I am not a devotee of that cult of nostalgia wherein practically anyone who was a Hollywood star in the ’30s receives instant apotheosis. To my mind the most egregious example is probably Katharine Hepburn, to whom everyone now refers as a great actress, incomparable and sacrosanct, with at least one writer going to so far overboard as to call her “our greatest living actress.”

This is twaddle. A personality? Yes. An actress? No. When she was awarded the Oscar for best actress, in 1967 and again in 1968, I figured it must have been for longevity. Surely, I thought, it can’t be for acting! What she has always had is a photogenic bone structure; approximately two facial expressions, one haughty and the other when her eyes fill with tears, her chin quivers, and she smiles tremulously; and a set of vocal mannerisms, sometimes fascinating, sometimes irritating, flaunted in that salt-and-vinegar voice of hers, strident, nasal, implacable as a dental drill.

I do not know what the public television retrospective coming up this month will say about her, but I’ll be it will be adoring, at least in part. This is appropriate for Hepburn as phenomenon. She has survived with stamina, nerve, and obstinacy. (Even now, at the age of seventy-one, she is touring in the new play West Side Waltz.) In her quirky, prickly way, she has exerted a legendary mesmerism. But if on television they start talking about her acting ability, have a care.

Dorothy Parker, then a drama critic, wrote of Miss Hepburn’s performance: “She ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.”

Katharine Hepburn has a long record of flop films. Her stage ventures have been for the most part disastrous. Hepburn’s early phase in films was described by director George Cukor in Time magazine as “subcollegiate idiotic,” a remark he subsequently denied ever having made. Today, most surviving directors and co-workers speak of her in reverential eulogy. Only Jed Harris, never noted for chivalry but one of Broadway’s most brilliant producers, refuses to be intimidated. A few years ago, according to an interview quoted by Charles Higham in his book Kate, his comment was, “I found her totally inept.” Against his better judgement he had starred her on Broadway in 1934 in a short-lived play, The Lake, chiefly memorable for the oft repeated caustic words of Dorothy Parker, then a drama critic, who wrote of Miss Hepburn’s performance: “She ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.” I attended the opening night, and my feeling was that Mrs. Parker was too kind.

In the same interview, Jed Harris also spoke of Hepburn’s “tremendous artificiality,” and added, “I saw her in The Glass Menagerie on television, and she was still babbling with a fixed smile on her face, the way she did in The Lake, and I thought, ‘God! She hasn’t changed at all.’”

I first met her in February 1933, when I was an editor of the Condé Nast magazine Vanity Fair. I arranged for her to come into our office studio to by photographed by Lusha Nelson, a talented young Russian photographer on our staff. Hepburn was extremely haughty with the press, but I suppose she agreed to the sitting because of Vanity Fair’s tremendous prestige. When she arrived, I went to the reception room to meet her. She had small, deep-set eyes, a mouth that seemed to have too many teeth, a prominent jaw, and a face absolutely covered with freckles. I would never have recognized her had it not been for that idiosyncratic voice. I took her to the studio, where Nelson photographed her glowering at the camera, her head low. She had a phobia about her long, rather scrawny neck and always tried to hide it with a scarf, a sweater pinned up around it with a safety pin, ruffles, or simply by lowering her head like a bull about to charge. She still does. When the photograph was published, she wrote a note in which she said she thought she looked like a young Beethoven.

After the sitting, I introduced her to Frank Crowninsheild, Vanity Fair’s urbane editor, who impressed her by mentioning, in some context or other, that he knew Jean Cocteau. She looked at him adoringly, and her plain face seemed to glow. “You actually know Jean Cocteau?” she said breathlessly and proceeded to fire questions at him. She asked me to telephone her husband and tell him she would be delayed. She was married to Ludlow Ogden Smith, a stockbroker, I think from Philadelphia’s Main Line social strata, a union that was seldom, if ever, mentioned in the press at the time.

The year before, she had been in a Broadway play, The Warrior’s Husband, in which she bounded down some steps carrying a stuffed stag on her back and displaying an elegant pair of legs. The next thing anyone knew she was in Hollywood, playing an English society girl opposite John Barrymore in A Bill of Divorcement, the film version of Clemence Dane’s play, in which Katharine Cornell had starred on the stage. The camera worked magic with Hepburn’s face, helped by diffused lighting and special filters to soften her features. Makeup took care of the freckles, and lo! a star was born. She caught the public’s fancy, perhaps because she was different from the conventionally prettified faces of the era, perhaps because many people seemed stunned by the thought that here was a Hollywood star who had gone to college and who came from an upper-middle-class family instead of the wrong side of the railroad tracks.

I’ve read that the TV retrospective includes A Bill of Divorcement. Here’s a quick trot through the years preceding that.

She was born in Hartford, Connecticut, where her father was a wealthy urological surgeon and her mother was a cousin on an ambassador to Britain and an outspoken suffragette. Stagestruck from puberty, Kate graduated from Bryn Mawr at eighteen and joined a Baltimore stock company, in which she played maids and other bit roles. The manager hated her voice and sent her to a drama coach. She returned to take the lead in The Big Pond and was fired on opening night in Great Neck. Her fault was rushing her lines. She landed a job as Hope Williams’s understudy in Philip Barry’s Holiday. She went on once, then quite after marrying Ludlow Smith. (She got a Mexican divorce in 1934, although they remained lifelong friends.)

Returning to the stage in Death Takes a Holiday, she was fired again. She then played a maid in A Month in the Country, a Theatre Guild production starring Alla Nazimova, did more stock in Massachusetts, played Jane Cowl’s daughter in Art and Mrs. Bottle, from which she was fired and then rehired. In 1931, when she was about twenty-two, she landed a role in The Animal Kingdom, with Leslie Howard. He couldn’t stand her, so Gilbert Miller, the producer, fired her. The next year, her pertinacity paid off in The Warrior’s Husband. David Selznick was told about Kate’s performance in the play and contacted his brother Myron, an agent, who sent his partner, Leland Hayward, to talk to her, with the result that she arrived in Hollywood July 4, 1932 to make Divorcement, which was a success.

The next year, she won her first Oscar, for Morning Glory, and went on to star in such sentimental slush as Little Women and The Little Minister, tear-drenched epics calculated to cause audiences to burst into racking sobs at the first quiver of her nostrils. As film critic of Vanity Fair at the time, I panned the films, although I did refer to her “delicately equine face,” and said, “Miss Hepburn, herself, gives what I suppose is really an admirable performance. But she seemed to me a little too obstinately conscious of the camera, a little too stylized in her gestures of charm …. There is no doubt about it, she has a definite and powerful fascination on the screen—but she is also a time the most irritating personality I can think of, and I think she too often lacks the deeper, warmer notes of sincerity.”

Despite bad reviews and box office flops, she never gave up. Nothing fazed her.

No one knew what to make of her. She was frequently described as patrician, aristocratic, thoroughbred, upper-crust. Others, less inclined to grovel, called her rude and arrogant (perhaps because at this time she was uncooperative with the press.) Everyone agreed that she was odd. While I was a film critic, the scuttlebutt in Hollywood was that on the set she was an unmitigated pain in the neck. She fought with her directors, tried to run everything, gave orders to the cameramen, supervised the lighting, interfered with the set designers and the costume designers, tried to rewrite the scripts, and told everyone what to do. Some directors and some actors refused to work with her. (Last December, she told the New York Times that the trouble with acting is you have do it with other people.)

At one time she was declared box office poison because so many of her films had been critical and commercial fiascoes. Her best reviews were received for films like Summertime, a surefire “women’s picture,” and The African Queen, in which she had the sort of role for which she is best fitted, that of a bossy but spunky spinster, although the ending of African Queen was ridiculous with its implication that the prissy missionary and the tough riverboat drunk would live together happily forever after.

Philip Barry wrote The Philadelphia Story for her, tailor-made for her limited talent. Howard Hughes and Kate herself put up the money, and it turned out to be a hit. Hughes wanted it filmed, but most Hollywood studios refused. They wanted the play but not Hepburn. L.B. Mayer of MGM did accept, but then only on the condition that two big male stars appear in it. Several refused, but Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant, not then as important as they later became, accepted. It rescued Kate’s career from the doldrums and also made her a lot of money.

Her affair with Howard Hughes was one of the more astonishing episodes in her life. Earlier, she had had an anything-but-smooth romance with her agent, Leland Hayward. Fidelity to any one woman was not Hayward’s forte, but Kate stuck it out. Their intimacy ended when Hayward married Maragret Sullavan, a far better actress, with a spellbinding voice of her own. Howard Hughes was a different matter. He and Kate were as antipodal a combination as could be imagined. Hughes, the voluptuary whose taste in women ran to Jane Russell, Debra Paget, and Lana Turner, was enchanted by the thin, flat-chested, gangly Hepburn. He taught her to fly a plane, gave her pearls, and followed her around the country in his private plan when she toured a stage version of Jane Eyre.

She met Spencer Tracy in 1941, when they made Woman of the Year, the first of the nine films they made together during their long intimacy. Tracy drank, was separated, had two children, and was a Catholic. Back in the ’30s he was madly in love with Loretta Young, but she, too, was a Catholic, who, so Condé Nast told me, went to mass every day. Tracy wasn’t that devout, but he would never have got a divorce. He and Kate made a popular movie team, and their comedies were generally popular, perhaps because of the contrast of their personalities. The last one was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Tracy died soon after it was finished.

What Katharine Hepburn has always had is perhaps something even rarer than acting talent: a distinctive, tangy magnetism.

I met Hepburn again in London in 1967, when she was about to start filming The Lion in Winter, the story of the twelfth-century Elanor of Aquitaine, one of the most remarkable women in history. (I hated the film. While at Vassar I had written a thesis about Eleanor, and I thought the Hepburn film was a travesty, with a bad script and worse acting.)

Hepburn had rarely given interviews—she still refuses autographs—but now that Tracy was dead, she was more amenable. She was staying at the Connaught. The press agent had invited a group of magazine and newspaper writers. We all assembled, not knowing what to expect but killing time with a gregarious Peter O’Toole, her costar. Hepburn arrived late, wearing a cap, pants, the usual scarf, and no makeup. She appeared to have mellowed considerably. She said she thought she had lived so long that people regarded her as sort of a monument.

There was considerable truth in statement. It explains the aura of veneration that surrounds her today, but it’s no explanation for her previous career. Despite bad reviews and box office flops, she never gave up. Nothing fazed her. She had the extraordinary temerity to play Shakespeare. There was a Broadway As You Like It for which her legs in tights received the best reviews. She even played Cleopatra and did a Shakespearean tour in Australia, where she was received with mixed notices in Sydney and insulting ones in Melbourne. Nevertheless the tour made money.

No matter what part she played, she was always unmistakably herself, a personality one either liked or disliked. Actins is something else. Great acting was Maria Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc or Anna Magnani in The Miracle. Simone Signoret and Michèle Morgan are actresses who can inhabit a character and become that character. So are Vanessa Redgrave, Wendy Hiller, Diana Rigg, or, for that matter, dozens of other British actresses, superb practitioners of their craft.

On our own stage we have had Pauline Lord, Jeanne Eagels—there was an actress!—and Judith Anderson. In our cinema we have produced, mostly, Hollywood “movie star” types, although Joanne Woodward and Jane Fonda certainly qualify as actresses, while in Adam’s Rib, Judy Holliday outclassed and outacted Hepburn.

But what Katharine Hepburn has always had is perhaps something even rarer than acting talent: a distinctive, tangy magnetism abetted by what the camera could make of her face and fueled by remarkable ego and gumption. She has been affected and infuriating, but she certainly has not been boring. In our theatrical history, there has probably never been anyone quite like her.

[Photo Credit: 1942 portrait of Hepburn via Wikimedia Commons]

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