Lillian Ross Does Katharine Hepburn

The art of narcissistic obituary.

Yesterday’s New York Times op-ed tribute to Katharine Hepburn by Lillian Ross lent unlooked-for support to the cliché that all writing is autobiography. Ross’ ostensible purpose was to commemorate Hepburn as a role model for women, especially in the “pure, Brahmin generosity” she displayed toward the wife of her lover of 27 years, Spencer Tracy:

For years before Miss Hepburn wrote her book, she gave print and television interviews. Invariably, she would be asked about Tracy. To my knowledge, she never whined or protested about her life with him. It seems clear now that she tried to protect him from, among other things, being torn apart by his dilemma.

Similarly, in her 1998 memoir, Here but Not Here, Ross does not whine or protest about her life with New Yorker Editor William Shawn, who had a similar dilemma in dividing his life between his wife and children, who lived in one apartment, and his lover/employee and her adopted son, who lived in another apartment 10 blocks south. In praising Hepburn, then, Ross is really praising herself.

But there’s a significant difference between Hepburn and Ross, one that Ross obscures in her weirdly narcissistic mininarrative. Hepburn didn’t merely decline to whine or protest to interviewers about her relationship with Tracy. She declined to discuss publicly the intimate nature of their relationship at all, even after Tracy died in 1967. It was only after Tracy’s wife, Louise, died in 1983 that Hepburn consented to write and be interviewed about her years living with Tracy. This deference is particularly striking when one remembers that the affair had been common knowledge for years. (Hepburn’s neighbor and sometime screenwriter Garson Kanin had published a book about it in 1971, thereby rupturing their friendship.)

Ross, on the other hand, waited only until Shawn’s death to write and give interviews about her multidecade affair. Reviewers of Here but Not Here were nearly uniform in their outrage that Ross had published the book while Shawn’s wife, Cecille, was alive. At 92, Cecille Shawn was in good enough health to appreciate fully the public humiliation in having it revealed that Shawn had installed in the bedroom they shared a dedicated phone for conversations with Ross; that Shawn had directed Ross, while she was in Paris alone, to retrace the steps he’d taken on an earlier romantic trip with Cecille so that Shawn could feel he and Ross were “making the rounds together”; and, most famously, that

After forty years, our love-making had the same passion, the same energies (alarming to me, at first, in our early weeks together), the same tenderness, the same inventiveness, the same humor, the same textures as it had in the beginning.

It should also be noted that before Here but Not Here appeared, Ross’ romance with Shawn, unlike Hepburn’s romance with Tracy, was entirely unknown to the public at large. Five years after Ross published her memoir, the puzzle remains: Why did she write it? Ross’ recent show-biz pieces in The New Yorker may be forgettable, but, as the author of the great Picture  and Portrait of Hemingway, Ross needn’t have worried she’d be forgotten. Maybe she just wanted to show Mrs. Shawn who was boss. If so, her praise for Hepburn’s sensitivity is an especially bizarre act of denial.