Hepburn as role model

Anna Quindlen

October 24, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

GROWING UP, I had trouble seeing the women around me as role models. I loved my mother, but I saw her mostly as a woman with a diaper thrown over one shoulder, white mottled with pale yellow, her working clothes. Some girls saw that diaper as the shape of their own inevitable future; I found it an inevitable divide.

We ambitious, discontented girls of 30 years ago had a hard time imagining how to imagine ourselves. There was the occasional inspirational teacher, the Miss Jean Brodie of Glen Oaks Elementary, and the fictional and historical women, the Molly Pitchers and Jo Marches.

I was enamored of the two Dorothys, Thompson and Parker, the columnist and the wit, although neither had a happy life. But happy was not what I was seeking in the wilderness of male writers, doctors, world leaders and explorers. It was something harder to name, restless and self-involved.

Into this vacuum stepped Katharine Hepburn, or at least what Katharine Hepburn appeared to be. It's hard for me to remember now the first impression, I've seen the movies so often.

I think it was the imperious chin, a set of the head and crossing of the legs that, taken together, seemed to say: Attention must be paid. It was not just the cinema jobs as columnist or lawyer, although they seemed strange and grand to me, living with the vision of the diaper. It was the attitude, the aren't I grand? That was the role. That was the model.

In her new book about her life, entitled "Me," Miss Hepburn insists that that woman in the movies was not her at all. "I'm not going to hide behind you anymore," she says. "Who are you anyway? You're not me."

Sure she is. The woman in the book is cocky, fearless, smart, capable and human, on screen and off. "I posed with total confidence, as I rather fancied myself," she writes of being photographed nude.

And describing her efforts to work with Leslie Howard, who disliked her, she sketches a familiar female attempt at transformation: "Try as hard as I could to be subservient . . . sweet . . . feminine . . . anything which would tame down my too vivid personality."

She writes of an early appearance on the stage: "I leapt down the steps, three or more steps at a time . . . rounded the corner . . . one jump for the last four steps . . . threw the stag on the ground and landed on one knee, paying obeisance to Hippolyta, my sister, queen of the Amazons.

"The audience, of course, burst into applause. They could hardly do anything else. I had all but asked for it. But I was unaware. I was just full of the joy of life and opportunity and a wild desire to be absolutely fascinating."

It's such a perfect description of egocentric youth, that leaps down the stairs and jumps over -- or kicks -- anything in its way. It's the same sort of impulse that leads Jimmy Breslin to recall, in his irresistible new book about the writer Damon Runyon, how as a young reporter Breslin was determined to out-Runyon Runyon, to Breslin.

That plays differently in the two books, the two lives, the actress and the newspaperman. Growing up, it seemed unseemly to think of myself as a verb. What in boys is called confidence, in girls is labeled conceit.

Hepburn made confidence palpable, vivid, above all female. My daughter can look to those of my friends who review movies and write stories and run colleges and paint pictures and treat her strep throat as examples of women who radiate capability and self-worth.

She will know that it is possible to choose the diaper and the stethoscope, to embrace both, although if she thinks this is easy I will have raised a fool. The hard choices are clear in the Hepburn book, the desolation when she finds her beloved Spencer Tracy dead on her kitchen floor and the dreadful moment when Tracy's widow tells her, "I thought you were only a rumor."

That's not me, she says of the movies. But movies weren't all there was to it. The word icon has been done to death. Image is better.

There was something deeply self-involved about the image, the sterling silver ego to be transmogrified unconvincingly by the end of the movies for all those audiences who wanted her to be their idea of femininity. The selfless self has always been the rage in women. Hepburn was something else again, with her bold and unapologetic self-center. Growing up, self-center was a good place to start when you weren't sure you had a self at all.

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