For decades, in screen roles as varied as Jo March in Little Women, Tracy Lord in The Philadelphia Story and Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter, Katharine Hepburn has epitomized fierce independence and grit. But as biographer Leaming so skillfully reveals, the reality of Hepburn's life has been strikingly different. Coming from a family with a history of suicide, Hepburn has been drawn to depressive, self-destructive men. She hoped to save them, the writer theorizes, since she hadn't been able to save her beloved older brother Tom, whose body she found after he hung himself at age 15.
Hepburn's two great loves—director John Ford and actor Spencer Tracy—were both heavy drinkers and unhappily married to others. Ford felt too guilty to even consummate his attraction to Hepburn, and she finally gave up on him. But Tracy became Hepburn's cause for three decades. This seemingly strong, self-confident woman constantly sacrificed her own desires—including her job plans—so that she could cater to Tracy. A searing image in the book is of Hepburn asleep on the doorstep of Tracy's room at the Beverly Hills Hotel while he was inside drinking himself into a stupor. Even when locked out, she was still determined to watch over him.
Leaming attempts to prove that the star's life—particularly her choice of partners—has been an attempt to work out a family drama that began when Hepburn's grandmother Carrie Houghton was unable to keep her grandfather Fred from sinking into despair and killing himself. To this end Leaming devotes a large portion of the book to the Hepburn and Houghton family histories before Katharine's birth—she herself is barely discussed until page 136.
Leaming's pursuit of her thesis often plods unfortunately, and the focus on Hepburn's family and her subsequent relationships with Ford and Tracy means there's too little about Hepburn's work and day-to-day life. But the actress has covered much of this in her own two memoirs. Leaming brings an outsider's valuable perspective to the life of a singular and clearly very complicated woman. (Crown, $27.50)