Katharine the Great (1907-1950)
A lifetime of secrets revealed
By Darwin Porter
Blood Moon Productions, Ltd., Feb. 2004
Trade paperback, ISBN 0-9748118-0-7, 569 pages, 58 photos, $16.95
In the spring of 1958 I was driving north with some college buddies from New Haven to Hartford, Connecticut. We caught up with a classic 1948 Lincoln Continental bearing the custom license plate KATE. It had to be someone special and we were not disappointed. As we cruised past we immediately recognized the unmistakable patrician profile of Katharine Hepburn, driving herself, alone in the camel-colored convertible.
Her mouth held the hint of a smile; an aura of superiority and mystery surrounded her. We tried not to stare. (OK, we were gawking.) She wore that mantle of mystery all her life, thanks to her skill in keeping the press at bay, until her passing in 2003 at age 96.
Author Darwin Porter, following his remarkable 2003 book on the private life of Humphrey Bogart, has surpassed himself with this incredibly detailed biography of one of the 20th century’s premier stage and movie stars. “Write anything about me you like,” she told Porter, “just don’t ever tell the truth.”
Sorry, Kate. Here comes the truth.
Even as a child Katharine Hepburn was a self-centered, headstrong, tomboy. After graduating from Bryn Mawr she launched her acting career on the East Coast, just as Humphrey Bogart did, with the help of friends in the theater business. Her agent (and later, lover) Leland Hayward, encouraged her to head to Hollywood, where the big money was. The studios didn’t know what to make of her, demanding (and receiving!) ten times what first-time movie actresses were being paid. When her train pulled into Los Angeles’ Union Station in July 1932, she had a $6,000 RKO one-picture contract under her arm and an attitude that preceded her like a snowplow. She never looked back. Although Katharine the Great catalogs her work on 25 films up until 1950, including how close she came to landing the role of Scarlett O’Hara (opposite Errol Flynn?) in Gone With the Wind, the author focuses on what happened behind the movie camera – on the set and off. There is not room here to discuss her hapless husband or list the 30-year diary of Hepburn’s intimacies, from Jimmy Stewart, Howard Hughes and Spencer Tracy to Greta Garbo, Claudette Colbert and Judy Garland, meticulously chronicled by Porter. The key question is how did he do it? Half a century and more after the fact?
The answer lies in the unlikely confluence of three facts: A) Porter’s mother began a scrapbook on Hepburn back in the 1920s, and Porter kept it up; B) Katharine couldn’t keep from gossiping about herself to close friends who later recalled all too well the private life she revealed, and C) Porter became an entertainment journalist, interviewing literally hundreds of people over a period of decades who knew and worked with Hepburn during her long career. Every source is annotated in a 21-page afterword, name by name.
He also met Miss Hepburn through his employer Tennessee Williams and had the opportunity to interview her.
If you are curious about the four-time Oscar winner once dubbed “Katharine of Arrogance,” and would like to peek under her covers and into her closets, this thorough volume will more than satisfy your curiosity. Be warned, Porter’s research is not for prudes. If this book were a movie it would carry an R rating, for grownups only.
Stay tuned. Darwin Porter isn’t done yet; he promises more on Katharine Hepburn in Volume II.