The famous yet enigmatic Ms. Hepburn

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Barbara Leaming, author of biographies of Orson Welles, Roman Polanski, Rita Hayworth and Bette Davis, turned her attention in 1995 to another movie icon, Katharine Hepburn, and the result is somewhat strange.

Hailed as "definitive," it recounts the life of a person who, though a popular and admired actress in the public eye for most of her life, stubbornly stands beyond definition.

There's no lack of literature on Hepburn. Her own engaging "Me," containing "stories from my life," was published in 1991, and other works, such as Garson Kanin's "Tracy and Hepburn," have told of her fabled, long love affair with her frequent co-star Spencer Tracy. But Leaming goes deeper, or at least further back, than any past work in trying to fathom this complex and prolific star.

She starts with the suicide of Hepburn's maternal grandfather in 1892, presents a mini-biography of her suffragette (or suffragist, to be more politically correct) mother, Kate, and recounts the suicide of her uncle before she gets around to reporting Hepburn's birth on May 12, 1907. By then, one-fourth of the book is over, and even then, little Kathy (as she was called) stays in the background while Leaming details the marriage of her brave, aggressive mother with the taciturn Dr. Tom Hepburn.

The family tree, and the people who helped shape it, are important to Leaming because they help explain the contradictory nature of her subject. Brassy and shy, wild and domestic, open and secretive, optimistic and fearful, she came from a background that was both haunted by death (her older brother Tom also committed suicide) and emboldened by a fight for personal freedom. Her beloved "mom and dad" gave her a legacy of forceful ambition, expressed in a love of strenuous physical activity, but her family background of tragic deaths also left her with a profound vulnerability that empowered her work as an actress.

Her relationships with the men in her life receive detailed analysis. Married (and divorced) herself, she had flings with the poet H. Phelps Putnam, superagent Leland Hayward and Howard Hughes (famously at the Ambassador East Hotel while she was appearing in a play in Chicago).

But she saved most of her devotion for two contrary (and married) men: Tracy, who cheated on her and often treated her like dirt, and the director John Ford, whom she affectionately called Sean.

The passages dealing with Tracy are quite moving, especially as he sinks into depression and illness and she becomes his constant companion and servant. Hepburn would not make a movie, Leaming says, unless she could be paired with Tracy, and she devotedly nursed him through his last (and their last, together) film, the 1967 "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."

She fed him his pills, fussed over him, slept just outside his room so that she could be instantly at hand should he be in distress, and called an ambulance when he was stricken with a particularly bad spell.

The book sails through much of Hepburn's film and stage work, dwelling mostly on two key movies, "The African Queen" and "Long Day's Journey into Night," in which Hepburn gave some of her best later performances.

As the years advance, Leaming doesn't pay much mind to Hepburn's career. She barely notes the Broadway musical "Coco," merely acknowledges Hepburn's record-breaking fourth Academy Award as Best Actress for "On Golden Pond," and just mentions that Hepburn appeared in New York and on tour in plays by Enid Bagnold and Ernest Thompson, without even recording their titles ("A Matter of Gravity" and "The West Side Waltz," respectively).

She leaves Hepburn at home in Connecticut, an "imperious" old woman who insists on having a blaze in the fireplace, no matter what the weather.

It's a fascinating story of a person who remains, despite all the biographical detail, a mystery.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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