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Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn    by William J. Mann order for
by William J. Mann
Order:  USA  Can
Henry Holt, 2006 (2006)
* *   Reviewed by Rheta Van Winkle

Kate, the new biography of Katharine Hepburn by William J. Mann, is a hefty tome. One might wonder why, when so many books have already been written about the great Hepburn, such a long, detailed study would be necessary or welcome. After all, she was just an actress. These were certainly my thoughts when I began the book, and for quite a few pages into it as well. However, as time passed, and pages turned, I began to realize that I was reading, not only a biography of an actress, but also a book covering nearly the whole twentieth century and its social mores.

Hepburn was born in 1907 and died in 2003. Early on in the book, when Mann is dealing with her childhood and young adulthood, he's also talking about what was expected of girls and women in the early part of the twentieth century. As we all know, things have changed a bit since then. An interesting and little-known fact about Kate is that her father expected her to go to college and become a doctor, rather an unusual ambition of a father for a daughter in those days. She was certainly intelligent enough.

Her father was appalled when she told him that she was going to become an actress. That just wasn't an acceptable career for a person from her background. Her father was a doctor and her mother was a suffragist and birth control advocate, who had a B.A. and M.A. and worked to improve the lives of prostitutes. Kate, herself, had a degree from Bryn Mawr, hardly an education that actresses required in the twenties.

Never having read movie magazines, I still had certain attitudes toward Kate Hepburn based on what were supposedly well-known facts. The news, after all, reported as true what Hepburn claimed about herself during her many reinventions and what others wrote about her. Whenever things were not going well in her career, she became someone new, someone who would be accepted by, and acceptable to, society. Perhaps this book isn't telling the whole truth, either, but Mann certainly did his homework while he was writing it, as his 56 pages of notes would attest.

One of the most interesting and kind of funny parts of the book was the whole Spencer Tracy relationship. I always thought of him as her one true love, that she had a continuing relationship with him for years and years, and the reason she never married him was because he was married and Catholic, and wouldn't get a divorce for those reasons. The real story is much more interesting. The way Hepburn embroidered the story when she was old is wonderful considering how things really were.

Finally, the facts that Katharine Hepburn lived so long and continued to act well into her eighties, are a tribute to her ability to act as well as to become someone new when the times changed. She remains the only actress who has ever earned four academy awards.

What did I learn about the twentieth century that I didn't know before? Maybe not a whole lot, but I came to see the history of the last century from a new perspective. Kate was a feminist, although not quite the same kind of feminist that I am or that young women are today. I don't think that we're as gullible about believing what we're told about movie stars now as people were in the past, but I'm not sure of that, either. At any rate, this is much more than the story of just an actress. It's well worth reading, even if it takes twice as long as you thought it would.

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