Katharine Hepburn

(How a random viewing of Bringing Up Baby + grief and desperation lead to How to Hepburn)

I never imagined that when I hatched the idea for How to Hepburn: Lessons on Living from Kate the Great, that I was spinning up an obsession with iconic 20th century women. So much of the writing life is putting one foot in front of the other, once word after the next, bird by bird, as the redoubtable Anne LaMott tells us.

I’d just published a memoir called The Stuff of Life about caring for my dad as he perished from lung cancer. He died in 2000, I wrote the book in 2003, and by 2005 I still felt sad and unmoored. I started a stupid novel and after a week-long cold completely forgot about it. My dad used to tell me that he and I were a pair of tough Polacks, code for refusing to wallow in grief and self-pity. Except now he was gone and it was really no fun being a tough Polack on my own.

Then, one day my agent called to touch base, and told her if I didn’t start writing something soon I might jump off a bridge, or apply to law school. I couldn’t even bring myself to tell her about the stupid novel.

In all the talk about writing, about how tough it can be, how lonely, frustrating and freaking time-consuming (my friend Chelsea Cain once pointed out how maddening it was to spend a year writing a book, only to have a reader approach you the day after it’s published and say, “I read your book last night. When’s the next one coming out?) — we sometimes forget (okay, I forget) that if a writer is who you are, writing will eventually heal you.

I told her I loved and admired Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, a literary biography-cum-self-help book-cum mini memoir. I’d purchased it and given it away more times than I could count, first in hardcover, then in paperback.


I loved the humor, the wisdom, the illustrations and the genre-bending bad assery of it. My agent (who also represents de Botton) said, “who inspires you that way?”

Inspiration is not always an a-ha! moment. It’s not a figurative light bulb going off over your literal head. It’s not your muse, that often passive aggressive bitch, floating into your room and onto your shoulder. Sometimes, it’s like a rip tide, or the tracker beam in “Star Wars” that pulls the Millennium Falcon into the Death Star. Sometimes, it simply beckons.

I’d recently watched Bringing Up Baby, and remembered how people used to stop my mother in the aisle at the A & P when I was little and tell her she resembled Katharine Hepburn.


(She had Hepburn’s coloring, but really she looked more like Rosalind Russell)

With little more than this to go on — a love of Hepburn, the fact my mother didn’t really look like her but my dad and I pretended she did, and the desire to be working on a book that was as far away from death and decline as possible, I set about watching all of Hepburn’s movies, one after another. In her lifetime she made 44 feature films and 8 made-for-TV movies, and after I watched as many as I could get my hands on, I felt better.

Here in Karbohemia, “better” is translated as ready to write.


Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Eus says:

    Love this picture of your mom. So many great memories of her. Thanks your sharing the origin of this series. I have loved all of them and look forward to Julia. You, my friend, are one kickass woman, as well.

  • Eus says:

    Opps, sorry, I meant to say thanks for sharing not thanks your sharing. Ah, those aging hands…

  • Watching Bringing Up Baby and the rest of the Hepburn films sounds tremendously healing. I was a fan of Katharine Hepburn before I really knew who she was. She and Florence Nightingale share my birthday which somehow translated into a kind of sisterhood when I was about ten.

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