"Katharine Hepburn," by Barbara Leaming. 560 pages. New York: Crown Publishers. $27.50
Tracy and Hepburn: They were the ideal couple, on screen and off. She was strong-willed, fiercely intelligent, tough-minded yet feminine. He was gruff, masculine, a man's man yet appreciative of her. In "Adam's Rib," he buys her a frilly little hat. "Best hat for the best head," he says matter-of-factly.
Barbara Leaming's deeply moving, astonishing new biography "Katharine Hepburn" shatters that myth decisively. The great love of Katharine Hepburn's life, Leaming argues persuasively, was not Tracy at all, but American film director John Ford, who loved her for herself to the end of his days. According to Leaming, the Tracy-Hepburn relation was far from a true marriage of equals. Made uncomfortable by Hepburn's independent spirit, Tracy humiliated her publicly, made fun of her educated speech ("you talk like you've got a feather up your ... all the time!"), never told her he loved her, and manipulated her into sacrificing much of her career to nursemaid him through his self-pitying drunken binges. Leaming interviewed Hepburn but obviously not about Tracy. She finds little positive in the relationship. Meanwhile Leaming uncovered a letter in which Hepburn revealed that Ford was the only man who ever understood her.
Both men were married Catholics, but, Leaming argues, it was not religion so much as his wife's blackmail, her threat to deprive him of his daughter, that kept Ford from divorce. Her loss of "Sean," with his joy of life, his kindness and affection for her, appears to have been the great tragedy of Hepburn's emotional life. Only then did Hepburn take up with Tracy, falling back into a pattern accepted by her mother. Despite being a dominant force in both the suffragette and the movement to legalize birth control, Mrs. Hepburn acceded to a repressive husband. Dr. Hepburn demanded that at five every afternoon she be at her post "behind the tea set."
The revelation of John Ford's great love for Hepburn is riveting. Yet "Katharine Hepburn" tells another extraordinary story, that of Kate and Edith Houghton, Katharine Hepburn's mother and aunt. Orphaned as young girls, they struggled to fullfill their dying mother's dream - that they graduate from Bryn Mawr college. Their efforts to outsmart their rich uncle, Amory Houghton Jr., who was opposed to women's education, reads like a great 19th century family saga, a cross between Jane Austen, Dickens and "Jane Eyre." If Katharine Hepburn became a woman of conviction, Leaming shows, it was in part because these indomitable spirits inspired her. If she faltered, it was because of her domineering father, a man who shunned the emotions and refused to discuss the past, particularly the suicide of Hepburn's older brother Tom, whose body she discovered.
There are disconcerting notes. "Katharine Hepburn" as social history is marred by vague documentation. We are told about letters, but there are no citations. The implication that there is a hereditary component to suicide because there were five in the Houghton and Hepburn families is spurious. That these sucides were somehow responsible for Hepburn's "turning herself into a relentless life-force" is overstated. "Stagecoach" is far from being John Ford's masterpiece, an odd judgment for the biographer of Orson Welles. Leaming succumbs to some "must have felts" and "perhaps he thoughts."
No matter. Read this marvelous story of the grand passion between our greatest film director and Katharine Hepburn. She made do with a life without Ford by her side, finally to his poignant regret. It is a story told wisely by Leaming, without sentimentality. No reader will again succumb to the Tracy-Hepburn myth. Nearing death, Ford asked her if she knew he loved her. She told him she did. Seemingly so little, that love was ample for a lifetime.
Joan Mellen is a professor in the creative writing department at Temple University in Pennsylvania. She is the author of 12 books, two of them biographies. Her "Hammett and Miss Hellman," a dual biography, will be published next year by HarperCollins.