“Kate: The Woman who was Hepburn”–the lioness in winter

Mann, William, “Kate: The Woman who was Hepburn”. Henry Holt, 2006.

The Lioness in Winter

Amos Lassen

Katherine Hepburn was a star in every sense of the word; but more than that she was a brilliant actress. Onscreen she played society girls, Spencer Tracy’s sidekick, and the lioness in winter. The greatest role of her career, however, was Kate Hepburn. She was a Connecticut Yankee, outspoken to the nth degree, and she bristled at the glitter of Hollywood. She was authentic and honest, but for all of her authenticity and honesty, who really knew Kate? She was a legend and we wonder if there was a woman behind the legend. Was she vulnerable? Did she triumph above vulnerability? William Mann, the author of “Kate: The Woman who was Hepburn” was an admirer and not just a fan. He seems to have worshipped her as evidenced by this 621 volume. He challenges much of what we have known about Hepburn and he probes her life, looking at stories she left behind and hid, delivering new details gleaned from friends and family and delving into things that only became available after the actress’s death. In doing so he has transformed the star into an icon of monumental standing and discards the talk about a woman who was considered too controversial and too special to fit into any special framework.

This is a not just a biography—it is a story, a beautiful fairytale which is never stiff and never boring. Mann asks the questions that others dared not ask and interwove them with the stories of the old guard of Hollywood. He gives a sober, sincere look at the women who is considered by many to have been the finest American actress.

Hepburn was an enigma—constantly defining and redefining herself. Mann takes a look at what motivated her throughout her life and even though her love life is central to the book, the mystery of Hepburn is what keeps us reading. There have always been stories of Hepburn’s lesbianism and Mann explores this aspect of her life with sensationalizing it. He discusses her intimate relationships and Man maintains that Hepburn’s relationship with Tracy was not sexual but more of a cover up for their bisexual activities. The fact that they never married has always been attributed to the fact that Tracy refused to divorce his wife. Mann maintains that the real reason was his alcoholism and that the lack of sex between the two was due to the fact that Tracy was always so drunk that he was, in effect, impotent.

Hepburn is seen in more depth than ever before and as a woman obsessed with attachment which in turn meant a sacrifice in personal intimacy. She had many lovers, among them Harold Hughes and John Ford but the sexuality fizzled and the personal bond prospered.

This is a stunning book. It is brilliantly researched and beautifully written. It is stylish, compulsive and absorbing. The major revelation I found was of Spencer Tracy’s hiring for hustlers to service his sexual needs. More than anything else, the book shows how attitude has changed toward gays and lesbians. Tracy has lost none of his fame with his posthumous outing, Hepburn remains the grand dame she always was. They were both brilliant at their craft and their private lives did not affect anything they did,

I adore this book—not only for what I learned but for the good it does for the community. Kudos to Mann for writing a literate monument to one of the greatest women to have graced the silver screen, the Broadway stage, and our lives.

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