Who doesn’t love the movies of Katherine Hepburn? With her energy and upper-crust Bryn Mawr accent, she wraps the audience around her little finger. Then combine her brittle elegance with the relaxed down-to-earthness of Spencer Tracy and you have the makings of the best of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
But underneath there was a maelstrom of dynamics that made their coupling explode from the Silver Screen. For starters, they were lovers for twenty-five (or more!) years. And for another thing, she was a narcissist and he a raging alcoholic.
One of the things that bothers me the most about all Hepburn biographies, and indeed her own autobiography, is her parent-worship. She fawns so much over her “wonderful” parents that it rings hollow. C’mon! No one has parents that great.
Even into her forties after decades of living in Hollywood, she thought of the East Coast Hepburn family home as her real home. Her parents kept her childhood bedroom intact, complete with her stuffed animal collection. “You see,” she told Spencer, “I never really left home. Not really.”
Then it struck me: no one in my family talked badly enough about their parents either. Oh, they mentioned some upsetting incidents, but they never really connected the dots. No matter the abuse, no matter the complete lack of boundaries, the manipulation, the juxtaposition of Golden Child vs. Scapegoat and regardless of how their parents set them up for dysfunctional relationships, my folks could never quite bring themselves to “call a spade a spade.” Couldn’t bring themselves to acknowledge how their bad parents set them up for narcissism and codependence. Couldn’t quite bring themselves to make a complete 100% No Contact break from their parents.
Neither could Hepburn.
What Mummy & Daddy Want
“I just don’t think,” Kate said, “that Mother really thought I was doing all I could with my life. She made me wonder if I wasn’t just wasting my time.” So much for her brilliant acting career!
But on the other hand, when John Barrymore tried to seduce her, Kate cried out, “No! My father doesn’t want me to have babies!” So much for a career as a wife and mother!
It strikes me that she was “damned if she did and damned if she didn’t.” It was virtually impossible to please her parents from childhood on. Her father was extremely sparing with praise. Tears, pain and self-empathy were verboten. And regardless of how many Oscars she netted, it just didn’t matter if she wasn’t doing Shakespeare.
And yet, she still worshiped her mom and dad.
Nut or Narcissist?
In An Affair to Remember: The Remarkable Lovy Story of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, author Christopher Anderson quotes Humphrey Bogart as saying Hepburn was either a “twenty-four carat nut or a great actress working mighty hard at being one.”
Bogie went on to say, “She won’t let anybody get a word in edgewise and keeps repeating what a superior person she is.” Finally, Bogie snapped and told her she “ought to come down to Earth.”
Imagine her brittle Bryn Mawr accent responding, “You mean, down to where you’re crawling?”
Hmmmm, sounds like narcissism to me.
She Knew Best
One paragraph in An Affair to Remember jumped off the page at me. It sums up narcissism so perfectly:
“Hepburn’s self-imposed aura of authority extended far beyond moviemaking.
Kate always believed she knew best and brooked no disagreements.
As far as she was concerned, there was one and only one proper way to brew tea,
scrub a floor, water a philodendron, grasp a tennis racket,
hoe a garden, take a shower, chop wood, scramble an egg,
sail a boat, bank a fire, brush one’s teeth, shell peas,
fly a kite, make a chip shot, drive a car, fold a napkin
or decorate a Christmas tree. ‘She had ironclad rules for everything,’
[Garson] Kanin observed, ‘and the total, utter conviction to back them up.'”
The prosecution rests.
And Then There Was Spencer
What struck me as so odd in the Hepburn/Tracy relationship is how utterly illogical and unexpected it was. Hepburn is supposedly the poster girl for the modern feminist.The woman who doesn’t need a man. The woman who stands on her own two feet. The woman who might get a guy…but certainly won’t put up with any shit from him.
This is actually the antithesis of the great love of Hepburn’s life. In reality, she spent twenty-five (or more) years devoted to Tracy, one of the worst alcoholics Hollywood has ever known. An alcoholic who manipulated her, stood her up repeatedly, neglected her, cheated on her and even, once, struck her.
And then I remembered my article NPD Survivor Seeks Alcoholic To Love. Suddenly, it kinda’ made sense.
You might say that Tracy kept Hepburn grounded. It seems odd that a narcissist would allow anyone to call their pretentious bluff, but that’s exactly what Tracy did. He had no qualms deflating Hepburn’s pomposity in private and in public. “Without warning or provocation,” Anderson wrote, “he often cut Kate off in mid-sentence. Guests squirmed uncomfortably when Tracy snapped, ‘Did anyone ask your opinion?'” Kate would merely blush, smile and shut-up.
Yet, she treated her assistant, Phyllis Wibourn, in much the same way. Friends said she treated Phyllis “like a dog.” Yet behind her back Hepburn would praise Phyllis and say “How she can stand me, I don’t know.”
Yes, their relationship was wildly dysfunctional. It also worked. My favorite quote was Tracy calling Hepburn’s bluff with his hilarious, “Why do you always talk like you have a feather up your ass?”
Tracy kept Hepburn’s narcissism somewhat grounded. Hepburn kept Tracy somewhat sober.
And together they gave us some of the greatest movies ever made.
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