Kate selectively remembered: out writer A. Scott Berg reverts to "don't ask, don't tell" in his Hepburn biography.
"I kept wondering why this virtual stranger, whose reclusiveness among movie stars was second only to Garbo's, had made herself so available to me," A. Scott Berg rapturously muses early on in Kate Remembered. And as this memoir of his 20-year friendship with the acting icon gushes on, with Berg claiming that she "established the greatest acting career of the 20th century, perhaps ever," its mixture of cautious disclosure and obsequious deference will strike a familiar chord with any gay man who has ever been besotted by a movie goddess.
But A. Scott Berg isn't just any gay man. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer from whom serious readers were expecting something more than Will & Grace meets Harold and Maude--a tasteful Hollywood hagiography, replete with remembrances of Parcheesi games past and such culinary directives as "Don't forget to slice the grapes. Vertically, not horizontally."
Some readers may field that exciting but many others will wonder why a book that does nothing to question the public persona Hepburn carefully constructed over the years was rushed to the publishers with such unseemly haste. To paraphrase Spencer Tracy's most famous line, there's not a lot of meat on it, and what's there is undercooked.
"Miss Hepburn often used oar time together to reflect," Berg claims in his author's note, "an exercise which I don't think she indulged in with anybody else." To quote the immortal Bugs Bunny, "Oh, Prunella!" Does he really believe that Hepburn's claim that she fell for Spencer Tracy "because for the first time I truly learned it was more important to love than to be loved," is anything more than warmed-over Faith Baldwin?
The Hepburn of these pages--familiar from all the TV interviews she gave in later years--would have buttonholed the grocery delivery boy to ask, "What do you think was Spencer's problem?" Berg's answer--Tracy was the alcoholic; Hepburn, the enabler--may have taken guts to tell Hepburn but seems perfectly obvious to the rest of us.
Having served up a main course of Tracy, Kate Remembered gives us some decorous dish on Hepburn's dalliances with Howard Hughes, John Ford, and George Stevens. But when it comes to matters gay and lesbian--and there are plenty where Katharine Hepburn is concerned--Berg won't ask, and Hepburn won't tell, except between the lines.
Bringing the subject up tire better to dismiss it, Berg recalls Hepburn's calling her companion Phyllis Wilbourn "my Alice B. Toklas"--immediately followed by Phyllis's complaining, "It makes me sound like an old lesbian, and I'm not."
But what of a young woman named Laura Harding, with whom Hepburn shared a home in Hollywood early in her career? Again Berg opens a door only to shut it with "[Hepburn] continued to live quietly in the hills with Laura Harding (fueling speculation of a lesbian relationship)." And nothing fuels speculation faster than the word quietly.
Hepburn's androgyny predates "all this, of course. Berg writes: "She told me ... how, as a child, she developed not only into a superb all-around athlete but also a tomboy--calling herself 'Jimmy.'" That might have shed light on Hepburn's cross-dressing turn in George Cukor's cult classic Sylvia Scarlett. But Berg doesn't ask.
Likewise glossed over is the suicide of her older brother, Tom. "I had heard that maybe a girl had rejected him--who knows, maybe a boy. Whatever" it as he simply could not cope, Hepburn declares. And that's the end of it.
Hepburn's friendship with the gay great George Cukor is of course featured in the text. But while the book is dedicated to Berg's significant other, Kevin McCormick, he appears only in a scene in which Hepburn is not present. This may help to explain why the actress sought to pair Berg up with her friend Cynthia McFadden.
It also brings to mind an anecdote in Arthur Laurents's invaluable Original Story By. Laurents and Hepburn both attended a party at George Cukor's. Hepburn was miffed at Laurents on business grounds--he'd declined to sell a script to one of her friends--but she chose to diss his sexually. Rather than introduce Laurents to her date, she pretended not to remember him: "I always forget those little boys' names," she sniffed.
Hepburn also felt antipathy to a "little buy" who lived next door to her in New York--Stephen Sondheim. Berg relates that the composer aroused the goddess's ire when he played the piano too loudly and too late--"entertaining gentlemen callers."
But the girls are the real issue with Hepburn. Irene Mayer Selznick, a Hepburn friend, tells Berg she once found a young woman she did not know staying at Hepburn's town house. She saw "an exchange between the two of them that suggested a level of intimacy she had never allowed herself to believe. 'Now everything makes sense,' Irene said to me. 'Dorothy Arzner, Nancy Hamilton--all those women. Laura Harding. Now it all makes sense. A double-gater [bisexual]. I never believed that relationship with Spence was about sex.'"
True to form, Berg objects. But Selznick won't have it: "'You're too young to have known all those other women, those single women, I knew them. I knew who they were.'"
And so "What do you think was Kate's problem?" is not only unanswered--it isn't even asked. One can only hope there's someone out there who remembers Kate a bit better and has a manuscript at the ready.
Ehrenstein is the author of Open Secret: Gay Hollywood, 1928-2000.