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 12:00 AM ET

“It describes her in terms you understand,” Mann says: “ ‘I’m still Jimmy Hepburn in my heart and my soul.’ Kate once told Barbara Walters, ‘Fifty years ago I put on pants and walked the middle road.’ She’s said many times, ‘I’ve lived my life as a man.’ ” Similarly, she told columnist Liz Smith that she had never related to the world as female. “She was telling us, in her own words, ‘I am not what you think I am,’ ” Mann says.

Even now, only the gay press seems to have the vocabulary to discuss Hepburn’s true sexual identity, Mann observes. “The reviews in the U.K. asked why I didn’t just come out and say she was bisexual,” he says. “They didn’t understand why I didn’t use that term. It’s because I don’t think it tells us enough about Katharine Hepburn. You can describe her activity as bisexual, but she certainly would never have thought of herself in those terms.”

She wouldn’t have answered to “lesbian” either: Hepburn’s longtime friend and early mentor, the aristocratic Laura Harding, felt that lesbian did not describe them. “The word lesbian in that era denoted a very mannish, degenerate, man-hating, lower-class woman,” says the author. “A lot of this was also a class issue. Kate and Laura were both upper-class women, and words like lesbian didn’t fit them.”

To understand Spencer Tracy’s sexuality, on the other hand, Mann urges people to consider the type of repressed gay man portrayed in Brokeback Mountain. “In the 1930s homosexuals on the screen were all flipping pansies, and Tracy said, ‘That’s not me! I’m married!’ And he just could never integrate that into his life. He was best friends with George Cukor, but he didn’t want to be like George Cukor. My own gut feeling is that he was homosexual, and probably quite torn up about that, which is why he drank. At the same time, he had sexual relations with women, so he was bisexual in behavior. People use that as an example: ‘See? He’s not all gay!’ ”

Nor was the celebrated Tracy-Hepburn romance a fiction. Like everything else in her life, it was more complicated than that.

“It was devoted and at times passionate,” Mann says. “It started out as a love affair, at least on Kate’s part. I don’t know if he fell in love with her the way she fell in love with him. But I think, very early on, she began to say, ‘This is an illusion. This isn’t the kind of relationship my mother and father had,’ which was her holy grail.”

Like all of Hepburn’s relationships with sexually conflicted men, Mann points out, “it worked well for both of them until the illusion became more apparent. The appeal for these men is that she treated them like men, which boosted their masculine identity, but she didn’t demand sex from them. She played house with men who clearly had their own issues, but she knew [the illusion] was never going to last long. Jimmy needed to come out.”

Hepburn’s great love was not, in fact, Spencer Tracy but Laura Harding. “A friend of hers told me, ‘If Kate had a great love of her life—other than herself—it would have been Laura. And I don’t mean Laura was the great passion of her life. Her great passions were for men—men who, on some level, she wished she could be like. She admired masculinity a great deal. By choosing sexually conflicted lovers,” Mann says, “she may have been subconsciously ‘saving’ them and restoring them to their proper state of manhood.”

Mann’s book notes that Hepburn identified with straight men, but it was only with women “that she could set Jimmy free and be herself; rare was the man who could tolerate such a paradigm.” Later iconic images such as cutting logs and swimming in the icy waters of Long Island Sound off the Hepburn estate at Fenwick, according to Mann, were not necessarily merely images of an empowered woman; they may have been more akin to a man in a woman’s body.

“She did do those things,” Mann says of Hepburn’s hardy antics, “but she wasn’t doing them to ‘empower women.’ Women’s issues were not her thing—women were almost another species. She happened to be living in a woman’s body, but that’s not how she saw herself.”

Still, even the author cautions against applying 21st-century gender definitions too literally at the risk of setting up language paradigms that weren’t available to women of Hepburn’s generation.

“I don’t mean to say that she was actively saying, ‘I am a transgendered person,’ ” Mann notes. “I deliberately didn’t use the word transgender in the book, because it implies something too contemporary. But at the same time, I think it’s the only way to understand her.”

Perhaps if she were growing up today, Hepburn might even have used the term herself. “I think that, had she lived in another time,” Mann says, “she might have been open to that discussion."

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