Much has been written about the legendary actress Katharine Hepburn, including the recent offerings KATE: The Woman Who Was Hepburn, by William J. Mann, and KATE REMEMBERED by A. Scott Berg. Even the woman herself couldn’t resist telling her own story, and did so in a wonderful autobiography simply titled ME: Stories of My Life. So do we really need another book about Katharine Hepburn? The answer is a resounding “yes,” but only if it’s written by Charlotte Chandler.
Chandler is the author of numerous Hollywood biographies, including THE GIRL WHO WALKED HOME ALONE: Bette Davis, A Personal Biography, and SHE ALWAYS KNEW HOW, about larger-than-life actress Mae West. She culled this latest work from a series of recorded conversations she had with Hepburn starting in the 1970s, when she first met her through director George Cukor. Although a fiercely private person, Hepburn opened up quite candidly about her life, her loves and her career, and in Chandler’s quick and breezy style, it feels like having a conversation with Hepburn herself.
It’s only fitting that such a remarkable actress be born of a remarkable family. Hepburn was the first daughter of a doctor and a women’s rights activist, a highly controversial figure in their conservative Hartford, Connecticut community. Raised with a healthy respect for herself and others, “Kathy,” as she was known then, thrived in the highly athletic and competitive environment of Fenwick, the family home on the Long Island Sound. Always marching to the beat of her own drummer, she cut her hair short and demanded her family refer to her as “Jimmy” because she felt only boys were getting to have all the fun.
It would be in this idyllic childhood that Hepburn experienced a most painful loss, which proved a defining moment in her young life: the death of her older brother, Tom, by apparent suicide when he was not yet 16. She spent her remaining years at home striving to be the perfect child to please her parents, who would not tolerate any talk of Tom after his tragic death. Following her mother’s lead, Hepburn headed off to Bryn Mawr College, hoping for the same wonderful experience her mother had, but academics failed to excite her. What she did gain was a new interest in theater, and this became her mission in life. She began working steadily on the New York stage right out of college, and it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling.
Right before embarking on her stage career, Hepburn married for the first and only time. Ludlow Odgen Smith, or “Luddy” as she called him, became her staunchest advocate, fan and lifelong friend despite the brevity of their marriage: “The marriage didn’t survive, but the friendship truly survived, and that was what was so important.” He was the first in a series of smart and driven men who captured her fancy. Howard Hughes was another high-profile suitor who, in addition to being the “most purely passionate relationship” of her life thus far, proved himself to be professionally invaluable, as he secured the film rights to the hit Broadway play The Philadelphia Story (which she was starring in) and gave it to Hepburn as a gift, a fact she liked to joke about: “I slept with Howard Hughes to get The Philadelphia Story….well, not exactly, but that’s the way it worked out…He was a brilliant man and going to bed with him was very pleasurable. But the pleasure of owning The Philadelphia Story lasted longer.”
Lovers were not the only men who left a huge imprint on Hepburn. Her father, a successful urologist, is responsible for her athleticism and nerve. He taught her to strive to be the best and never to give in to fear. Director George Cukor also played an important part in her life: “If I had chosen anyone in the world to be my father except my own father, it would have been George…He was the person in my life I was most comfortable with, besides Spencer.”
Of course, the “Spencer” she’s referring to is none other than Spencer Tracy, the love of her life, whom she met in those early days of Hollywood. Despite his being married (Tracy was separated from his wife, but as a Catholic would never pursue divorce), the two enjoyed a 27-year love affair that lasted until his death in the late 1960s. Their chemistry was captured onscreen in films like Adam’s Rib, Desk Set, and their final collaboration, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Tracy died of heart failure a mere 17 days after filming was completed. His death began a new chapter in Hepburn’s life. After some time, she moved from the little guest cottage that Tracy used to rent on Cukor’s property back to her beloved New York City and Fenwick, the family home. She continued to act into her eighth decade, her last project being 1994’s TV movie One Christmas and lived out the rest of her days with friends and family until her death in 2003 at age 96. And what a legacy she left behind. Her life had been filled with family and fun adventures, and her career had already moved into legendary status. In all, she won a record four Academy Awards and was nominated 12 times, a record only surpassed by Meryl Streep, who has garnered 16 nominations.
Charlotte Chandler’s strong suit as a biographer is her ability to pull back and let the subjects of her books tell their own stories, in their own words, thus giving the reader a more intimate portrayal of the star. Although many of the stories included in I KNOW WHERE I’M GOING have been featured elsewhere, there are still many more frank observations from Hepburn herself. And for a breezy, well-paced and sensational read, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better biographer than Chandler. In her hands, even the most complex, rarified person becomes accessible, and their stories start to feel less like your standard biography and more like a juicy conversation over lunch between good friends.
Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on January 22, 2011