The first major Katharine Hepburn biography independent of her control reveals the smart, complicated, and sophisticated woman behind the image
Onscreen she played society girls, Spencer Tracy's sidekick, lionesses in winter. But the best character Katharine Hepburn ever created was Katharine Hepburn: a Connecticut Yankee, outspoken and elegant, she wore pants whatever the occasion and bristled at Hollywood glitter. So captivating was her image that she never seemed less than authentic. But how well did we know her, really? Was there a woman behind the image who was more human, more driven, and ultimately more triumphant because of her vulnerability?
William J. Mann—a cultural historian and journalist, a sympathetic admirer but no mere fan—has fashioned an intimate, often revisionist, and truly unique close-up that challenges much of what we think we know about the Great Kate. Previous biographies—mostly products of friends and fans—have recycled the stories she hid behind, taking Hollywood myths at face value. Mann goes deeper, delivering new details from friends and family who have not been previously interviewed and drawing on materials only available since Hepburn's death.
With affection, intelligence, and a voluminous knowledge of Hollywood history, Mann shows us how a woman originally considered too special and controversial for fame learned the fine arts of movie stardom and transformed herself into an icon as durable and all-American as the Statue of Liberty.
Mann, a skilled chronicler of gay Hollywood (Wisecracker: The Life and Times of William Haines), says at the onset it doesn't make sense to try to pin down Katharine Hepburn with modern labels of sexual identity. Mann's careful research on the longstanding rumors about Hepburn's lesbianism suggests that the notoriously feisty and tomboyish actress lived her life as a man with little empathy for women's issues. This interpretation also shatters the legend of her romance with Spencer Tracy instead, Mann establishes a pattern of relationships in which the sex-averse Hepburn played emotional caretaker to a series of alcoholic, closeted homosexuals that, in addition to Tracy, included director John Ford. Yet the portrait is constructed so carefully that it never feels shocking. Mann also devotes significant attention to Hepburn's rocky relationships with Hollywood studios and with the press, revealing that the self-styled renegade wasn't above collaborating to shape her public image, and depicts her final decline into alcoholism and depression with sensitivity. Hepburn's siblings and contemporaries (now free to speak after her death) make major corrections to earlier Hepburn biographies, creating a picture of a complex woman rather than the icon she worked hard to become in the public's eye. This will surely be the definitive version of Hepburn's life for decades to come, as it is an outstanding example of painstaking research matched with splendid writing.