How to Hepburn

People said she dressed like a boy. It was unheard of for women to wear pants in 1932, the year Katherine Hepburn filmed her first movie, but she did it anyway and became a Hollywood icon for that reason among many.

People said she dressed like a boy. It was unheard of for women to wear pants in 1932, the year Katherine Hepburn filmed her first movie, but she did it anyway and became a Hollywood icon for that reason among many.

Hepburn, who would have celebrated her 100th birthday this past Saturday, is the subject of a new book by Karen Karbo called How to Hepburn, through which you, too, can learn to be brash and beloved like the revered actress.

Karbo, who lives in Portland, was at the Powell’s on Burnside Friday night to promote the book, a self-help styled biography of Kate the Great. In the book, Karbo examines Hepburn’s film career and life in the public eye, while extracting the things she thinks one can learn from her??mainly how to be oneself no matter how different or eccentric that may be.

The book offers such suggestions as “develop a concept of fun that includes not just play, but work” and “find the type of clothes you feel best in and never take them off.” It also lists some of the rules that Hepburn did not follow and that you may or may not do well to disregard also. These include doing her own stunts, not attending Hollywood parties and a having a 20-year relationship with Spencer Tracy, the love of her life whom was married to someone else.

“She was an extraordinary woman. There’s something about her forthrightness, it’s something we could all use today,” Karbo said.

How to Hepburn is an interesting read for those either familiar or unacquainted with Hepburn’s incomparable career. The story of Hepburn’s life, beginning to end, is not all told. Rather, Karbo has put together a collection of tidbits, both big and small, that illustrate the actress’ bold, deviant and charming character.

“Her sort of mythology is known. I’m not re-revealing anything,” Karbo explained. “It’s an assessment.”

Growing up, Karbo said that Hepburn was one of her mother’s “household saints,” and, coincidently, people often said her mother, a freckled redhead like Hepburn, looked like the actress. Beyond that, Karbo said her interest wasn’t really sparked until she pursued her master’s degree the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television, where she discovered Hepburn’s older, more “offbeat” body of work. (It was the early 80s then and Hepburn would continue to act in made-for-TV movies for another decade.)

“It was there I met a very different Katherine Hepburn, it was the black-and-white Katherine Hepburn of Bringing Up Baby,” Karbo said. “I loved this Katherine Hepburn.”

Since then, Karbo claims to have maintained a fascination for Hepburn. She said she spent a whole year researching her life and viewing her films before she began writing How to Hepburn.

While paying homage to Hepburn through the book, Karbo reminds us that the actress met a lot of adversity in her lifetime. She didn’t take heed of social cues, like wearing makeup or dresses, and she was “tremendously out of style” when she arrived in Hollywood.

And, especially at the start of her career, the roles she played were often unconvincing. She just wasn’t made to play the damsel in distress. It didn’t take long for Hepburn to resolve to only accept roles written for her. Just like doing her own stunts (she was very athletic), this is how she lived on her own terms.

“Even though she made many mistakes in her life, she would stride on and go for it,” Karbo said.

Hepburn’s own terms included a wealth of idiosyncrasies. She is noted to have showered several times a day and would not rent or buy a house without giving the shower a trial run. She also admitted to breaking into people’s houses just to look around. And she began most days with a swim in the ocean, even in the frigid waters of the Long Island Sound. “The thought of hypothermia or being swept out to sea apparently never occurred to her,” Karbo wrote.

In October 1973, Hepburn made her first television appearance on The Dick Cavett Show. It was filmed without an audience. Hepburn had just been visiting the set and decided on a whim to do the interview, after avoiding Cavett, the late-night host famous for interviews with Orson Welles and Jimi Hendrix, for years. Karbo played a film clip at the Powell’s event of Hepburn caught on film before the interview began. The then 67-year-old Hepburn walked around, as they say, like she owned the place. She sat down in the interviewee’s armchair and asked, “Haven’t you got something we can put our feet on?”

Karbo showed a five-minute-long montage of the interview, which was nearly two hours long. In it, Hepburn offered such wisdom as “There’s one person you can correct, and that’s yourself.”

Between 1932 and 1994 the unconventional beauty (she was five-foot-seven and covered in freckles) was in more than 50 films. Despite being labeled ” box office poison” for a brief time in 1938, along with other actors like Marlene Dietrich and Fred Astaire, she was nominated for 12 and won four Oscars for Best Actress.

“She had a film career like no other,” Karbo said.

Hepburn passed away in 2003 at the age of 96. Karbo’s book serves as a rumination on Hepburn as an icon, as someone who redefined femininity and refused to compromise herself in a business when nearly everyone else was, and as someone who made every day count.