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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

HISTORY LESSON: "Kate the Great"

Hollywood is often referenced as the birthplace and home to the walking wounded. This city is overwrought with such a tragic history that it is difficult at times to see the beauty behind the beast. However, it should be noted that for every horror story, every drug-addicted end, every suicidal leap, there are an equal amount of career successes, envelope pushers, and obstacle anihilators. Those who fall into these latter categories normally possess either an innate or well-honed thick skin or an almost blissfully ignorant optimism. Oh, and of course an unstoppable ambition that oversteps the bounds of stubborness. Though it is unfortuante that the cream doesn't always seem to rise to the top-- despite what the old adage tells us-- it does appear that hungry, voracious, and spirited individuals are often able to stake their claim and maintain healthy, lengthy careers in the movie business.

One such person is Katharine Hepburn (above). Almost unreasonably optimistic, Kate was a solid actress and a dependable friend for all her years in Hollywood. Sturdy, intelligent, and determined, this class act and unconventional beauty was able to make it on her own terms. While she could be glamorous, she never lost her Kate-ness, opting to showcase her own unique personality and integrity over the glossy and spoon-fed images of the day. Let's face it: Kate was odd. Freckled, skinny, and ambiguous, her guts and talent carried her far. She won over the respect of the industry, the love of her fans, and along the way made quite the assortment of friends. Despite her flinty demeanor, Kate proved herself to be a loyal and warm-hearted individual who lent her kindness to many over the years. Her go-get-it spirit and can-do attitude became a crutch for many to lean on in a time of need, even if they were complete strangers. A pre-feminist in many ways, Kate most importantly was there for her fellow "sisters" in the industry, becoming the ever-present Ms. Fix-it during times of trouble or chaos. Here are a few examples:

Our December Lady, Veronica Lake (left), was not well acquainted with Katharine Hepburn in 1943. Certainly, they had at some point or other crossed paths at parties or Hollywood events, but they weren't good friends. One couldn't even refer to them as acquaintances. For this reason, Kate was the last person that Ronni would expect to show up during a time of emergency. Yet, when Veronica was in the hospital after losing her second child (William Anthony Detlie, born prematurely and thereafter succumbing to uremic poisoning), she would wake up to discover Kate sitting next to her bed, complete in a mink coat. Surprised, Veronica's eyes bulged! Kate had just stopped by because she was in the hospital visiting her secretary and heard about Ronni's sad news. She offered her condolensces and offered to help in any way she could. Deeply touched, the proud Ronni said that she was fine but appreciated the sentiment. The two sat chatting briefly before Kate got up and left, but Veronica was markedly cheered after this random visit. For a stranger to go out of her way to wish her well meant a great deal to her during a sad and lonely moment in her life, especially since she was often ostracized and gossiped about by many in the industry. Kate's final words to her were, "Remember Veronica, the calla lilies will bloom again." Ronni never forgot it.

Ava Gardner (right) too had a run in with Kate, who would reveal herself as a Jack-of-all-trades. Kate was a good friend of George Cukor. Indeed, the pair would make numerous movies together due to their chemistry as actress and director as well as their connection and understanding as people. Kate was a constant visitor at George's home, attending his many soirees, where the gay director always enjoyed inviting his favorite leading ladies. Cukor later became equally enamored of Ava, the devastatingly beautiful and underrated actress, though he was sadly unable to make more than one movie with her-- Bhowani Junction. Nonetheless, their friendship was lifelong. After they made this film together, George invited Ava and her constant, tag-along sister "Bappie" to one of his get-togethers (in 1978). But on the way, the sisters got a flat tire. When George found out, passing them at the right time in his own car with Mia Farrow, he knew just what to do. He sent for Kate! Without fluttering an eyelid, Kate came down from the party, crouched to the ground-- all 69 years of her-- spun a wrench, switched in a spare, and sent her two grateful new friends on their way. Ava was surprised and delighted. Of all the people to show up... Imagine getting a flat and having Kate Hepburn pull up in a tow truck!!!

Several years prior, in 1940, Viven Leigh and Laurence Olivier had obtained divorces from their mutual spouses and were ready to finally make their scandalous love affair legitimate. Calling up friend Garson Kanin, Viv and Larry (pictured left in Fire over England) asked him to be the best man at their secret wedding. Garson, who was dead asleep when the duo called, quickly agreed, but then he remembered that he was to have a script conference with Kate later that day. Thus, he suggested that he bring her along as a bridesmaid. The two lovebirds heartily agreed, and since Kate was always game for anything, she too jumped out of bed after her call to duty, threw on some clothes, joined the wedding party, and served as the maid-of-honor to a bride she didn't even know! Everyone had a blast, and soon Viv and Larry were off on their honeymoon aboard Ronald Colman's yacht.

Kate would again come to Vivien's aid after the latter woman's bipolar disorder had severely impaired her life. Already divorced from Larry-boy, Viv was in the constant company of her lover Jack Merivale by 1965. During shooting on Ship of Fools (see right), she had an extreme mental attack brought on by the dark  nature of her role. After displaying very erratic behavior at a party thrown by Rosalind Russell,  Jack felt that Viv needed to be taken to the hospital for emergency ECT treatments immediately. But it wasn't that easy: in her current state of mind, dragging Viv to the doctor was no easy task, and it was also a challenge to get her there without the scathing paparazzi taking advantage of the situation. Jack wanted to get her there quietly, before anyone found out and could make a stink about it-- he didn't want his beloved humiliated. He therefore called George Cukor, who in turn called on Kate. 

Kate dropped what she was doing to rush to Viv's side, despite the fact that since the wedding the two had had little interaction. After finding a discrete doctor, she hopped in the back seat of Jack's car, and he drove the three of them to the hospital. All the while, Kate ducked down in back so as not to be recognized and used her light-hearted humor to calm the situation. She talked casually with Viv about normal things, distracting her from the current stress. By the time they reached the hospital, Viv was no longer unmanageable and seemed like her normal self again. She was quietly escorted inside and received the proper care. Viv's ECT treatments were always a stressful and painful thing to endure, for both Jack and Viv (together, left), but again Kate lent her support and was also there for future treatments required after this initial visit. Jack emphatically thanked his red-headed hero for her generosity, but to Kate, it was all in a day's work.

But of course, the most notable charity work Kate ever did was for her soul-mate Spencer Tracy. Her deep love for the complex and tormented actor caused her to sacrifice her life in martyrdom to his constant upkeep and welfare. The fact that such opposing forces of nature and unlikely lovers should ever come together is a mystery in itself. Somehow, the two did fall in love, and their off and onscreen affair lasted from their official meeting prior to Woman of the Year to Spencers's death in 1967. An affair it was, as Spencer had been married to the long-suffering Louise Treadwell since 1923. Katharine was not his first extra-marital dalliance, nor would she be his last, and the same demons that sent him continuosly seeking refuge in the bottle equally found him bounding from bed to bed. His relationship with Kate was somehow different, and his main attraction was probably compelled by his sense of her strength.

Spencer and Kate in their first collaboration,
Woman of the Year, the film on which they would 
fall in love.

Though Kate certainly found Spencer's marital status a bit unsavory, as certainly many others did, she was perhaps quelled a bit by the fact that he had been estranged from Louise for many years and that their marriage was one that existed in name only. Since she herself had already been wed and divorced from Ludlow Ogden Smith and had no further penchant for matrimony, and because she understood the importance for Louise to continue being Mrs. Spencer Tracy due to her charity work on behalf of her deaf son, John, Kate never pushed the issue, never asked Spencer to get a divorce, never asked for anything more than the simple partnership they had. Mostly, Kate sensed in Spencer a challenge, and God knows she loved a challenge. Despite herself, she fell in love and became entirely devoted to the Irish fireball, who with all his power, willfullness, and intensity was the first to ever really shake the imperturbable New Englander up.

For their entire relationship, Kate was a crutch and pillar of strength for the temperamental and unsteady Spence to lean upon. A source of comfort during his tormented, guilt-ridden moments and a force to be reckoned with when he needed sobering up, Kate served as a care-taker, mother, nursemaid, friend, and lover. When Spence would disappear for weeks or even months at at time, Kate would be there to nurse him back to health when he returned. The fact that she stuck by him through thick and thin, despite his overly selfish tendencies, amazed and awed him. For once, he had found a place to be safe; a place where he was accepted warts and all, and could be at peace. Kate's allegiance can most obviously be seen in the last picture that the two made together, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. At this point, Spencer's unpredictable behavior and drinking habits endangered his casting in what would too be his last movie. Believing in his talent and his courage as a human being, Kate showed her faith in him by putting her own salary up as collateral to pay for his insurance. The studio accepted, and the duo delivered their most palpable and heartbreaking work together, and without incident.

Their last film together, 
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

Spencer would pass away on June 10, 1967 after 25 years as Kate's unlawful husband. He remained, to her own dying day on June 29, 2003, the love of her life. Kate's relationship with Spencer falls into place with the other events of her life, wherein she played the game her own way, unapologetically, and with great spunk and spirit. The motivations that pushed her along, despite occassional appearances, where never selfish. This was a woman who could do only what she saw in her eyes as right and just, even if it went against the grain of what others thought or believed. When a person is secure in oneself, she can extend her good fortune and warmth to others, and there are many who were blanketed by the safety of Kate's generosity. So, while it is her onscreen talent that has solidified her place in pop culture history, it is the great humanity and depth in her personal character that makes her truly admirable. These selfsame things fueled her unparalleled filmic characterizations-- full of passion, gravity, and chutzpah. She earned her nickname for a reason: Kate truly was "Great."

Kate always adhered faithfully to her family's motto:
 "Listen to the song of life."


  1. What a woman! I really wish I could have met her.

    1. You and me both! Sometimes I don't believe she exists, but she continues to be one Hell of an inspiration. :) Love her <3