The Kate I Knew

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Perhaps the most attractive aspect of Katharine Hepburn's personality was that she held no feelings of entitlement. She made plenty of demands; indeed, she knew how to get what she wanted long before she was a star. In part, that's how she got to be a star. But she always remained grounded. In our 20 years of friendship I never encountered a trail of bodies she had trampled over in order to reach her goal. For all her impatience, there was always a sense of humility and humanity, even a sense of gratitude for her good fortune. She was never above making a bed, cooking a meal, chopping wood or working her garden. Indeed, she found pleasure in those activities. Almost every time I saw her in the kitchen of her country house in Old Saybrook, Conn., she was wiping a sponge across the countertop, cleaning up after somebody.

In short, she never lost her work ethic. She believed the point of making money was to allow you to live comfortably enough to work some more, until you simply could work no longer.

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"Retire?" she had exclaimed one night at dinner, when her longtime friend, the producer Irene Mayer Selznick, had found a gentle way of broaching the topic. "What's the point? Actors shouldn't walk away from the audience as long as the audiences aren't walking away from them. As long as people are buying what I'm selling," she added, "I'm still selling." Kate never understood how people got stuck in jobs they didn't enjoy.

Stars who bemoaned the hardships of their profession — the impositions, the loss of privacy — rankled her, as though she were embarrassed to be one of them. "These actors who complain in interviews about 12-hour days!" she said with incomprehension. "You sit there for 11 of them. It's not as if we're carrying sacks of feed all day!"

"What does he expect?" she said upon reading about Sean Penn punching a photographer. "You can't go around saying, 'I'm special. I make my living asking you to look at me, to pay to see me,' and then get upset at somebody for taking a picture. If you don't want to be a public figure, don't pick a public profession and don't appear in public. Because in public you're fair game." She also didn't understand stars who sued newspapers over printing lies about them. "I never cared what anybody wrote about me," Hepburn said, "as long as it wasn't the truth."

While she sought the limelight all her life, Hepburn believed that actors received too much attention and respect. "Let's face it," she said once, "we're prostitutes. I've spent my life selling myself — my face, my body, the way I walk and talk. Actors say, 'You can look at me, but you must pay me for it.'" I replied that may be true, but actors also offer a unique service: the best of them please by inspiring, by becoming the agents for our emotional catharses. "It's no small thing to move people," I said, "and perhaps to get people to think differently, maybe even behave differently." But Kate felt she could have done more. "It really doesn't take all that much to show up for a dinner with the President or to accept an award from an organization so it can receive some publicity," she said. "Oh, the hardship! Oh, the inconvenience! Oh, honestly!"

Kate was never one to speak in abstractions. For all her wisdom, she seldom philosophized. But in my last long conversation with her, when we were alone and she seemed strangely pensive, I could not resist asking, "So what do you think it's all about? Life, I mean. What's the purpose? What are we doing here?" I would have felt embarrassed asking such trite questions had Kate not spared me by answering without hesitation. "To work hard," she said, "and to love someone." Then she paused. "And to have some fun," she added. "And if you're lucky, you keep your health ... and somebody loves you back."

At times we talked about death. "I don't really believe in heaven and hell," she said, "but in the here and now and that we are meant to live in such a way that we can hope there is always something better than what we currently have. I believe how I act today will affect the way I am tomorrow.

"And one day I'll die," she said, "and that doesn't frighten me. I think it will be fine, perfectly fine ... because I'll just be taking a long, wonderful nap. But until I do ... I intend to tire myself out."

"A long, wonderful nap?" I queried. "Does that mean you think you'll wake up ... and come back to life? Do you believe in reincarnation?"

She laughed, responding only with a look that suggested I had gone berserk.

When Irene Selznick died in 1990, a memorial service was arranged at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway. Kate had no intention of attending. I called her the week before and the night before and argued that I thought she would feel better if she went, that Irene had played an important role in her life. "What's the point?" Kate asked. "She's dead. She won't know the difference."

"What about her sons, Danny and Jeffrey?" I asked. "It would mean a lot to them." I swung by the next day, and her driver took us to the Ethel Barrymore before the doors inside had even opened. Kate barged in, and I followed, as several ushers called out that she couldn't enter yet, as they were still setting up. Hearing the commotion, Danny came up the aisle and embraced Kate. Her eyes welled up seeing him. He asked us where we wanted to sit, and we selected center orchestra seats. Minutes later, the few hundred others were admitted. All the speakers that afternoon were concise, eloquent, funny and on the mark, just as Irene would have insisted.

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