Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How To Hepburn

   Katharine Hepburn once said, "Stone-cold sober, I find myself absolutely fascinating." How can you not love someone that can say that, and best of all believe it, without a bit of irony or tongue-in-cheekiness?
   I have adored Katharine Hepburn since I first watched "The African Queen" as a child. Her mannerisms, her physicality, her grace yet toughness, her expressions that told the story better than dialogue ever could sucked me in and made me a lifelong fan. While I haven't seen all her movies (some 46 including big screen and television), the ones I have seen are among my all-time favorites: "Desk Set," "Adam's Rib," "Rooster Cogburn," "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner," and "On Golden Pond." What actress but Katharine Hepburn could shine as strong and bold in those movies next to powerhouse actors like Spencer Tracy, John Wayne, and Henry Fonda? None that I can think of.
   I've devoured her "Me: Stories Of My Life" autobiography; "Katherine Hepburn," a pictorial history of her movie career by Jessica Hodge; and a sampling of other biographies written by her friends and acquaintances. With each glimpse into her life, I found her more and more absolutely fascinating. Then when I heard about "How To Hepburn -- Lessons on Living from Kate the Great" by Karen Karbo, I knew I had to read it and know even more.
   Ms. Karbo begins the book with a quote from Dick Cavett, spoken to Hepburn when he had the rare opportunity to interview her in 1973:

"I have a feeling that millions of people think the following about you: she knows how she wants to live her life, she's succeeded at it, it's all worked out, she got what she wanted. And they feel you probably have some guiding principles, some secret, that, if only they knew them, they could be as successful and as content as you seem to be."

Exactly! That's what I was looking for, and Ms. Karbo delivers, weaving quotes and anecdotes from every era of Hepburn's wild ride into a playbook of sorts for carving out a bold and satisfying life. For starters, Hepburn was brash to the point of obnoxious. She refused to be categorized, by Hollywood, the press, or the public. She ignored fear and charged headlong into anything she was afraid of, including appearing on the stage, which she did for most of her life. She refused to acknowledge problems, believing everything could be solved by a cold shower or brisk walk. She shared her opinions freely, with everyone, regardless of how unpopular or out of vogue her views may be. At a time when marriage was every girl's dream, Hepburn said, "If you want to sacrifice the admiration of many men for the criticism of one, go ahead, get married!" and "if it wasn't bloody impractical to love, honor, and obey, you wouldn't have to sign a contract." She was a cultivator of eccentricities (see pages 36-37) and quirky friendships. No doubt about it -- she lived her life on her terms and could give a damn less whether anyone approved.
   Except for maybe Spencer Tracy. During their long and mostly under-the-radar love affair, Hepburn doted on Tracy, playing caretaker to his bad-boy drunk. Even in their movies scenes together, she has a way of looking at him like he's the only person that exists in her world, with almost a worshipful gleam in her eyes. But even with all the sacrifices she made for Tracy, in keeping his boozy life in order, Hepburn was still Hepburn. From time to time she would take off to do a play or have an adventure and leave him to fend for himself. She never gave herself away completely, even to Spencer.
   While I disagree with Ms. Karbo's suggestion that Hepburn had a closeted lesbian relationship with her good friend Laura Harding, question the motives she ascribes to some of Hepburn's approaches to life, and frankly got sick of being told to wear sunscreen, her finale of "Tips For Getting Your Hepburn On" (page 178) was worth reading the book for. My faves are:

#2 Find Yourself Fascinating

#4 Say What You Think

#5 Don't Confuse Self-Improvement with Self-Remodeling

#16 Find the Type of Clothes You Feel Best In and Never Take Them Off

About #5, Ms. Karbo says, "Hepburn was always trying to improve herself. A self-confessed compulsive worker, she made herself into a great actress from a curious-looking girl who had a flair for self-dramatization and that was about it. But she never tried to change herself."
   I love this tip best of all. From magazines to day-time talk shows to every pop-up ad on the internet, we are constantly bombarded by messages saying we must change something about ourselves in order to be thinner, smarter, prettier, or more desirable. Instead of changing, how much more worthwhile would it be to get your Hepburn on -- to find yourself absolutely fascinating and then improve on that. Thanks Kate the Great and Ms. Karbo for the tip. I'm going to do it.