When I was 13 years old, my father informed me that I’d be spending Christmas with his new girlfriend and her elderly pal, a Katharine something-or-other, at her estate in some fancy annex of Old Saybrook, Conn., and that I would likely be pressed into service as a cookie-making sous-chef or a helper elf assisting in the manufacture of holiday knickknackery, all of which sounded about as appealing as attending a lecture on the history of the thimble. I should have known something was up, however, because my father was fairly agog at the prospect of the visit, and I had never known his pulse to register much above a flatline. So it was with a sense of foreboding that, on that December day nearly 30 years ago, I arrived at a magnificently ramshackle mansion looking panoramically over Long Island Sound and was introduced to the luminary in question.
“Adam,” my father said, “this is Katharine Hepburn.”
Don’t laugh, but I didn’t get it. It simply didn’t compute. I was a kid and my interest in the history of Hollywood didn’t extend much beyond Daryl Hannah in a prosthetic fishtail. So despite a flickering semi-recognition and a burgeoning sense of shame—I felt as if I were the punch line to a joke that only I failed to comprehend—I couldn’t place her. I still didn’t get it when my father repeated the name, at double volume and half speed, as if to an imbecile or foreign tourist (“Kath-a-rine Hep-burn”) nor when I was stationed atop an apparently historically significant artifact (“That stool is from the set of The African Queen,” I was told, “The A-fri-can Queen”) during the insufferable wreath-making with which I had been charged.
It wasn’t until she went to the closet for some festive ribbon that I realized the demoralizing depth of my ignorance:
In the closet she ferreted busily through a mound of clutter so deep that it had nearly archaeological significance, tossing over her shoulder antique wooden tennis racquets still straitjacketed in their wingnutty frames, eroded croquet wickets, retired garden implements, shuttlecocks that had been stripped of their rubber noses, forlorn winter woolens distended with age, and one last item—something whose ker-chunk of impact with the floor indicated some serious mass—until she finally found some ribbon and happily installed it in the wreaths.
That last kerchunky item? It was shiny; it was golden; it was literally and metaphorically weighty.
It was—as you have no doubt surmised—an Oscar.
I was an awkward kid back then. My face was a moonscape of acne and fretted with self-doubt and I spent most of my spare time nurturing a finely honed terror of being publicly wrong about anything. I would do scads of extra-credit reading, but when class rolled around I was about as talkative as one of those Easter Island heads. Once I tried, in front of all the cool kids, to bluff a bartender into serving me a drink by asking, with my best sunglasses-on-nosepoint suavity, for a Scotch “straight up, neat, without any ice.” Another time, in Bio 2, I inspired explosive public ridicule when I told the teacher that “myoblast” was the clinical term for “orgasm achieved by masturbation.”
These things still haunt me.
And I had hitherto considered them senior deities in my personal pantheon of gaffes, but this—failing to recognize in whose redoubtable presence I now stood—was big. This was mondo. I might as well have said, “So you are the most Academy-Award-winning performer of all time and one of this century’s most important cultural figures? Ah. Nifty. I’m Adam Davies. I like Pudding Pops and Duran Duran.”
But Kate didn’t care. I think she found my ignorance refreshing. Her world was circumscribed by people mothing around her, fussing and trying to give things (free meals, admission to shows) or take things (autographs, photographs). If she had to go to a party with guests who were outside her inner circle, she would inevitably be under pressure, sooner or later, to be quippy or performative. To talk Hollywood or Film or Life. To dispense the Hepburnian nugget, a screwbally line of dialogue or a poignant bon mot for which the awe-struck were always hankering. Most of this activity was innocent—people just want to get close to the magic—but Kate hated it, and I think she saw in me a compatriot who wouldn’t annoy her with effusions or demands or other tiresomeness. With me she didn’t need to engage in the ritualized nonsense of celebrity-centered social interaction. With me she could be comfortable. And grumpy.
To her I think I was a kind of well-meaning squire, a novice whose unskilled laboring included things like securing seats and toting snacks and fetching coats and refilling tumblers of Famous Grouse.
And to me Kate was a . . . well, a what? She wasn’t a mentor, precisely, or even a close friend. We didn’t see each other more than a handful of times each year, and there was always something hermetic about her, something essentially unknowable and in which pride and tenderness we
re involved—like someone hiding a wound. Biographers will say this is due to the tragic aspect of her love affair with Spencer Tracy—their estrangements, his refusal to get a divorce, the pain of his diabetes and alcoholism, the grief of his last years—and that might be true. I wouldn’t know. At best it seems like psychology-by-numbers to me; at worst it seems irresponsible. But either way, I never talked to Kate about that kind of thing. It would have been a violation of our unspoken pact. It would have been unseemly.
Anyway, call it what you want, but over the years Kate and I became strange pals. Yet I never wrote about her. It always seemed self-promotional and precisely the kind of thing she would disapprove of when she was alive; after her death it seemed downright predatory and ugly. But it’s been years since she passed, and living for the past four months in Sarasota as the writer-in-residence at New College has reminded me so often of her love for the Gulf Coast of Florida, where she routinely vacationed, and of Kate herself, that here I am, remembering her in print.What follows, however, isn’t a rehash of the most Googleable greatest-hits of Kate’s life—if you’re interested in all the quotable intrigue of the Hollywood-Broadway nexus and its most boldface names, they are just a click away; knock yourself out—and neither is it a tell-all. It’s a tell-some, a portrait writ small and portioned out in the tiny and bullet-pointed remembrances of the day-to-day life of one of this country’s most fascinating women and certainly its all-time greatest leading lady.
The grandness of the estate in Fenwick was strangely augmented by its decrepitude. It was disheveled and unkempt in the charming manner of a mad scientist’s laboratory; you got the impression that its inhabitants weren’t slovenly but just so busy with fascinating projects that quotidian matters such as cleaning and routine maintenance were forgotten. There were cracks in walls and a cobwebby haze that dimmed windows; the floors creaked and groaned like the hull of a doomed galleon; and the whole place felt as if it was always leaning shruggishly into the gusting ocean wind.
The house also served as a nifty visual metaphor for Kate’s separateness: She drew a chalk line down the middle of the kitchen, demarcating her territory from her brother Dick’s, which was always neat and tidy and more or less devoid of flies. Kate’s side, however, always looked like some kind of cupboard Armageddon had occurred, and her sink was constantly full of bad meat and dishes with igneous-grade encrustations of food attended by swarms of gleefully hovering insects.
Kate was just as athletic as everyone said. Yes, she was an accomplished figure skater and golfer and performed her own pratfalls in Bringing Up Baby and so on, but what really impressed me was how we would play tennis when she was still in her 80s. True, we played by the “Fenwick Rules,” which meant that she got as many bounces as she wanted, and no matter how well I played she won, but she still had the balletic grace of a natural athlete and the unerring instincts of a riverboat gambler. She didn’t blast any topspin screamers past my (gauche carbon fiber) racquet, but she did wrong-foot me sometimes, and her shots routinely exhibited the clean angles and deceptive pace that result from hitting the racquet’s sweet spot—pow!—right in the kisser, and I am pained to admit that she didn’t always require the Fenwick Rules to take a game from me.
The Fenwick tennis courts would, years later, become the site of another one of my gaffes. When my father married Kate’s great friend, Cynthia McFadden, the ceremony took place at Kate’s estate. It was the summer before I went to college, and my brother and I were young enough to be made uncomfortable by the ceremony, and so we stripped off our rent-a-tuxes and went to go play tennis in our bare feet and underwear. Unfortunately, there was some big deal photographer there—from Life, I think—who was documenting the event. Well, you can imagine the trouble we found ourselves in when it was discovered that there might be pictures taken of two young and nakedish boys playing tennis at Katharine Hepburn’s place on the occasion of her best friend’s wedding. Luckily for everyone involved, the photographer was so drunk that he forgot to put film in his camera until the cake-cutting, a moment which became the central spread in The Private World of Katharine Hepburn.
Kate had an unusual canon of personal laws to which she would—like a cranky Hammurabi—make everyone, including herself, steadfastly adhere:
It was forbidden to use any electrical appliances before 9 a.m.
She would never sleep in anything but white linens because “it could change your personality.”