My Brush with Katharine the Great

“MICHAEL MOHHHRRREEEEAAAHHHHTTTEEEEE?!” she echoed again.

“I thought you wuh dead!”

Symbolically I had, indeed, died to the business of celebrity and fame. It frightened me. Sickened me, actually. Made me commit a kind of career suicide. Because my career blip had fallen off Katharine Hepburn’s radar screen, I had become dead to her.

Katharine Hepburn

I’m sure, though, if I had ever called again, it would be her, Hepburn and not her secretary, picking up the phone in the East Side Manhattan brownstone she owned. This particular clip from "Glass Menagerie" says it all.

“Then go to the moon, you selfish dreamah!!!”

That is Hepburn rocketing the whole, profoundly ignorant, lifeless world to an equally banal and distantly barren planet. The faint echo placed upon Miss H’s cry of “dreamah” is particularly resonant now, insofar as the symbolic son that Kate was exhorting was, in real life, the playwright Tennessee Williams whom I also knew. About whom I will write in a future Big Hollywood post.

I came to know both Ms. Hepburn and Tennessee because of "Glass Menagerie." My friendship with Tennessee lasted much longer than the volatile one I’d briefly shared with Hepburn.

Why?



Both Tennessee and I were destined to wander for brief while among the walking wounded.

Volatile is actually an insufficient adjective for Katherine Hepburn. She didn’t live so much as burn. Flame like an exploding planet: the very definition of a Star! She was fire itself. When she didn’t feel the fire within her? She would go and lie down till a good nap brought the fire back.

Katharine Hepburn

As in this photo, one couldn’t always anticipate in which direction that inner gaze would take us: exclamations of ecstasy or anger? Therein lies the secret of great acting: don’t let the audience know what is coming next. Never telegraph where you are going.

She was inevitably one of the sexiest women I’ve ever met.

Why inevitably?

Once she shared the liberation of her thoughts, the limitless directions her mind could go in? All seemed possible around her. Quite inspiring on all levels. This photo captures exactly the pose she was in when I first laid eyes on her at the Warwick Hotel. She was gazing out the window but not at Manhattan.

Some corner of her magnificent history on earth was floating by her inner eye. Our following meeting was on April 5th, 1973.

“I hear you have a birthday, today!”

Yes, I said.

“Do you know who else was born on April 5th?”

No, I said.

“Spensah!!”

Well, I thought, gee, gosh … and by gum … what can I possibly say to that? When you are in the presence of self-evident greatness remembering greatness, your heart doesn't just sink. It seems to disappear, along with your courage, not to mention the once eloquent mobility of your tongue.

It was the Irish thing that fascinated Hepburn. Her love for Irish men was unashamedly brazen. John Ford to Tracy to O’Toole. As I said, and in her value system, Hepburn thought I was dead!

Since acting only became a part of my life as a writer and musician as well, I think she might cut me a bit of slack now. Then again, acting and becoming an indelibly memorable star and performer seemed her singular and most eternal obsession. Stardom seemed a goal in the Hepburn soul before her specter had even arrived on earth.

To paraphrase what has been said about Bette Davis in The Letter: “Katharine Hepburn rips it open!”

The ghost of Laurette Taylor will hang over any actress’s performance as "The Glass Menagerie’s" Amanda Wingfield. Audience members who had seen Taylor’s Amanda have spoken with awe about the reality of it, how there seemed to be no acting involved. Because the memory of Taylor and her own particular personality has so dominated the history of the role, Hepburn, who is not absent minded or dizzy about anything in life as Taylor’s Amanda Wingfield was, seemed to many critics “miscast.” What should have brought Hepburn at least an Emmy Award Nomination brought her nothing but neglect. Hepburn, however, knew the risk she was taking and, being a born Shakespearean “Kate,” she took it.

One thing about the theater. If you are there watching greatness, you own that experience among a select few by comparison to the gigantic audiences of film and television. Sadly, the recording of Laurence Olivier’s "Othello" carries nothing of the power I experienced when I saw him perform it live in London. No one can take that memory away from me. Not even a film that flattened almost everything he did or said as Othello.

The same is true of my life-altering adoration of Paul Scofield’s Don Adriano de Armado in "Love’s Labor’s Lost." Those who did see that miracle own the spiritual privilege of a billionaire. Likewise, simply sitting with the great Hepburn over lunch or between breaks in rehearsal? A young man is never quite the same after such an experience. Nor does he want to be.

I had been “Hepburned!”

The fire of that woman, as I recall it, still brings tears to my eyes. In the end, the only playwright I consider worthy of Hepburn’s soul is Shakespeare. When asked by Barbra Streisand why Hepburn seemed so insulted by the singer’s question, “Have you ever done Shakespeare before?”

I replied, “That would be like asking you, Ms. Streisand, if you sing.”

As the great literary critic, Harold Bloom declared, “Shakespeare invented us!” Hepburn was everything Shakespeare was looking for in a human being, male or female. Shakespeare didn’t invent her. God did. Shakespeare might have had to play hurry and catch up with Hepburn.

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