Biography, Book Review

Book Review: Me, Stories of My Life, by Katharine Hepburn

If you like nice, tidy narratives that follow a chronological time frame, you’ll hate Me: Stories of My Life by Katharine Hepburn. The stories are indeed stories, sort of like the literary equivalent of an Impressionist painting. Snippets, half sentences and impressions, with frequent digressions, mark the narrative in Ms. Hepburn’s unique voice and style.

I’m not a huge fan of Katharine Hepburn’s movies; most of the time, I think she overacts, and I don’t like the characters that she portrays. But for some reason I have always admired her, and I think I know why now after reading Me.  In an age in which women were brought up to be submissive, subservient and second class,  Katharine Hepburn’s unconventional upbringing turned her into a true “original” as the Victorians would say.  Katharine is Katharine, and there will be no one else like her.  I suppose you could say that about many other people in this world, but she truly is an original.

The stories follow her upbringing in comfort and privilege as the eldest daughter of a well-to-do urologist and his suffragette, reformist wife. The Hepburns were free thinkers, advocating birth control, women’s rights to vote and a host of other ideas well before their time.

Katharine’s childhood is fascinating. At one point, she cut her hair short and pretended to be a boy. All her life she was sporty, athletic. She is not a lesbian but was frequently mistaken in Hollywood for one because of these attributes. She wasn’t transgender either, but she had a certain odd dichotomy about her sexuality that also made her unique among all movie stars.

The stories of her break into acting are amazing, not for their depth, but for the sheer luck she carried with her.  Who knows if it is because she’s seeing her life through the lens of success? But she always did seem to catch her big break at just the right moment. Having a cushion of money and a strong, large and loyal family behind her also kept her grounded, and gave her the freedom to say “No” to movie and theater projects that didn’t tempt her or that she thought would be bad for her career.

I felt sorry for her first husband, Luddy. He seemed like an absolutely sweet fellow caught up in the tornado that was Katharine Hepburn. Later on though, I had to laugh; he was a fixture in her parents’ household, even after she divorced him. Spencer Tracy felt uncomfortable in her parents’ home, but not Luddy!

The first and probably most peculiar among the stories in this book of her life is the death of her older brother, Tom.  Katharine and Tom were inseparable as children.  At one point as teens, they go to stay with their aunt, and Katharine finds her brother hanged in the middle of the night in his attic bedroom. She’s in shock and deep grief, but her parents are “pick yourself up by the bootstraps” kinds of people, so you get the feeling that she has a lot of suppressed grief lying around in her subconscious. Tom’s death is never clear; was it suicide? He wasn’t suicidal and left no note.  Her family thought he was playing around with hanging, a trick their father had bragged about, claiming he and his friends had discovered a way to tie a noose that made it look like you were hung but you weren’t.  If that’s the case, her father is very nonchalant; his stories encouraged the boy. Other reasons? None given. This is in the 1910s, don’t forget, so who knows?  It’s just a weird, sad story that is never explained, but frankly, Hepburn never explained it to herself satisfactorily, so it’s left as a tragic unsolved mystery in her life.

The second big question mark is her relationship with Spencer Tracy.  You can tell by her stories that she loved him deeply, and that his death in 1967 affected her profoundly.  But how did they fall in love? She can’t say.  Why did she feel such utter devotion to him? She can’t say.  Why didn’t she insist he divorce his wife and marry her? She should have, but again she can’t say. Reading the chapters about Tracy were maddening in what they left unsaid…enough to paint a vivid portrait of a fine, troubled actor, and of their deep love for one another, but not enough to explain a lot of things.

Maybe it’s best that way. After all, life is full of unexplained things. People come and go, people die, luck opens doors for us and ill luck closes them. Hepburn never formally studied acting; she just sort of fell into it.  She claims to love to eat, but had a beautiful figure her whole life. She moans about her hair, but I’ve never seen her with anything but perfectly coiffed hair.  She found great scripts, made a pile of money, had a very interesting life, and lived it to the fullest. No, I don’t agree with her morals sometimes, and I don’t like her politics, but she remains an interesting figure in American arts.

I liked this book and gave it 4 out of 5 stars.

Me: Stories of My Life was purchased at a library book sale as a used book. New copies are on Amazon.

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