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KATE by William J. Mann Kirkus Star


The Woman Who Was Hepburn

by William J. Mann

Pub Date: Oct. 3rd, 2006
ISBN: 0-8050-7625-5
Publisher: Henry Holt

Film biographer/historian Mann (Edge of Midnight, 2005, etc.) considers the vibrant life of a 20th-century icon with encyclopedic scrutiny and a pinch of whimsy.

While the author states that he considers himself a fascinated bystander rather than a Hepburn fan, this engaging, comprehensive biography certainly gives the impression that he is quite enamored of the celebrated actress (1907–2003) who was immortalized in Mary of Scotland, Bringing Up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, The African Queen and dozens of other cinematic classics. Mann never interviewed Hepburn herself, but canvassed a bevy of directors, close friends and intimate acquaintances for their perspectives, in addition to utilizing his subject’s newly available private documents. “I don’t want to rehash the familiar,” writes the author, who throws chronological logic to the wind and opts for a more textured approach. In his depiction, the fearless, eccentric actress eschewed classic Hollywood movie-star norms and tacitly challenged social, sexual and gender standards. An Oscar-winner at 26 (for Morning Glory), Hepburn nonetheless had an image problem; Mann’s examination reveals a proud, private woman who throughout the early 1930s dared to continuously don trousers while never managing to completely embody the mass media’s manufactured image of her. The author also takes risks, acknowledging the frequent speculations about Hepburn’s lesbianism and the sexual ambiguity of her wide yet closely knit inner circle of friends. Mann, who’s written several books about gay Hollywood (Behind the Screen, 2001, etc.), avoids labeling the actress and does justice to her odd marriage to Ludlow Ogden Smith. Mann recounts the untold stories of Hepburn’s life: her intrepid ascent from persnickety tomboy in Hartford, Conn., to performance royalty; her drinking; her loyalty to friends like lifelong confidante (and rumored lover) Laura Harding, among many others; and the ardent, transcendent affection she held for Spencer Tracy. Tapping into a wellspring of sources, the author has managed to reanimate with great skill and dexterity this shrewd, sophisticated woman.

A sprawling salute to an awe-inspiring, world-class actor.