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Hepburn has the last word

A book out today reveals new details about her affair with Spencer Tracy.

July 11, 2003|Renee Tawa and Susan King | Times Staff Writers

The image is enduring -- Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, their names twined together as symbols of great romance -- but, in reality their relationship occasionally was more volatile than had been widely known, according to a new biography-memoir, published today by G.P. Putnam's Sons.

In "Kate Remembered," published less than two weeks after Hepburn's death at age 96, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer A. Scott Berg offers a few new insights into the pair's sometimes stormy quarter-century affair that also burned hot on-screen in the nine pictures they made together.

Although the two had an "intense, intimate" relationship, Tracy, a devout Catholic who never divorced his wife, "periodically slipped out [on Hepburn] to fight personal demons, resulting in drinking binges and sexual conquests."

Once, at the Beverly Hills Hotel, while Hepburn was trying to put a drunk Tracy to bed, "he smacked the back of his hand across her face."

Hepburn disclosed a few untold details of her life in "Kate Remembered" (Putnam), although she already had related many of the anecdotes in her 1991 bestselling autobiography, "Me: Stories of My Life."

Since her death, Putnam has been dangling the tantalizing possibility that the cagey Hepburn had authorized a tell-all. Publicity releases have promised a book that is juicy -- revealing "intimate stories" and "untold biographical details" -- and substantive, written by heavyweight biographer Berg.

The hype has raised speculation that a bombshell might be dropped, possibly addressing the long-standing murmurs about her sexuality.

Hepburn's longtime secretary, the late Phyllis Wilbourn, was sometimes identified as her companion in various news stories in past years. But, according to Berg, the two "were like an old married couple.... Although many people over the years have made certain assumptions about Miss Hepburn and her 'companion,' there was nothing even vaguely sexual about their alliance."

However, he does recount an exchange between the two women: " 'You've met Phyllis Wilbourn,' " Hepburn asked Berg, referring to her as " 'My Alice B. Toklas.' 'I wish you wouldn't say that,' Phyllis insisted. 'It makes me sound like an old lesbian, and I'm not.' "

Among the book's most bittersweet passages are the ones that address her relationship with Tracy.

"Whenever Kate spoke to me about Spencer Tracy," Berg wrote, "I couldn't help thinking he was a textbook alcoholic and she a classic enabler. It pained me to think of her stuck in a role of such powerlessness."

Berg paints Tracy as a sad, lonely figure, while Hepburn, he writes, was supportive "in ways that sometimes forced her to be servile, patient to an extreme that often left her patronized.... She was periodically subject to his humiliations, occasionally in front of others." As one example, Berg said, on the set or at home, she "often sat, literally, at his feet."

Berg once suggested to Hepburn that part of the reason her career had flourished and endured was because of her romantic image. "Christ," Hepburn replied. "I'm not romance. That's Marilyn [Monroe]."

In other moving passages, Berg describes Hepburn's last years and chronicles her mental and physical decline, once even broaching the subject of suicide with the actress. He writes that he leaned in close and told her, " 'If you're ready to go now, the best thing you can do is just keep up what you are doing. Don't eat. Starve yourself. Just don't eat.'

"Suddenly, her head snapped in my direction, and her eyes burned into mine. With her right hand she grabbed mine and put it on her left forearm. 'I'm not weak,' she said, shaking her flexed arm for me to feel. It was unbelievably firm. 'I'm not dying,' she said. 'I'm strong.' "

Although it was announced that Hepburn had died of natural causes, Berg said that when he last saw her on May 30, she was suffering from a large, very aggressive and hard tumor on her neck. "Various medical options had been considered; and after factoring in her age and diminished quality of life, it was decided to let nature take its course.... Nurses were administering over-the-counter drugs to quell any pain."

Berg also discusses Hepburn's regret at making a vow back in 1934 that she would never attend the Academy Awards ceremony as a nominee. Hepburn was a four-time Oscar winner.

Berg, who lives in Los Angeles, won a Pulitzer in 1999 for "Lindbergh"; he also wrote the bestselling biographies "Max Perkins," and "Goldwyn."

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