A Private Function
I've never felt so intimidated ringing a doorbell.
Even though she and I had become friendly in the past few months over the telephone and I was standing at her front door in New York City at her invitation, I was genuinely nervous about our first meeting. And I've never been especially starstruck.
But this was different. Katharine Hepburn was the first movie star I had ever noticed, and she had been my favorite ever since—the only actor whose plays and movies I attended just because she was in them.
On that Tuesday—April 5, 1983—I arrived at Third Avenue and Forty-ninth Street with fifteen minutes to spare. So I walked around a few neighboring blocks until 5:55 p.m. Then I slowly walked east on Forty-ninth Street until I was a few doors from Second Avenue—number 244. I stood on the sidewalk for another minute and a half, until the second hand on my watch ticked toward twelve. I opened the little black iron gate, stepped down into the well at the curtained front door, and pressed the button. The bell let out a ring so shrill, I could practically feel all four floors of the brownstone shake.
Nobody answered. After a long pause, a short woman with black hair poked her cherubic face out of an adjacent door, the service entrance, and said, "Yes?"
I said I had a six o'clock appointment with Miss Hepburn. Was I at the wrong door? "No, no," she said. "I'll let you in." She came to the front door, and I heard two heavy locks tumble. This was Norah Considine, who cooked and cleaned. She said Miss Hepburn was expecting me.
I entered the vestibule and left my raincoat on a bench at the foot of the steep, narrow staircase, with its metal pole for a handrail. Another woman appeared from the kitchen—gray-haired, bony, with a neckbrace; and we introduced ourselves. She was, as I presumed, Phyllis Wilbourn, Hepburn's companion and majordomo. "Oh, yes. Go right up," she said in a sandy-throated English accent. "Miss Hepburn's expecting you." At the top of the landing, I could look into the rear living room, where the last of that day's light was coming in from the garden.
Before I had even entered the room, I heard the unmistakable voice from inside. "Did you use the bathroom?"
"I'm sorry?" I said, now standing in the doorway and seeing Katharine Hepburn for the first time.
She sat to the right in a comfortable-looking chair, her feet in white athletic shoes propped up on a footrest. She appeared to be amazingly fit for a seventy-five-year-old then recovering from a serious car accident. She looked restored and relaxed, her skin tight against the legendary cheekbones, her eyes clear, a soothing pale blue, her hair a ruddy gray, all pulled off her face and pinned up into her trademark knot. She wore no makeup and flashed a big movie-star grin, exuding charm and energy. She was wearing khaki pants, a white turtleneck under a blue chambray shirt, and she had a red sweater tied loosely around her neck. As I approached her, I tried to take in as much of the room as I could—the high ceiling, pictures on the walls, a fire blazing in the fireplace, nothing ostentatious except for huge bouquets of flowers everywhere.
"Did you use the bathroom?" she asked again, before I had reached her.
"Well, don't you think you should?"
"No, thank you. I don't think that's necessary."
"Well, I think you should probably go back downstairs and use the bathroom first." I repeated that I didn't think it was necessary but that I would do my best.
Two minutes later I returned; and as I reached the top of the stairs, she asked, "Did you use the bathroom?"
"Well, actually," I said, "I did, thank you."
"Good. You know my father was a urologist, and he said you should always go to the bathroom whenever you have to...and you see, you had to. So how do you do? I'm Katharine Hepburn."
"Yes, I know you are." We shook hands, and from her chair she looked me up and down and smiled. "You're tall." A little over six feet, I told her. "Tennis?" No, I said, but I swim regularly and work out with weights at a gym. "Boah." A little boring, I concurred, adding that it was the most time-efficient form of exercise for me.
"Do you smoke?" she asked.
I started to laugh—feeling as though I had walked into a production of The Importance of Being Earnest — and said, "No, Lady Bracknell, I don't." She laughed and said, "I used to. Gave it up. Disgusting habit. Well, I hope you drink."
"Fortunately," I said, "I do." With that, she sent me to the table behind her, on which sat a wooden African mask of a woman with unusually large, wild eyes and prominent cheekbones. "Somebody sent me that," she said. "It looks just like me, don't you think?" Except for the tribal paint, it did. Next to it sat a large wooden tray with several bottles of liquor and three thick glass goblets. "Do you see anything there you like?" I did—a bottle of King William IV Scotch. She asked me to make two of them, according to her specifications—which meant filling the glass beyond the brim with ice, pouring a shot of the whiskey slowly over the cubes, then topping it with soda. She directed me to sit on the couch to her right, white canvas covered with a red knit throw. She took a sip, then a gulp of her drink and said, "Too weak." I doctored it. "Yours looks too weak," she said. Fearing a replay of the bathroom episode, I stood my ground, saying, "I feel the need to stay one ounce more sober than you."
While we discussed the interview I had come to conduct with her, Phyllis Wilbourn climbed the stairs. I started to get up, as the neck-braced septugenarian appeared a little wobbly; but my hostess assured me she was just fine. "You've met Phyllis Wilbourn?" Miss Hepburn inquired, as the older woman passed a tray of hot cheese puffs. "My Alice B. Toklas."
"I wish you wouldn't say that," Phyllis insisted. "It makes me sound like an old lesbian, and I'm not."
"You're not what, dearie, old or a lesbian?" she said, laughing.
"Neither." With that, Phyllis fixed her own drink, a ginger ale, and sat in a chair opposite us; and I continued to soak up the room. Hepburn watched me as I gazed at a carved wooden goose hanging on a chain from the ceiling. "Spencer's," she said. Then I noticed a painting of two seagulls on some rocks.
"Do you think that's an exceptional picture or not?" she asked.
"It's amusing," I said. "Fun."
"Me," she said, referring to the artist.
The fire was dying, and Hepburn asked if I knew anything about fireplaces. I told her I was no Boy Scout but that I could probably kick a little life into it. "Let's see," she said, preparing to grade me in what was clearly an important test. I used the pair of wrought-iron tongs to turn a few logs over, and they went up in a blaze. She was visibly pleased. "How about those on the mantel?" she asked, referring me to a pair of small figurines, nude studies of a young woman. "Me," she said.
"You sculpted these?" I asked.
"No, I posed for them." Upon closer scrutiny, I could see that was the case and that she was pleased again.
Over the next few minutes, we made small talk—about my hometown, Los Angeles, our mutual friend director George Cukor, who had died there just a few months prior, and our impending interview. She asked how much time I thought I would need, and I asked, "How much have you got?"
"Oh, I'm endlessly fascinating," she said, smiling again. "I'd say you'll need at least two full days with me."
As my fire-tending had made the room warmer, I stood and removed my blue blazer, which I set on the couch. "I don't think so," said Hepburn gently but firmly. "Now look, I want you to be as comfortable as you like. But look where you've put that jacket. It's right in my sight line, and it's, well, somewhat offensive."
"Yes," I said, "I can see that." As I started to put it back on, she said that wasn't necessary, that there was a chair on the landing and I should just "throw it there"—which I did. Upon re-entering the room, I instinctively adjusted a picture on the wall, a floral painting which was slightly askew.
"Oh, I see," said Miss Hepburn with great emphasis; "you're one of those." She smiled approvingly and added, "Me too. But nobody was as bad as Cole Porter. He used to come to this house, and he'd straighten pictures for five minutes before he'd even sit down. Listen, while you're still up, I'm ready for another drink. How about you?"
Again I made mine the weaker. It was not that I was afraid of falling on my face. It was more that I felt as though I were now walking through an RKO movie starring Katharine Hepburn, and I didn't want to miss a single frame of it.
As the clock on the mantelpiece bonged seven, Miss Hepburn said, "Look, I only invited you for drinks tonight because I wasn't sure how we'd get on, but you're more than welcome to stay for dinner; there's plenty of food. But I can tell by the way you're dressed, and I must say I like that tie, you've got another date. It's probably better if you go anyway because we're starting to talk too much already, and then we won't be fresh for the performance tomorrow. Shall we say eleven?" I explained that I did, in fact, have a dinner date; but for her I would happily break it. "No," she said, "we don't want to run out of things to say to each other." We shook hands goodbye, and I exited the room, grabbing my jacket from the chair.
When I was halfway down the stairs, I heard her shout, "Use the bathroom before you leave!"
Excerpted from KATE REMEMBERED © Copyright 2003 by A. Scott Berg. Reprinted with permission by Berkley Publishing Group. All rights reserved.