Katharine Hepburn is known for her brisk style and independence, but with that independence has come an aura of impenetrability. The kind of tough, spirited, self-contained women she has portrayed on film is how she has presented herself in real life too, and until now, nothing written about her either by others or by herself (especially by herself) has revealed an inch about who the real woman is. I love the old girl, but when, in her autobiography, she shrugs off any examination of feelings with a breezy ''Hey ho!'' or some such Hartford Yankeeism, I think, Hello, is anyone home? Biographer Barbara Leaming's great accomplishment in KATHARINE HEPBURN is to make the Great Kate come alive as a regular woman and to tell that story with an empathy and acuity desperately rare in the biographies of stars.
You know she's on a fresh track when Leaming, who has also written thoughtful studies of Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth, and Orson Welles, begins two generations back, with the suicide of Hepburn's grandfather Fred. Suicide and its effects, Leaming posits, are the threads that baste Hepburn's psyche together. Hepburn's mother grew up to be a forceful feminist who passed those qualities of self-sufficiency on to her daughter. But one of Katharine Hepburn's uncles gassed himself in a car, another flung himself out a window. And it was she who found the body of her brother Tom hanging from a rafter.
This, Leaming gently suggests, is the key to Kate's heart. Chary of losing another man she loved, she chose men who were conflicted and whom she could be conflicted about (such as the married director John Ford who, the author implies, is the man Hepburn should have been with) or men who could be cold (including Leland Hayward and Howard Hughes). Her one husband, Ludlow Ogden Smith, who adored her, bored her.
And then there was Spencer Tracy, her great acting partner, the great obsession of her life, and, as Leaming paints him, a selfish, married, manipulative alcoholic. ''Tracy signaled his need for Kate loud and clear when he drank with particular ferocity during the filming of Tortilla Flat,'' Leaming writes. ''He did not want Kate to go off [to act in a play], but he would never say something like that directly. Instead, he made her fear what would happen if she left him.'' And the desperate Hepburn the proud feminist, who had always lived in fine style the way she wanted to, and taken lovers as she preferred turned her life upside down in deference to him.
Katharine Hepburn reads with the style of a rich novel. Yet it's a life the author is talking about, that of an extraordinary woman who, in movies from Little Women and The Philadelphia Story to Adam's Rib and The African Queen, established a definition of modern femininity never before seen on screen and now regularly copied. That the brisk ''Hey ho!'' exclamations turn out to hide deeper pains is no shame. It is, indeed, a chance to connect with the rest of the human race, and Leaming does her subject a great credit by unfolding her human side. A