At 77, Katharine Hepburn is a legend to many American women, but to author Anne Edwards she is more than that. Though the two have never met, their families, proper Yankees from West Hartford, Conn., have long been intertwined. The actress’ father, Dr. Norval Thomas Hepburn, a prominent surgeon, treated members of the Edwards clan. Kate was at the Oxford School in West Hartford with Anne’s mother. Long after Anne’s father, a sales representative, moved the family in 1932 to Los Angeles (where Anne sang and danced in vaudeville shows), tales of Kate the Great were swapped at the Edwards dinner table.
It seemed inevitable that Edwards, who started as an MGM screenwriter and later authored best-selling biographies on Vivien Leigh and Judy Garland, would someday write A Remarkable Woman, A Biography of Katharine Hepburn (William Morrow & Co., $18.95). Edwards worked on the book in New Milford, Conn., where she lives with her third husband, Stephen Citron, a songwriter and composer. At 58, she has two children, two grandchildren and 16 published books to her credit, including six novels. While researching her next book in Los Angeles, Edwards talked about Hepburn with correspondent Suzanne Adelson.
Did you ask Hepburn for her cooperation with the book?
We had a small correspondence before I started four years ago. I approached her perhaps in a negative way because I announced very quickly that I would not be able to submit the manuscript to her for her approval. She wrote back that her sister was documenting the Hepburn family, and that she didn’t feel up to doing this kind of thing.
Were people open about Hepburn?
I found this very protective cloak around Kate; people didn’t want their names used. I talked to more than 200 people. And in three cases people who were close to her balked halfway through the interviewing process and said: “I’m sorry, I can’t do this.” Obviously it got back to Hepburn or they were afraid it would. Even when I was talking to people about Larry [Sir Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh’s husband], who was very revered, most people didn’t have the same kind of feeling of protectiveness about him. And, unfortunately for Judy Garland, there never was a protective anything around her. But Hepburn gave and inspired fierce loyalty.
Did you find that she is still feared in Hollywood?
It’s more that she’s looked on as an old monument. People said: “She was impossible to work with” or “She was difficult in terms of my life. But, my God, look how she managed to survive! ”
Did you get any insight into Kate’s relationship with her mother?
There had to have been a competitive feeling between mother and daughter because certainly there was a great love between Dr. Hepburn and his wife. He felt a great sense of pride in the work his wife was doing. Hepburn’s mother was an outspoken advocate of birth control in the 1920s. I think there was always the feeling on Kate’s part that she had to achieve to be to her father what her mother was to him.
Did Kate’s father demand a great deal of her?
Oh yes, and she felt she always had to prove things to him. That she wanted to be an actress, a profession he respected the least, meant that she had better well be the best or the most defiant or the most talked about, or whatever. Kate always seemed to be setting up these stumbling blocks for herself.
You chronicle Kate’s close friendships with women. Are you suggesting that Hepburn was bisexual?
No. I think there were certainly times in her life where Kate would have preferred to get on with her career and not be involved with men. But one has to put oneself back in that period of history to understand. In the 1930s no woman from a respectable family was allowed to travel alone, so Kate often traveled with Laura Harding. She had to have a traveling companion.
Why do you think Hepburn married insurance broker Ludlow Ogden Smith in 1928?
I think he brought her a very needed protection. First of all he was from an old Main Line Philadelphia family, and she knew he was acceptable to her parents. Also marriage meant she did not have to fend off other men. She didn’t have to worry about the casting couch thing. She could say, “I’m married.” She was very attractive and she didn’t care to deal with that situation, to have to play the game.
Yet it was hardly a love match, and in fact they divorced after six years. What was wrong?
Certainly there was a point shortly after their honeymoon when, according to everyone who was close to them at the time, the marriage was in name only. One has to remember that Kate was very young , untried and inexperienced when she met “Luddy” [who was 28].
Do you think Hepburn’s relationship with Spencer Tracy was platonic?
Oh no! There is no way Tracy could have a relationship with a woman that wasn’t physical. He loved women. What he did have was a sexual problem when he was drunk—impotency.
Tracy, a Catholic, wouldn’t divorce his wife, Louise. What is your perception of the relationship between Hepburn and Louise?
I think Kate admired her tremendously. Louise was into “good works,” just like Kate’s mother. Tracy also had great respect for Louise. She lived a life like Mother Teresa. Imagine trying to compete with Mother Teresa! Kate never did. I think they all handled the situation with dignity.
Hepburn was also involved romantically with producer Leland Hayward and Howard Hughes. Did she ever consider marrying either one?
I don’t think she ever had the opportunity to marry Hayward. He tired of her and fell madly in love with Margaret Sullavan. [They married in 1936.] Howard Hughes was another matter. I think if he hadn’t pressed the issue the way he did, she might have married him. He said, “You have to answer me. This is it.” And he followed her around the country. She didn’t respect that.
Were there others in Hollywood who attracted Kate?
John Ford [director of Stagecoach and Grapes of Wrath] did. And I think, if they had been younger, John Wayne would have attracted her. The people I spoke to who worked on the film they made together [Rooster Cogburn in 1976] said that there was this marvelous chemistry between them.
Has Hepburn contacted you since the book came out?
No. I did send the first copy to her.
Did you autograph it?
No. How could I sign my name to her life?