The perils of remembering Kate

Posted: Jul 13, 2003 12:00 AM
The hot publishing news is that Katharine Hepburn spent much time with author A. Scott Berg, the biographer of Charles Lindbergh, and knew from the outset of their friendship in 1983 that he would write her biography. Her terms were as straightforward as one would expect from "Kate" (the book will be called "Kate Remembered"): the book would not appear until after she was dead.

Biographer Berg has been quick to move, publishing an obituary in Time magazine. The book, the gestation of which was kept totally secret by Putnam's, will be published almost immediately. "Kate often suggested the importance of publishing a book right away," Berg's press release said, "because she presumed there would be many books about her over the years, and she presumed they would be filled with the same misstatements of facts that have appeared over the years."

Right away we are provoked. Without studious knowledge of the Hepburn story, do we know that there have been all that many misstatements of facts? Misstatements of enduring interest, or significance, blemishing Kate's career? Or rather, Kate's life? Nothing could conceivably damage her career, with its four Oscars and 12 Academy Award nominations.

A second question. If she "presumed" there would be many books published about her (there have been 20 already, not including her own), why would they be full of misstatements if Mr. Berg's book will be there to abort such misstatements? Was Kate telling us that future biographers would persist in misstatements, even if Berg told the true story? Why?

But Miss Hepburn was not a vigorous thinker. "I don't regret anything I've ever done, as long as I enjoyed it at the time," she once said. That really is not sound thought, and not even worldly. If such a code were right for her, one would guess she'd think it right for everybody. Have no regrets, as long as what one did was enjoyable at the time? That is strange retroactive self-indulgence. If he enjoyed the rape, he should feel no regret for having done it? If she enjoyed the diversion that meant inattention to a child or to aged parents, then therefore no cause to regret such inattentions?

No word of criticism of Miss Hepburn's acting career would cross this desk without dying a bloody death, but that isn't what Mr. Berg's book is supposed to accomplish. Hepburn said that the book's purpose was to correct misstatements. There are no misstatements in her movies. They are over and done, some of them works of cinematic genius, her artistic deposit, iconic. What is it we are left wanting to know?

Her injunction, said Berg in Time, was to work hard and to love someone. And to have some fun. "If you're lucky, you keep your health ... and somebody loves you back." Yes. But does this lead to a greater understanding of life's purposes? Berg writes that she "seldom philosophized." But then he told a story about her which is deeply philosophical in its implications. She was asked to attend a memorial tribute for an old friend who had played an important part in her life. She didn't want to go. "What's the point? She's dead. She won't know the difference." Berg persisted: It might mean something to the two sons of the deceased.

Well, OK; she went. After it was over, she told her biographer, "Don't ever have one of those for me." He countered that he was sure some tribute was inevitable. "Well, luckily I won't have to be there for it. And neither should you." The sentiments are emotionally jejune and spiritually empty.

She could be very sharp in deflating the affectations of fellow luminaries. She knew that there were consequences in being a theatrical public figure, and these should be borne. But she seemed to go further. Berg reports that she simply didn't understand stars who sued newspapers for printing lies about them. "I never cared what anybody wrote about me," said Kate, "as long as it wasn't the truth."

That is perplexing. If it's the truth, then she would not want it told? But what then was biographer Berg's commission? To write untruths? But she doesn't want those -- other biographers will do that aplenty. That means he is to write truths about Kate. But she just finished saying that's the one thing she didn't want.

One is forced to deliberate on the vat of nothingness that geniuses offer us when they leave off playing the violin, or painting landscapes, or waging war. There are exceptions, but Kate's life doesn't promise to be one.