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Monday, 3 March 2014

Book Review: Kate: The Woman Who Was Katharine Hepburn by William J. Mann

Published three years after Hepburn's death, this lengthy biography attempts to debunk some of the myths that have sprung up about this legendary actress without diminishing her achievements and drive. It's a biography that focuses as much as possible on the woman, not the actress. As Mann notes, the films are used as illustrations of Hepburn's own myth-making and how they feed into the overall picture of her. This is really an in-depth biography that can't be summarised easily. However, one thing that is worth noting is the relish with which Mann approaches his subject. His ability to decode and hypothesise where necessary is balanced by the (sometimes anonymous) sources he's managed to consult, creating a rounded picture of Hepburn. He points out that this kind of book wouldn't have been published while she was still alive, an indication of how thorough it is, looking into places Hepburn would likely have been uncomfortable with.

The book doesn't run completely chronologically, usually taking a pivot moment at the beginning of a chapter then stepping back and seeing what led up to it. In this way, it manages to signal what a chapter will cover and what you can expect from it. For example, chapter twenty four starts with some visuals and dialogue from The African Queen, thus setting the scene for her comeback from Communist rumours. It's a good way of grounding the reader because, although there are numerous indications of where you are in the timeline, it's still easy to get lost. That's partly down to the detail amassed in the book, and that can never be a bad thing.

A lot of time throughout is spent analysing Hepburn's various relationships, especially with Spencer Tracy, and trying to pinpoint how much sexual contact this entailed. This also applies to the relationships Hepburn had with her female friends and makes for some surprising conclusions. When he doesn't have concrete information, Mann says so, but his speculations always hold the ring of truth about them, gained from his intimate research into Hepburn's life.

For me, reading slowly at the beginning then devouring the book in large chunks, one of the most painful times for Hepburn was perhaps the suicide of her older brother in their teens, when she found his body the next morning. Reading through the rest of the book, and seeing her relationships with alcoholics and the way she dedicated herself to getting Tracy sober, Tom was the person I kept returning to in my mind, even though he was barely mentioned again due to the stoic nature of the Hepburn family. More than seventy years later, following the death of their sister, Hepburn surprised another of her brothers by saying she wanted her ashes buried next to Tom's. And they were. I have no idea why that touched me so much but it brought me to tears.

Ultimately, this biography is detailed and well-constructed. Where necessary, Mann supplies brief biographies of the people involved in Hepburn's life. He debunks many of the myths that made her America's sweetheart whilst still imparting the image of a formidable woman with talent and, most of all, the will to succeed.

*This book was read as part of the 'Chunkster Challenge 2014' - information can be found here.

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