Katharine Hepburn: Leading man

How do we know Kate Hepburn was one of the greatest actors ever? Because inside her soul, she was a boy named Jimmy. Biographer Bill Mann explains.

BY Michael Rowe

November 20 2006 1:00 AM ET

We all know Katharine Hepburn was the woman who wore the pants. But was her iconic embodiment of the independent-spirited American woman really a carefully cultivated image that masked something else?

“I would consider ‘transgender’ a better way to understand Katharine Hepburn than anything else,” says out novelist and Hollywood historian William J. Mann. His latest biography, Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn (Henry Holt and Co., $30), explores with unprecedented frankness the star’s fluid sexuality and gender identification. Mann sheds new light on Hepburn’s complex relationships with gay or closeted bisexual men, including her legendary love, Spencer Tracy—who, Mann reveals, was at least bisexual in terms of his sexual attractions and interactions.

When Kate was excerpted in the October issue of Vanity Fair, revealing that Tracy had enjoyed the paid favors of a male gas station attendant and that Hepburn’s love life included several female lovers, a flurry of headlines screamed that Tracy and Hepburn were bisexual.

That label, according to Mann, isn’t a useful prism through which to understand either star, but it especially short-changes Hepburn. “People ask, ‘Was she bisexual? Was she lesbian?’ ” Mann says. “Those conversations aren’t helpful. The best way to understand her is to look at her relationship with her own gender and the way she never felt comfortable as a woman.”

Hepburn herself said as much during her lifetime. “She told [talk-show host] Dick Cavett, ‘I am a missing link’ between the genders,” Mann says. “She knew somehow that she wasn’t a woman the way a woman ought to be. She had a woman’s body but felt in her heart and soul that she was a man. Everyone says, ‘Oh, we already know that—she was a liberated woman who rebelled against traditional roles for women!’ But I think it went deeper.”

Mann explains: “You need to go back to her childhood and the invention of her alter ego, Jimmy [whom Hepburn created at age 10 when she decided she really was a boy]. Boys are what mattered to Dr. Hepburn,” Mann says of the star’s adored and much mythologized father. This was the standard against which Kate had to compete. “Her own gender issues—which I believe were congenital and didn’t evolve out of her rivalry with her brother—were exacerbated by this. They got stronger. She couldn’t understand why Daddy paid so much attention to Tommy and coached him in boat races and somersaults and tree climbing and not her.”

According to Mann, Why not me? I’m a boy too! was young Kate’s inner refrain. “It was as though she were saying, ‘OK, I can understand if you don’t want to let girls do that, but I’m not a girl.’ That’s why she shaved her head and called herself Jimmy.

“I remember when the light came on in my head,” Mann says of the realization that there was more to Hepburn than anyone had guessed. “Everything fell into place like dominoes. In some ways, after Tommy died, Kate became [her father’s] favorite. She grew up to be her father’s kind of man rather than her mother’s kind of woman.”

During the exhaustive research for Kate, the biographer read a copy of Hepburn’s unproduced autobiographical screenplay, written in 1987, titled Me and Phyllis. The screenplay has never been available to the public, and Mann didn’t quote it because Hepburn’s estate owns the rights.

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