comes in Woman of the Year and Adam's Rib, opposite Spencer Tracy. Her "spinster" movies break my heart --- The African Queen and The Rainmaker. I think I admire her acting most in Long Day's Journey Into Night and The Lion in Winter. If you're not in tears at the end of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, well --- I don't want to know you. But my favorite...I think I'd say Summertime, in which I felt Hepburn totally let herself go, revealing herself in ways she never had. It's a completely rounded performance --- touching, vulnerable, romantic, and satisfying.
BRC: The amount of secrecy surrounding this book and the level that it was kept quiet astounded much of the publishing world, as well as Hepburn fans. We wonder, how are you at keeping secrets in the rest of your life?
SB: Very good, I would say. I don't have many secrets of my own, though I have always preferred to do my work in private. I seldom say much about any work in progress, as I prefer to talk about the finished products. When it comes to keeping other people's secrets, I'm even more tightlipped.
BRC: One question that we need to ask is not related to KATE REMEMBERED. Last weekend announcements were made about Charles Lindbergh having a "second family" in Europe. As his biographer you have been quoted as saying that this was possible given the timing, but very out of character. Will you explore this further, or is that book behind you?
SB: If more evidence surfaces --- something that genuinely substantiates the claims --- I would be happy to examine the material and comment upon it. Right now, I don't wish to participate in the debate, as there isn't much to analyze. I just don't feel it's my role to engage in, and thereby provoke, further discussion with so few facts. That being said, I never quite consider any of my books completely behind me.
BRC: Can you share with us what you are working on now?
SB: Since 2000, when I finished writing KATE REMEMBERED, I have been researching a biography of Woodrow Wilson, a boyhood hero of mine. He was one of the reasons I chose to attend Princeton University --- where he had been an undergraduate, a professor, and college president. After writing my three big biographies, I felt ready, at last, to take on this giant of the twentieth century. I'm still in the early stages of research; and I hope to have the book finished in 2009.