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Kate the Great: Inside and Out

Two New Semi-biographies of Katharine Hepburn

Reviewed by M.E. Ladd

Recently I purchased two new novelty books on Katharine Hepburn: At Home With Kate (Growing Up in Katharine Hepburn's Household) by Eileen Considine-Meara and How to Hepburn (Lessons on Living from Kate the Great) by Karen Karbo.

At Home with Kate is a slim book of photos and anecdotal vignettes from the daughter of Hepburn’s housekeeper Norah. Norah kept order for decades at Hepburn’s 49th Street townhouse in Manhattan.

Mostly, this is book for fans alone. The stories don’t go very deeply into the character of Katharine Hepburn. However, they do provide nice context for Hepburn with some non-essential details about her living habits.

But at its worst, Considine-Meara and family seem a bit too enamored for comfort with Hepburn, almost to the point of having seemed to enable the star by admiring her rudeness and self-absorption with a common denial probably necessary in the celebrity helper-bee profession.

On the bright side, Hepburn isn’t a celebrity monster by any stretch and these incidents of sycophancy are annoying but hardly tragic. As they go, Hepburn’s not that bad and has spells of significant generosity.

But one thing is clear in this book: when you work for a star, your life is their life period.

At Home with Kate covers Hepburn’s day-to-day routines, her eating habits, her notes to friends, floor plans to her townhouse and photos of her living environment. One photo shows the idiosyncratic stubbornness of the Hepburn family: Katharine Hepburn and her brother Dick trying to co-habit ate their inherited house in Connecticut, both maintaining one separate half of the kitchen, one half obsessively clean yet full with Kate’s knickknacks and the other half a disaster of Dick’s cooking messes. God bless brother Dick for continuing to be a thorn in Kate’s side, I say.

You can also find recipes for Kate’s brownies and those famous lace cookies.

The book also includes tidbits about our favorite Hepburn entourage members: Spencer Tracy, Laura Harding, and Kate’s first husband Luddy (who seems more feisty in this book than I ever thought he was). We also see her friends and neighbors Irene Selznick and Stephen Sondheim, her “relatives” Katharine Houghton and Susie Tracy, business cohorts Jane Fonda and Barbara Walters, her own idol Martina Navratilova (Kate loved tennis), and a mash-up of celebrities who loved her, Michael Jackson, Robert Wagner, Lauren Bacall (not much here; read Hepburn’s African Queen memoir for more on Bacall), Warren Beatty, Garson Kanin (I loved his book on Hepburn and Tracy and here we learn the story of their reconciliation long after it was published), and Sydney Poitier (who loved those lace cookies).

The book has some unusual stories as well, for instance about how neighbor Bob Dylan tried to get Hepburn to come to his daughter’s birthday party (and failed), about a very unusual relationship with reporter Cynthia McFadden and about her relationship with Scott Berg (who wrote the controversial memoir Kate Remembered).

There’s not much meat in this book but it oddly creates a more human portrait of Hepburn with its mundane details, definitely a quick read and something to be combined with other biographies for the bigger picture. The book also lovingly describes Hepburn’s final days.

How to Hepburn by Karen Karbo is altogether different and deals solely with the Katharine Hepburn image. My big issue with this book is that it poses as a self-help book, even loitering among the other self-help books at the bookstore. That’s actually how I found it. But the book is sorely lacking in any substantial life tips or a Hepburnesque life plan. It’s entirely Hepburn centric, but more a study of her character with the support of particularly chosen biographical information.

The book is basically a Gen X-style irreverent discussion of Hepburn’s more mythical characteristics and impact or culture and feminism, characteristics including: brashness, aversion to femininity, braveness in wearing pants, complicated relationship to her sex role and sex identity, her strange habits, her inability to act subservient to anyone but Spencer Tracy-types, and her father issues,

Karbo does bring to surface other qualities not often attributed to Hepburn: her dislike of thinking about anything too deeply, her discretion in private affairs, her dislike of antiheroes and a discussion on whether or not her refusal to wallow in misfortune or self-reflect might have been a defense-mechanism of fierce denial.

I did tend to view Karbo's critique of relations between men and women as a tad black and white, strangely Manhattanish. Her assertions about life today are too shallow and stereotypical (as a woman you either choose a life in the "rat race" or marriage) and bold statistics are claimed unsupported by any data. Example: “When women marry, their housework goes up 33%”. The author’s discomfort with modern malaise, the antics of spoiled celebutards and the lack of community we may find today, although hinting at potential realities, come across as more Pleasantville philosophy than any solid inspection of modern times. Her lessons from Hepburn's life don't seem a probable salve to modern issues but rather just blind nostalgia.

And her many lists, although light and clever, offered very little lifestyle guidance of any substance:

  • A list of rules Hepburn did not obey
  • Eccentricities she cultivated
  • A “primer on how to be a class act”
  • Ideas on why we love whom we love (to explain why Hepburn cared so much for Tracy)
  • The laws of domesticity
  • A test for the ability of denial to work for you
  • Fearless activities
  • Demands of performing Shakespeare (I think this list is just in here to show off)
  • A list of how Hepburn found courage
  • Tips for getting your Hepburn on

At the end of the day, the book was not quite social-celebrity commentary, not quite a self-help guide, not quite enough fun. It was like an essay stretched way too far. This book was like a sociology theory without any real meat or notes.

It does consolidate a short list of terms you can use to describe Katharine Hepburn’s mythical image and impact on culture. But hey, a web page should be able to give you that.

Other Book Reviews on Ape Culture

What do you think are Hepburn's most kick-ass qualities?


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