Lisa Schwarzbaum
July 25, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Kate Remembered

Current Status
In Season
A. Scott Berg

We gave it a B+

Kate Remembered — a book barely anyone knew existed last month — appeared with suitable briskness, less than two weeks after the June 29 death of Katharine Hepburn at age 96. Her own departure was one stipulation Hepburn placed on A. Scott Berg before the esteemed biographer of Max Perkins, Samuel Goldwyn, and Charles Lindbergh could tell her stories. And as it happened, that gave Berg 20 years of friendship with the great actress to prepare this unusual and unusually fitting ”account,” as he describes it, of a life lived outside the usual in virtually all things.

Hepburn herself referred to Berg as her biographer, but ”Kate Remembered” is a very unorthodox biography: ”Remembered” is the key word, since his touching, encoded tribute is as much about what it meant to be a devoted friend as it is about the object of devotion. And indeed, ”Remembered” begins dubiously — and somewhat crustily — with a story about how Berg met Hepburn. Writing a magazine article about the star (after clearing many obstacles for the privilege), the writer shows up at her Manhattan door and is immediately commanded to use the bathroom by the hostess, certain she knew a guest’s bladder better than the owner did.

An understanding of one another quickly follows. And so, gradually, does a sense not only of what Hepburn did, and with whom, but perhaps the closest we can come to feeling what it was like to live Hepburn’s life as she did, in a pattern of attachments and detachments. Pinning together her reminiscences of rendezvous with Howard Hughes, for example, and one bizarre dinner with Michael Jackson, Berg efficiently describes the arc of her amazingly long-lived career on stage, screen, and television. He also confirms, with some elaborations, what many know already from obituaries and other books (including Hepburn’s own fabulously persnickety 1991 memoir, ”Me: Stories of My Life”) about her private life, most famously her relationship with Spencer Tracy.

”Kate Remembered” is, however, not a book of revelations. Those hungry to confirm rumors of a hidden daughter will go away unfed. No sooner does a comment from Hepburn friend (and Berg confidante) Irene Mayer Selznick suggest sexual relationships with women than Berg drifts from the subject with the canny vagueness Hepburn herself might have employed. When he wants to, Berg can produce anecdotes as sharp as an admonition to use the bathroom; he connects. His account of Warren Beatty’s vanity while making 1994’s ”Love Affair,” Hepburn’s final film, draws blood. Yet when he opts to give his celebrated friend the privacy and dignity she felt she needed, he turns drifty and veiled, as if to distract readers from her secrets.

The odd thing is, the subterfuge works. ”You are me,” Hepburn once told Berg. In this gently unsettling book, I believe he is.

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