by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
July 10, 2003
A TRIBUTE TO THE LATE GREAT KATE
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- How do I love you, Katharine Hepburn? Let me count the ways.
When she died on June 29 at the age of 96, the first thing I thought of was the dress. It's the one - you know - that she wears in the party scene in "Philadelphia Story," that filmy yet structured white gown with a design of silver geometrics that makes her shimmer and glow, a Diana in the moonlight, just about to receive her comeuppance from champagne and Jimmy Stewart and her own thwarted sexual desires.
Last year I encountered that dress on display at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The silver lamé was a little frayed, and on a dummy in a glass case it certainly didn't shimmer and glow, but there was one indisputable fact about it - the wearer couldn't have had more than an 18-inch waist, if that.
An impossible waistline tells a great deal about Hepburn's stamina, determination, athleticism and discipline. Most of us would love to shimmer and glow for an evening - isn't the wedding industry built upon that premise? But very few of us would starve ourselves for a lifetime to do it.
Hepburn has always been my idol. Her independence, her financial savvy, her intelligence, her great and eccentric beauty, the sheer force of her personality, the sense that she was, in many ways, in control of her life and career - all these things gave me courage at a time when I wanted to live my life on my own terms as a writer and the only career path that seemed open to me was marriage and motherhood.
Hepburn was a realist about the opposing forces of marriage and career. "I want to be a star, and I don't want to make my husband my victim," she once said. "And I certainly don't want to make my children my victims."
In the newest issue of The New Yorker, Claudia Roth Pierpont suggests that Hepburn's independence was an act.
"We held her close.. because of the insistent life that hummed through every taut and peremptory inch of her, and that we imaged to be as natural as breathing or winning for someone so easily, imperiously free," Pierpont said. "It was in making us believe in this that she may have been our greatest actress of all."
The "proof" that Hepburn's strength was an act is supposed to reside in her relationship with Spencer Tracy, on and off the screen.
This is how Hepburn herself described the formula for the great Tracy-Hepburn gender-role comedies: "She needles the man, a little like a mosquito. Then he slowly puts out his big paw and slaps the lady down, and the American public likes to see that. In the end, he's always the boss of the situation, but he's challenged by her. That -- in simple terms -- is what we do."
Garson Kanin, who co-wrote some of the best Tracy-Hepburn comedies and was the couple's good friend, understood why the formula worked. In his 1971 book, "Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir," he said: "The audience is drawn to her, yet wants reassurance that she is real-- Nothing more endears a Queen to her subjects than a hiccup in public, a slip on the ice, a fall from a horse, or, best of all, a marriage to a commoner."
Off the screen, with no audience to play for, the queen and the commoner had their difficulties. After Tracy died it was revealed that he was a bully, an alcoholic who would sometimes disappear with a suitcase full of bottles and reappear only when they were empty, and an occasional abuser. He insisted that his name precede Hepburn's in every billing. And throughout their affair, he refused to divorce his wife, essentially keeping Hepburn an adulteress for the 27 years they were together. All in all, their relationship does not make a pretty picture, especially for feminists.
Hepburn did not care. In her 1991 autobiography, "Me: Stories From My Life," she said: "He didn't like this or that. I changed this and that. They might be qualities which I personally valued. It did not matter. I changed them... We did what he liked. We lived a life which he liked. This gave me great pleasure."
It was all worthwhile because, she said, he fascinated her. "He had the most wonderful sense of humor," she wrote. "He was funny. He was Irish to the fingertips. He could laugh and he could create laughter. He had a funny way of looking at things -- at some things, I should say."
The director George Cukor, who often worked with Tracy and Hepburn, and on whose property they lived, said, "What I remember most is that they could bicker and argue and say dreadful things to one another, but always come out of it laughing and hugging like teenagers."
In the end, her feelings toward Tracy were what I came to admire most about Hepburn. She knew his faults, she loved him passionately, and she was intensely loyal to him. She was a free woman, and she freely chose to devote herself to him.
"I really liked him -- deep down -- and I wanted him to be happy," she wrote. "We just passed twenty-seven years together in what was to me absolute bliss. It is called LOVE."
If you want to see that love captured on film, watch the otherwise saccharine "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." Tracy was dying when they made it - he only lived for 15 days after the film wrapped. At the end of the picture, there is a close-up of Hepburn looking at Tracy with tears in her eyes - the sight of it will break your heart.
After Tracy died, Hepburn gave us the ultimate strong and independent woman, Eleanor of Aquitaine, in the great 1968 film "A Lion in Winter." This time she didn't have to bow to convention. Older, fiercer, and unable to use her sexual powers to win back the love of her king, Henry II, played by an equally fierce Peter O'Toole, she sharpened her claws and relied on her intelligence, wit and cunning. She won an Academy Award for her thrilling performance, one of four - an all-time record.
"Katharine Hepburn's popularity has never waned because people know (magically, intuitively) that she stands for something, even if many of them have no clear idea as to what that something is," Kanin said. "They recognize that in a time of dangerous conformity, and the fear of being different, here is one who stands up gallantly to the killing wave."
All movie stars are beautiful. Hepburn gave the world a model of a woman who is fierce, free, forceful, intelligent, unconventional, and yet able to love deeply, if not always wisely. She was never a perfect role model, but then, no one ever is. And I will always love her.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.