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Hepburn leafs through life after death
(Clockwise from top) Harrison Ford, Julia Roberts, Meryl Streep, Sylvester Stallone

New York, July 16 (Reuters): Motivated by the way her former lover Howard Hughes was remembered as pathologically eccentric, Katharine Hepburn wanted the record about her life and 27-year relationship with Spencer Tracy set straight immediately after her death.

The last sentence of Kate Remembered was written by Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer A. Scott Berg on June 29, the day the 96-year-old actress died. Less than two weeks later the 370-page book was in the shops.

Readers learn that the hard-drinking Tracy once struck Hepburn in the face with the back of his hand, that as a student she posed nude for photos and figurines, and that during a retreat from the limelight in the early 1960s, when she was rumoured to have suffered a breakdown, she was caring for an ailing Tracy.

There is also Hepburn’s candid assessment of some of the great names of cinema from past and present — with Ralph Richardson, Harrison Ford, John Travolta and Julia Roberts smiled upon, and Laurence Olivier, Meryl Streep, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Woody Allen panned.

“We were observing what I felt were Kate’s wishes, to get the book out as soon as possible after her death,” Berg said about the “part biography and part memoir” drawn from conversations with Hepburn over a 20-year period which started in 1983 when he was 33 and she was 75.

Berg’s friendship with Hepburn grew out of a two-day interview for a magazine story that never ran. Good timing and circumstances placed him in position to serve as a confidant. “I think she believed she lived a fascinating life and her stories should not go with her to her grave,” he said. After their first meeting, Hepburn invited Berg for a weekend at Fenwick, her estate in Connecticut, launching a friendship and collaboration that spanned two decades.

Berg said the lasting public image of billionaire Hughes, the film impresario-aviator-industrialist who had a three-year affair with Hepburn, moved her to want a fast release of the posthumous retrospective. “She talked about what a ridiculous figure Howard had become in the public imagination. It pained her because she always said he was such a brilliant man,” Berg said.

While Hepburn’s life never took such a dramatic turn, there was a cloak of secrecy surrounding the book, whose existence before Hepburn’s death was known only to a select few. Berg said publicity material prepared just before her death had actress Virginia Mayo’s name substituted for Hepburn’s.

Hepburn, nominated for 12 Academy Awards and winner of a record four Oscars, had a string of flings in her early days in Hollywood, taking up with directors George Stevens, John Ford and Hughes among others, while still married to a man from her Bryn Mawr university days. But she found the love of her life in co-star Tracy on the set of Woman of the Year in 1941, falling for him as though she had been “hit over the head with a cast-iron skillet”.

Hepburn thought Tracy was the best actor in film. “A baked potato,” she said of him, referring to his talent, “absolutely plain, basic and essential”.

Tracy, an unhappily married Catholic who would not divorce, also enjoyed a series of affairs with leading ladies such as Myrna Loy and Joan Crawford before settling down with Hepburn.

Berg, who wrote the bulk of the book after finishing his Pulitzer-winning biography of aviator Charles Lindbergh, recounted how he learned about Tracy striking Hepburn. “It was one of those nights that had gone on a long while after dinner. The fire is dying and it’s getting late. There is kind of a silence. We had been talking cosily about Tracy. I just felt there was an opening,” he said. “Did he ever strike you'” Berg said he asked.

“Once,” she replied, revealing how one “fiendish” night when she collected him after a drinking spree and tried to deposit him in the Beverly Hills Hotel, he took a swipe at her.

She said she never mentioned the incident to him, believing he was so drunk he would not remember it, Berg wrote.

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