An Annotation of Katherine Hepburn’s Me: My Life in Stories
Katherine Hepburn was born on May 12, 1907 in Hartford, Connecticut. Her mother was Catherine Martha Houghton and her father was Dr. Thomas Norval Hepburn. She was the second to the oldest of six children. Her father was very athletic and encouraged Katherine and her siblings to become interested in almost every sport. As a result, Katherine became adept at such sports as gymnastics, swimming, diving, golf and tennis and continued to excel in many of these activities throughout her life.
Her mother and father were active in the women’s movement and her mother became the head of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association. Her parents were well-educated, well-read, and progressive advocates of social, political and economic reform and equal rights for women. They were “dedicated to the bettering of men and women” and they instilled a fierce independence, determination, enthusiasm, ambition and strength in Hepburn which would prove invaluable to her throughout her life.
Katherine wrote “Me: Stories of My Life”, her memoirs, in a conspiratorially intimate first person voice from an adult perspective. She utilized, at times, a nonchalant matter-of-fact autobiographical tone peppered with the keen sense of humor, style and decorum for which she has become legendary. Although she wrote from her viewpoint at the time the memoirs were written, which was well into her eighties, she aspired to stay true to the timeline of the story which spanned from her childhood in the early 1900’s to the time of the book being written, which was in the 1980’s. Her early life was centered on a comfortable lifestyle provided by her parents in an upper-class social atmosphere. The family employed a nurse, cook and housekeeper. She admits that she is a snob and, most refreshingly, writes like one.
The fact that Hepburn can so candidly laugh at her own snobbery, selfishness and temper is in and of itself a testimony to her honest nature. Her ability to never take herself too seriously and her often brutal exploration of herself and her life grabbed and held my interest, commanded my respect, and tugged at my heartstrings. Her frank narration of her brother’s suicide left me reeling.
She narrated this event from both the innocent voice of a fourteen year old girl’s bewilderment and shock at discovering her sixteen year old brother hanged and the eighty-something year old woman’s wise yet still possibly even more bemused voice attempting to speak for that little girl. Hepburn’s account of this terrible tragedy and she and her family’s apparent inability to come to terms with it, illicit feelings of compassion and helplessness from the reader as we understand that Hepburn has not ever fully come to terms with this tragedy.
How does one ever reconcile one’s self to something like that? On a personal note, I am aware that I have never been capable of properly voicing my own feelings at discovering my late husband’s death engineered in the same manner as Hepburn’s brother’s suicide. Her ruminations reflect the icy cold aftermath in which survivors of suicide are left to dwell; “…I burst into tears. This is what I thought I should do. People die-you cry-but inside I was frozen.” The fact is that seventy something years after this horrific event, Hepburn is still in denial; “Actually Tom’s death remains unexplained” and “Dad made a statement that it was very possible that Tom was practicing hanging himself. Dad had told us of a trick of pretending to hang as a kid”. This seems to in some way corroborate my own feelings of incongruity concerning my late husband’s death.
Although, Hepburn’s close family ties are evident and pronounced throughout “Me”, the majority of her memoirs are centered on her acting career. She focuses on each of her movies and goes into detail about many of them as well as her numerous disastrous attempts at acting in the theatre. However her professional life is so completely entwined around her personal life-friendships and lovers that she manages to efficiently weave everything into a series of memory flashes. These ultimately join together to bring the reader an accurate picture of what was most important to her. Her ties with family and friends were strong. Her ambition and selfishness were possibly even stronger. She was a shrewd businesswoman. She admittedly used people to get ahead, yet she was fiercely loyal to those who were loyal to her. She was many times selfless, although in the long run, the selflessness would ultimately benefit her own goals and desires.
I must admit that one of the reasons which I decided to read Hepburn’s memoir’s, aside from the fact that I have always been impressed with her strong blatant attitudes on feminism, was to uncover the mystery of Katherine Hepburn’s alleged affair with Spencer Tracy. I must also confess that I have seen few, if any, of Tracy’s movies and knew next to nothing about the man prior to reading Me other than that he and Hepburn were reportedly lovers and that he was a married man. Of course, Hepburn is astutely aware of this and saves it until the very end of the book; “Now I’m going to tell you about Spencer. You may think you’ve waited a long time. But let’s face it, so did I” (391). If this is a tell all book-and it is to a point-Hepburn still manages to do this without doing it, so to speak…
For instance, she tells of her love affairs but never gives the details of whom she was intimate with and who she was not. This voice of decorum is not only founded in the time and era in which Hepburn was born and bred, but also in her character. No matter what anyone comes away with after reading this book, and there are a lot-insights, truths, pain, laughter and a life fully lived-it can never be argued that Hepburn was a anything but a lady.
Her honesty can also never come into question. Hepburn admits that she and Spencer Tracy lived together, that he was married, and that she indeed found him in bed dead. But she is careful to never state openly that she slept with him. In fact, she speaks of lying on the floor beside his bed talking him to sleep because he was an insomniac. She talks of going to see him in the casket prior to the funeral but not attending the actual funeral as it would not have been proper, although they were together for “nearly thirty years”. She does say; “I loved Spencer Tracy”. Her struggle to define this love, just as she defines her life, is simple yet insightful and moving; “LOVE has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get-only with what you are expecting to give-which is everything”.
Sharon Lynn Van Meter
Hepburn, Katherine. Me: Stories of My Life. New York: Random House, 1991.