cover image Katharine Hepburn

Katharine Hepburn

Barbara Leaming. Crown Publishing Group, $27.5 (549pp) ISBN 978-0-517-59284-7

Leaming's subjects are screen giants: Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Bette Davis and, now, Katharine Hepburn, the only Hollywood star to win four Oscars for best actress. Her biography is a full, insightful portrait, not only of the actress herself but also of her family and its heritage. The competition here is tough: Hepburn herself has written two idiosyncratic memoirs (The Making of the African Queen and Me: Stories of Myself) and has been the subject of endless articles and at least one other full-length biography (Anne Edwards's A Remarkable Woman, 1986). But Leaming has dug deeply and reconstructed a fascinating era from primary sources. The Hepburn family story resembles a modern Greek tragedy, full of complex characters who were inspired yet doomed. The often harrowing relationships between the actress's grandparents and parents reverberated through her own childhood as well as the devastating effects of five hushed-up suicides within the family. Katharine as a child discovered her brother Tom's body hanging in the attic. Hepburn men were fierce and domineering, the women intellectual and courageous. Katharine's mother was a nationally known birth control crusader when the very idea was considered dangerously radical. Katharine's acting career and her eccentric love life are gently but perceptively dissected here. The honor roll is platinum: the movies include The Philadelphia Story (1940), Woman of the Year (1942), Adam's Rib (1949), The African Queen (1951), Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968) and On Golden Pond (1982); the men: John Ford, Leland Hayward, John Huston, Howard Hughes and, of course, Spencer Tracy. Hepburn's mythic 26-year affair with Tracy, seen under Leaming's undaunted lens, is more sorrowful than romantic. His endless drinking, indecision and attempts to belittle his devoted companion--she received second billing in all their nine films together--make unappetizing fare even though they failed to alienate Hepburn. She ``seemed oblivious to anyone or anything besides Spencer'' as he preempted her career for a time and isolated her from friends and family. Significantly, only one of her Academy Awards was for a film made with Tracy, awarded after his death,Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Leaming has sensitively and selectively captured her subject in good times and bad. Her superb biography measures up to the stature of its inimitable heroine. Photos not seen by PW. Author tour. (Apr.)