Sunday , February 25 2024
More a collage of quotes than a biography, Katharine Hepburn and her stories still fascinate.

Book Review: I Know Where I’m Going: Katharine Hepburn, A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler

I Know Where I’m Going: Katharine Hepburn, A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler is an entertaining read. The author seems to have made a career compiling celebrity biographies, including ones about Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman and Mae West. The interviews with Hepburn that fill the book were supposed to have been conducted throughout the space of two years. There are also excerpts from other celebrities who talk about Hepburn, including director George Cukor and actors Ginger Rogers and Christopher Reeve. It’s sometimes a bit repetitive, like visiting your aunt who tells you some of the same stories each time you meet. So much of the book is constructed of quotes, with no sense of exactly when the actual conversation took place. But no matter where Chandler got her quotes, the reader can hear Hepburn’s voice, especially in phrases such as, “I’ve had every advantage. Isn’t that ducky?” and “I was never a girl who considered herself clever about men, because I wasn’t.”

The Hepburn family, clockwise, from top: Tom, Dick, Peggy, Marion, Katharine, Bob and mother Kit. Father Tom Sr. must have been behind the camera.

As much as the book jumps around quite a bit and the interviews don’t seem to be anchored in a specific time in Hepburn’s life, it still centers around Kathrine Hepburn, so it can’t help but be interesting. The great actress is a straight-shooter and quite frank about past relationships. She had quite a few affairs, and one marriage before she met and began her most significant relationship with fellow actor Spencer Tracy. Her first marriage and lover was Ludlow “Luddy” Smith, who would have loved her to ditch acting and assume a more traditional, wifely role, but was also understanding when that was clearly never going to be the case. After a quickie Mexican divorce, Hepburn embarked full-time on her career in the theater and in Hollywood.

Hepburn’s genuine love for Spencer Tracy shines through all the quotes, no matter when or where they come from. The Tracy/Hepburn relationship has always been described as having to have been kept secret, as Spencer Tracy was Catholic and devout and didn’t want to break up his family and humiliate his wife. Tracy and his wife had been living apart for years before he met Hepburn — and he had already had quite a few affairs with co-stars. Hepburn never wanted to marry. Their situation may have been unique, but it was in many ways ideal for her.

As much as she talks about “Spence” quite frankly, there is still much that seems murky, such a their living arrangements. They were apparently together the night he died and she heard him fall down in the kitchen, but later in the book she states they never lived together. It doesn’t add up, but it also doesn’t really matter. Hepburn was a very private person and doesn’t owe anyone the details.

Tracy was the love of her life and Hepburn loved being one of the boys. She worshipped her urologist father, had affairs and/or lasting friendships with many of her leading men, including Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. She was also involved with super-agent Leland Hayward and had a long-term affair with mogul Howard Hughes, who she describes as the best lover she ever had. She had an uncanny ability to remain friends with all of her previous loves. And also to receive marriage proposals from them, which she always refused. Hepburn knew that she never wanted to remarry. Once had been more than enough.

The most significant relationship in her life seems to have been with her older brother Tom, who inexplicably took his own life when he and Hepburn were visiting family friends in Greenwich Village, just shy of his 16th birthday. Just two years his junior, she found him. He had strangled himself with a bed sheet.

Hepburn went into a deep depression and had to be pulled from school. Her parents continued her education from home after the incident. But more significantly, her father forbade anyone to mention Tom in the family circle (there were four younger siblings, all two years younger or more than Katharine.) He effectively wanted to erase Tom, erase the event from their lives: “… we were not just told not to talk about Tom, but not to think about him. It was to be as if he’d never been part of our family. …My father had said it, and no one, not even my mother, ever questioned my father’s absolute authority.”

But you can’t erase something like that. Hepburn idolized her older brother and secretly defied her father, refusing to forget him. She took his birthday as her own. The family tried to make sense of what might have led to Tom’s tragic death, but no one seemed to have any answers. Hepburn theorized that he had been experimenting, doing a sort of “prank,” trying to perform a Houdini-like trick that made someone appear as if they were hanging when they weren’t. This is highly unlikely, but it helped her to get on with her life and her family was more than willing to accept the theory that his death was an accident.

Her descriptions of her family throughout I Know Where I’m Going are frequently punctuated with phrases like, “Wasn’t I lucky?” as she describes her parents’ great relationship or some rule or regulation that her father imposed. He was a tough cookie, who didn’t believe in failure and drove his children to excel in all things, especially sports. She mentions casually that Tom wasn’t a natural athlete like herself, and that her father wanted his two eldest children to follow in his doctor’s footsteps. Young Tom was obviously under a lot of pressure, “[Dr. Hepburn] wanted to register Tom for medical school even before he was born.”

Being older than Katharine, and more sensitive, it is easy to see how he might have had feelings of inadequacy and not being able to cope. His death occurred the night before the two were supposed to return home to Connecticut from their Manhattan visit. It is very possible that there was something Tom dreaded back at home, some deadline relating to his father that she had no knowledge of. And after his death, her father wasn’t talking.

She worshipped her father, but she was able to avoid his pressures to influence her career choices and pursued her own interests in acting. But her father never praised her or supported her in what he deemed a silly profession. Their family life seems like something right out of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey Into Night, in which she starred, in 1962.

Hepburn mentions that after her mother died, she was shocked when her father turned right around and married his long-time nurse/assistant. She was very hurt by this, as she had always considered her parents’ marriage perfect. She may have never actually known her father. Many family stories are included in I Know Where I’m Going, but it is odd that in all the interviews culled by the author there is rarely a discussion of any of her other four siblings, as she was so family-oriented. It seems a strange omission.

After reading these disembodied quotes, one gets the sense that Hepburn had arranged her life so that she never really had to completely grow up. She realized early on that she wasn’t suited to marriage and motherhood, and wisely decided to avoid them. She was an independent woman with a strong mind, but Hollywood and her stage career also functioned in a parental capacity for her, by shielding her from the day-to-day slog of what it means to be a grown-up in the world.

Her long-time friend George Cukor not only served as her favorite director on many of her movies throughout her long career (A Bill of Divorcement [1932], Little Women [1933], Sylvia Scarlett [1936], Holiday [1938], The Philadelphia Story [1940], Keeper of the Flame [1942], Adam’s Rib [1949], Pat and Mike [1952], Love Among the Ruins [1975]), but also rented her a cottage on his property, where she lived for many years. She even described him as someone she might have liked to have as a father. “If I could have 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.”

She was able to indulge in things that interested her — sports, men, going to the theater, ice cream, avoiding fans and signing autographs, and making brownies. She could, for the most part, do exactly as she wanted, like an indulged child. As she says herself, she was going to live life for both her and her brother Tom. “I decided I had to live my life for two. … I decided I would share my life with my brother. The real date of his death would not be until the date I died.”

As important as Tom was to Hepburn, and as much as Chandler uses his story to bookend I Know Where I’m Going, Hepburn does seem to have moved beyond the tragedy, possibly the most significant event in her life. She always embraced life full-tilt and her film roles also reflect a woman who is full of conviction, whether the audience would agree with her convictions or not. I Know Where I’m Going may be less a biography and more a Hepburn collage, but its subject still fascinates. And happily, her films are available, to enjoy and enrich our understanding of this unique woman.

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