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By the time she retired, Katharine Hepburn had won a record four Best Actress Academy Awards, with twelve nominations. Her six-decade acting career was universally acknowledged as one of the finest -- if not the finest -- in film history. Drawing on a series of recordings made over many years, beginning in the 1970s, acclaimed biographer Charlotte Chandler has written the most intimate and personal biography ever published of this Hollywood legend.
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Charlotte Chandler is the author of several biographies of actors and directors, including Groucho Marx, Federico Fellini, Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman, Joan Crawford, and Mae West, all of whom she interviewed extensively. She is a member of the board of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and lives in New York City.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
“‘Onliness’ is my word for what I call my philosophy of life,” Katharine Hepburn told me. “It’s a word I made up for myself when my teenage brother hanged himself.
“What I meant by it was that I wanted to be independent, to separate myself from all the others and never again to care so much about another person, so I would never feel the pain I felt when Tom left me.
“I was almost fourteen when Tom, my absolute hero—whom I loved and worshipped—had, what I call in my head, his ‘accident.’ I was the only one who believed it was an accident. I believed it because I couldn’t bear to believe otherwise.
“I had a wonderfully warm feeling in my soul. I felt it so deeply that he would be there for me, that I could always count on him. It made me feel very secure. And then, suddenly, he wasn’t there for me. He wasn’t there for himself.
“If something had made him so unhappy that he no longer wanted to live, why hadn’t he shared his trouble with me? I could have helped him. We were so close, how could I not have shared his pain? I couldn’t bear it. I thought we were like twins, even though he was two years older. It was a nightmare that was real, and I was never going to wake up from it. I understood that now is forever.
“Tom was my best friend from the first moment I can remember. He never regarded me as the little sister he had to drag along. The opposite. At two, two and a half, I remember him holding my hand and showing me the ropes and how to swing on them, how to get along in life. When I was just barely walking, he was running with me. I wanted so to keep up with his long-legged strides. I wanted to run fast into life, not just to walk, and I wanted to run toward life with Tom.
“He had not yet had his sixteenth birthday. For the Easter school vacation, Tom and I were given a trip to visit a dear friend of Mother’s who had been at Bryn Mawr with her. After we celebrated Easter with our family, we went to New York to stay with Aunt Mary Towle, who was a lawyer and had her own lovely little house in Greenwich Village. She wasn’t really our aunt, but we’d always called her ‘Auntie.’ Whenever we visited her, it meant seeing many plays, seeing all the wondrous sights of New York City, and eating in lovely restaurants. We would dress up for our excursions.
“It was a darling house, not big. It was just right for Auntie Mary, who never married. She had her lovely room, and I stayed in the guest room. My brother had a cot in her attic, which was filled with trunks of books and everything she stored there. Sometimes girls have privileges, but I wouldn’t have minded being in the attic. I’m sure Tom didn’t. He was always protecting me, and being chivalrous.”
Although Kate loved her visits to New York City, and so did Tom, she couldn’t imagine herself living in New York. “Tom said he’d love to be right in New York City, especially in Greenwich Village, which we knew best.”
Until then, their mother had always gone with them and stayed. “She enjoyed the visit with Auntie Mary and with Auntie Mary’s law partner, Bertha, who had become a judge and was also a good friend of Mother’s at Bryn Mawr. Auntie Bertha lived next door. This year, Mother had some other plan, and it was deemed we were old enough to make the short trip from Connecticut to Greenwich Village, where we would be chaperoned by Auntie Mary, who had known us since we were born. We’d been going to visit her at her Greenwich Village townhouse since before Tom and I could remember. We found the Village fascinating, walking around for hours. It was so different from where we lived.
“I don’t know which one of us was more excited. It was a tie. I was always the more emotional one, jumping with glee. Tom was more composed, in a masculine, older-brother way. But I could tell how excited he was, because we had an almost telepathic bond between us.
“We went with Auntie Mary to see A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. My brother was particularly taken by the show, and I enjoyed it, too, with my favorite companion, Tom. If he enjoyed something, I enjoyed it more because of that. I know he felt the same way about doing anything with me. Tom told me he liked our visit so much, he would be sorry to have it end. I knew I would be, too.
“The next day, our Uncle Floyd took us out sightseeing. He was my father’s brother, and a bachelor. We had a wonderful time with him, as we always did. Uncle Floyd took the day off whenever we were in New York to show us all the sights and there were so many sights to see. Endless. Our uncle never ran out of places to show. Tom had brought his banjo with him and that last night in New York, he played for us.
“The next morning, Auntie and I were eating breakfast and expecting Tom to come downstairs to join us. Auntie began putting some food together for a package Tom could take on the train because he was late and would be missing breakfast. Auntie was a lovely cook, and Tom and I enjoyed everything she fixed for us. Auntie took great pride in everything she prepared for us. She was not generally domestic, but she was so anxious that we should have a wonderful time.
“She said I should go upstairs and tell Tom that we were going to be late. Tom had bought our return tickets, and it was getting close to the time we had to be at the train station. Auntie said I’d better go up and wake my brother, or we’d miss our train. I knew he was packed, with his travel outfit neatly laid out for the trip.
“I went up. I knocked on the door. There was no answer. I knocked harder, calling, ‘Tom, Tom.’ Tom was not a heavy sleeper, and we were accustomed to getting up early. Tom told me that he had been waking up during the nights because what we were doing was so exciting and stimulating. I felt a little anxious.
“At first, I didn’t see Tom. And then I saw him. He was there next to the bed.
“He was hanging from a rafter with a piece of material around his neck. His knees were bent and he had strangled.
“I took him down and put him on the bed. He felt very cold. I knew it was too late, but all I could think of was to run downstairs and out of the house to the nearby house where I’d seen a doctor’s sign. The doctor wasn’t in. It was no use. I ran next door to Auntie Bertha’s house and I told her, ‘Tom is dead!’ She came back with me, and we told Auntie Mary. We called Mother and Father.
“Mother and Father arrived with Mother’s close friend Jo Bennett. I felt numb. I don’t remember too well what happened. People said I was amazingly calm. I was in shock. I stayed in shock for a long time. It was as if I couldn’t feel anything when I cried. It seemed like the thing to do and what everyone expected of me. I found out that I could cry at will, anytime I chose, on less than a minute’s notice. My crying on the outside wasn’t real. What was real was I was crying on the inside. It was a chaotic time until I could make some kind of adjustment to the reality. But I never really did.
“There were police. There were some reporters. They all called it suicide. Such a terrible word.
“They talked about Tom’s bent knees. The police said he had hanged himself, but he was too tall. Someone said, ‘He would have had to bend his knees to finish the job.’”
Kate said that one night about a year before, her father had told the family at the dinner table about his undergraduate days, when his southern school, Randolph Macon, was playing a northern school. Some of the visiting northern players asked, only semiseriously, if they still lynched black men in the area.
“There happened to be a black man in the area who was known for his very special trick, Father told us. He was famous for being able to constrict the muscles in his neck so that he could fake being hanged. The southern students hired the man to perform his trick in a pretend stunt, a practical joke played on the northern team. The northerners fell for it. Then they were pretty surprised when the joke was on them, and they’d all been fooled.”
Kate speculated that Tom remembered the story and was practicing this stunt. “One year later, seeing A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court during our New York visit might have overstimulated Tom’s active imagination.”
Kate wondered if Tom had experienced difficulty in sleeping, had awakened in the middle of the night in a strange place and in a makeshift sleeping situation, rather than in his own room, and had tried to do the trick. “There wasn’t much he could do in the middle of the night without disturbing the household, and Tom was always considerate of everyone. So, it came to me that what he must have been doing was practicing the trick, so he could show our father and surprise him.
“I told Father, and it seemed to him to be a plausible possibility. Even though it meant that Father had played a sad part in it all, by telling the story of the prank, it was easier for him to face that than the alternative—his son a suicide.
“About a year later I overheard my father, in our house, talking with a friend of his, and the other doctor used the phrase ‘adolescent insanity.’ It was a serious, even grim, conversation. When I walked into the room, they stopped talking. That was unusual, because Father and Mother had always made a point of allowing us children to hear everything. They never stopped talking that way when we appeared. It was so unusual, it gave me pause. I wondered if they could have been talking about Tom.
“One of my most striking memories is of my mother’s tears. I only saw my mother cry once in my life. I don’t know if she ever cried, even when she was alone. Only she knew that. She was a stoic.
“We left New York and went on a boat to New Jersey to a crematorium. Mother was standing off to the side with her friend Jo. Father had his back to her. He was looking forward toward where we were going, not backward toward where we had been. Mother probably couldn’t see me from where she was standing. There were wet tears on her cheeks.
“I didn’t know what to do. I decided to do nothing. I didn’t think she wanted me to know.
“I was sure she did not want Father to know. He didn’t feel tears accomplished anything.
“We took the urn of Tom’s ashes to the Cedar Hill Cemetery in Hartford. As far as I know, my parents never went back. I never went there, but one day I’ll live there next to Tom.
“My father believed that we had to put Tom’s name out of our house and out of our minds and hearts so that his passing would not ruin our lives. He believed it would keep us from living lives of sadness. ‘Depression is a contagious disease,’ he would say.
“It was so much more terrible because we were not just told not to talk about Tom, but not to think about him. It was to be as if he’d never been part of our family.
“It was to be as if he had never lived. And so it was, I suppose, for everyone except me. It could never be like that for me. He had been a part of our family, and for me, he always would be, not just a part of our family, but a part of me.
“My father had said it, and no one, not even my mother, ever questioned my father’s absolute authority.
“Because no one spoke Tom’s name, I pledged to Tom and to myself that he would live in my heart and mind as long as I lived. I decided I had to live my life for two. It was the only way I could keep my brother alive. I decided I would share my life with my brother. The real date of his death would not be until the day I died.
“Tom had been born on November 8. I took that day as my birthday, in his memory. I discarded the day I was born, May 12. I decided that from then on that my birthday would be November 8, and so it’s been. I told everyone and always wrote November 8. Some people thought I was lying about my birthday so I could be a few months younger.
“The sign for November 8 is Scorpio. When they heard about my November 8 birthday, people said, ‘You’re the perfect Scorpio.’ Well, of course. Why not? I never said a word. Except I was a fake Scorpio. It was an adopted sign. I wasn’t really that strong, but just as well not to tell anyone, and let them think what they wanted to. To tell you the truth, taking Tom’s birthday for my own was comforting.
“Everyone in the world, our world, who knew Tom, felt he couldn’t possibly have committed suicide. There was no reason. No one knew any reason. I don’t know if knowing what happened would have made it easier for any of us. I only knew Tom and I could never do things together again.
“Practicing hanging yourself without killing yourself seemed kind of a silly thing to do, not to mention dangerous, especially if no one was around. But sometimes people do silly things. All of us, at some time or other, do silly things without weighing possible repercussions. I don’t know if knowing any reason would have made any of the pain go away.”
Kate’s story about her brother followed a question George Cukor had asked as we sat in his living room. I was staying in the guest room in his Los Angeles house, and Kate was living in one of the cottages on his property. Kate trusted me because George trusted me, so I seemed part of the house.
“Tell me, my girl,” Cukor had asked her, “who was the most important man in your life? Was it your father? Was it Spencer [Tracy]?”
“No and no,” Kate had answered without hesitating. “Tom. My brother Tom was the most important man in my life. But he lived an incomplete life.
“I admired him so much. I was younger and a girl, but I was a more natural athlete. I think Tom was more intelligent than I was, but that wasn’t what my father valued. He took our intelligence for granted.”
Kate had been “going on,” as George called it, “rhapsodizing about what a great man her father was.” Cukor later commented to me that he never quite agreed with Kate’s “obsessive fascination with her difficult-to-please father,” who appeared to him to have been “rather a cold fish, a better doctor than a father. Just my opinion.”
Cukor believed that Kate had been challenged by her father to succeed and to prove him wrong about her choice of a career as an actress. Cukor said he had rarely, if ever, heard her mention a brother named Tom.
“Tom was not exactly like our father,” Kate continued. “He was a tall, handsome boy, intelligent, and a good athlete, but he lacked our father’s perfect confidence. He didn’t have Father’s competitive spirit. I think Father would have liked to compete with every other man in the world. Tom only wanted to compete against himself.
“I was not able to believe he took his own life, deliberately planning it in advance. I can’t believe he would have left without saying goodbye to me. Now I think that for my father there was not only sadness, but shame—that his eldest son would show that kind of weakness.
“After Tom was gone, I believe my personality changed. I went from being totally open to life, to being closed to life. You might say ingrown, sort of like a toenail can get when your shoe is too small. I didn’t like meeting any new people.
“It was enough for me to have my family, who were used to me, and I was used to them. I remember we had an Irish seamstress who came on Thursdays, and I liked to be with her. She told me interesting stories, and I told her interesting stories. I didn’t have much to tell at that point, but she always seemed fascinated. She had a very good disposition. She taught me how to sew on a button so it would never come off. She made me feel partly Irish.
“‘Just keep your head, Kath,’ I would say to myself, if I found myself caring too much about a...
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Book Description Thorndike Press, 2010. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M1410426262
Book Description Thorndike Press, 2010. Hardcover. Condition: New. Large Print. Seller Inventory # DADAX1410426262