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Book review: 'I Know Where I'm Going: Katharine Hepburn, A Personal Biography' by Charlotte Chandler

The notoriously private actress reveals much about herself in the new biography.

June 24, 2010|By Kevin Thomas, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Over a long career, biographer Charlotte Chandler has persuaded Groucho Marx, Billy Wilder, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Ingrid Bergman, Mae West, Federico Fellini and Alfred Hitchcock to speak revealingly and at length about themselves for her tape recorder. Chandler also befriended such illustrious directors as Fritz Lang, Michelangelo Antonioni and George Cukor.

It was through Cukor that Chandler was able to pull off her greatest coup: His endorsement made it possible for her to win the trust of the notoriously private Katharine Hepburn, who died in 2003 at 96. Chandler spent many years, starting in the 1970s, getting Hepburn to talk. Chandler's "I Know Where I'm Going: Katharine Hepburn, A Personal Biography" is a virtual self-portrait of one of Hollywood's greatest stars and its sole four-time lead actress Oscar winner. Typically, Chandler gets her interviewees to provide her with more substance than they gave to their own memoirs, and she also gathers insights into Hepburn from Cukor, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Cary Grant, James Stewart, Christopher Reeve, Laurence Olivier and Ginger Rogers, among others.

To be sure, Hepburn holds her off-screen relationship with Spencer Tracy in privacy yet talks lovingly and at length about him, their meeting and his increasing infirmities while shooting "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" — their 10th and final film together, completed shortly before his death. On the other hand, she is amazingly uninhibited in her passionate description of her romance with Howard Hughes, a terrific lover without equal in her experience. He proposed marriage to her repeatedly, and this account is highlighted by such exploits as her diving off the wing of his seaplane in the nude.

Repeatedly, Hepburn owns up to her self-centeredness and fierce independence, a shrewd strategy as one who recognizes she could be caring or dismissive of others at will. (Chandler makes it clear that while many adored Hepburn, she was a strong yet vulnerable woman who did incur the dislike of some.) Hepburn perceives a shared tendency toward eccentricity with Hughes that accelerated tragically in him after his near-fatal 1946 plane crash, which she says left him in pain for the rest of his life and which she believes worsened his deafness.

Anyone who was as smart and controlling of her career, and as dedicated to it as Hepburn was, was not about to give away all her secrets. But it says much about Chandler's gift in gaining Hepburn's confidence that she speaks as freely as she does. So many books have been written about Hepburn, including her own "Me: Stories of My Life," that the outlines of her life and her career are familiar. It has been said repeatedly that the turning point of her life occurred when, nearing the age of 14, she discovered the body of her beloved older brother Tom, dead by hanging.

Recalling the tragic incident in great detail, she admits that she never had been able to regard his death as suicide and wanted to believe he died attempting a trick that their father had told them about involving a man who could fake hanging. The opening chapter of "I Know Where I'm Going" is devoted to this terrible incident and begins with Hepburn's explanation of the impact of the loss of her brother's life upon her: "'Onliness' is my word for what I call my philosophy of life. It's a word I made up for myself when my teen-aged brother hanged himself. What I meant by it was that I wanted to be independent, to separate myself from all others so I would never feel the pain I felt when Tom left me."

Hepburn was born in 1907 to a prominent Hartford, Conn., urologist and his wife, a suffragette who also campaigned for birth control. Hepburn confirms what others have claimed — that inside their home her mother always deferred to her formidable husband, a man cherished by Hepburn. She unceasingly tried to win his approval in a profession he did not approve of. Dr. Hepburn apparently wanted to inspire self-confidence and outspokenness in his children but also held them to exceedingly high standards. He was a devoted husband in a passionate marriage yet destroyed all materials pertaining to his wife's activism following her death, an act that disturbed and puzzled his famous daughter.

Hepburn is forthright about early failures in the theater and the misfired movies scattered throughout a fundamentally illustrious and long-lasting career on stage, screen and television for which she is sincerely grateful. Hepburn denies having had a long-rumored affair with socialite heiress Laura Harding and describes her relationship with director John Ford as "a sort of affair of the mind." Indeed, "I Know Where I'm Going" shows Hepburn to be as captivating on the page as on the screen.

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