To the often-told stories of Hepburn’s life, this latest biography promises to add the untold.
Was Katharine Hepburn a lesbian? That’s the question framing this otherwise rather pointless cut-and-paste biography of the star. Early on, Parish (Jet Li, 2002) examines Hepburn’s relationship with her brother Tom. Athletic, but sensitive, he hung himself at 15. Had classmates discovered him having sex with another man? Had he and his sister been incestuous? With little concrete evidence, Parish is left to speculate. He draws inferences as well about Hepburn’s relationships with several women, including Laura Harding, Irene Mayer Selznick and Hepburn’s longtime companion, Phyllis Wilbourn. During Hepburn’s early days in Hollywood, she and Harding shared a house, leaving Hepburn’s bisexual husband, Ludlow Ogden Smith, back East. But again lacking hard evidence, Parish can say only that Hepburn may have been a lesbian. His repeated implication—that because Hepburn consorted with lesbians, she, too, may have been a lesbian—ought to annoy gay and straight readers alike. Keen to Hepburn’s skill at controlling media, Parish also suggests the actress drew attention away from persistent rumors she was a lesbian by greatly enhancing accounts of her relationships with Howard Hughes and Spencer Tracy. Hepburn, Parish says, implied the affairs were sexual when they were really platonic. In particular, he adds, Hepburn publicly transformed her affair with Tracy, a miserable alcoholic who may have been bisexual, into one of the great love stories of our time. Hepburn, Parish writes, “was a master of illusion both on and off the screen.”
Parish regards Hepburn more objectively than most of her other biographers, but he comes up with little that is definitive or new—perhaps because of the dearth and deaths of primary sources to document her (sex) life.