"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The world of letters is becoming more and more like the world of journalism: There are increasingly fewer venues and publishers willing to wait for a well-considered response to an event when they can simply have a fast one. First is considered best, no matter what; a writer who takes a bit longer, striving for nuance and insight, is lost in the dust, even if he or she comes up with material that’s far superior to any number of feverish overnighters done on the fly. An event — even the death of one of our most significant cultural figures — is considered old news, barely worth the public’s consideration, just two weeks after it happens.
That must be why “Kate Remembered,” A. Scott Berg’s memoir about his 20-year friendship with Katharine Hepburn, has been hustled into the stores by Putnam barely two weeks after the actress’s heart, through 96 years of continuous action, finally stopped beating. And unfortunately, this is a case in which an author’s decent intentions are seriously undermined by the necessity — that is, the perceived necessity — of being the first out of the gate. Hepburn died on June 29; the book hit the stores on Friday, July 11. The whole enterprise reeks of something distasteful and ghoulish, as if both an author and a publishing company were eager to cash in on Hepburn’s life and legacy before her body had even turned cold.
The reality may, unfortunately, be something like that — and yet, because reality is almost always inconveniently squirmy, not quite. Berg’s book wasn’t written in a week and a half: He has been working on it for years, bit by bit, and according to a piece in last week’s New York Times, Putnam has had the completed book (completed, of course, but for the ending) stored in a drawer for two years. Only 10 people at the publishing house knew about it; it was called the “secret book.” But it was always a given — according to, we can gather, both Berg’s own moral compass and the terms of his friendship with Hepburn — that anything he ended up writing could not be published until after Hepburn’s death.
And a span of two weeks does qualify, at least in some rough sense, as “after.” But the bigger question, particularly when the book under consideration is as well-written, entertaining, courteous and sensitive as “Kate Remembered” is — is it “after” enough?
Berg, an intelligent and, from all appearances, principled writer, has carved a respectable career out of writing serious biographies about very big men: “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius,” about the man who cultivated the genius of writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway; “Goldwyn: A Biography,” about Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn; and “Lindbergh,” which won a Pulitzer Prize. Hepburn had always been Berg’s favorite actress; he first met her in 1983, after pitching a piece on her to “Esquire” for its 50th anniversary issue. The piece never appeared — Berg ended up pulling it from the magazine, for all the right reasons, after his editor reneged on a promise that he’d made to Berg, a reversal that changed the terms under which Berg had approached Hepburn in the first place. But Berg and Hepburn were already well on their way to becoming close friends. Before they met, Hepburn knew Berg was working on a book about Sam Goldwyn, and she was also familiar with Berg’s Perkins book. (Because Hepburn had been a neighbor of Perkins’ for a time, Berg had requested an interview with her in 1972, which she politely refused via a handwritten note; Berg subsequently sent her a copy of the finished book.) She seems to have sussed him out as a suitably interesting intellect. Berg clearly wasn’t a starstruck old-movie queen breathlessly pursuing a friendship with one of his idols.
And Berg immediately adored her. On their first face-to-face meeting, she asked him in her imperious manner if he smoked. “No, Lady Bracknell, I don’t,” he said, invoking the bossy dowager from “The Importance of Being Earnest.” She laughed, and the friendship took off from there.
As Berg presents it (an observation corroborated by a contemporary and longtime friend of Hepburn’s, the producer-slash-socialite and pedigreed Hollywood eminence Irene Mayer Selznick), Hepburn seemed happy to have met someone she felt comfortable talking to, particularly after leading such a reclusive existence for most of her professional life. Hepburn hadn’t exactly chosen Berg as an official biographer (that wouldn’t have been her style, anyway). But it seems that in Berg she found someone whose company she enjoyed and whom she could also trust as a confidant — one whom, she knew very well, might one day go on to write a book about her. The book is, Berg explains, neither a straight-ahead biography nor a critical study of her work (he admits that, caring for her as he did, he could never be objective enough to write such a thing), but “rather, as true an account of her life as I can present, based on countless hours of private conversations during which she reminisced … As our conversations would invariably turn to her past, I soon felt that she was using me less as a sounding board than as an anvil against which she could hammer some of her emotions and beliefs.”
“Kate Remembered” is an intensely personal book, and that’s a good thing: This is Katharine Hepburn filtered through Scott Berg, and Berg makes no pretense otherwise. Part of the fun of the book is seeing how these two bright, confident personalities interact: The wisecracks fly like spitballs, but beneath it all, Berg and Hepburn are obviously simpatico. In preparation for that aborted Esquire piece, the two spent several days talking at Hepburn’s comfortable Manhattan brownstone home; Hepburn continued the conversation — for years, as it would turn out — by inviting Berg to her country home in Connecticut. As he researched first his Goldwyn book and then the Lindbergh, he spent long hours and days in Hepburn’s presence, returning to his own home in Los Angeles only when he needed to knuckle down to some serious writing. The two became intimate friends, partly because Berg knew, or at least knew of, so many of Hepburn’s old friends and colleagues, and partly because they simply got along.
Hepburn knew that Berg was keeping a written record of their time together, and she encouraged it. In a statement that ran in a New York Times article last week, Berg said that Hepburn knew that there would be plenty of things written after her death, and she wanted to make sure that the record was set straight. In “Kate Remembered,” Berg recounts how he began searching for a new subject to write about after he had put the Goldwyn biography to bed. “At dinner one night, Kate asked if I had any new prospects. I told her that three different publishers, who had heard of our friendship, said I should write about her. ‘Yes, you should,’ she said. ‘But not while I’m alive.’”
It’s likely, too, that Kate enjoyed having another writer around. As she shared her memories with Berg, she was also in the process of putting together her own book (this material would be published as “Me: Stories of My Life” in 1991). She showed Berg some of her writing and asked him to make notations. “Be tough, but not too tough,” she requested, and he responded by marking up her copy gently but firmly, never rewriting but mostly probing for more details. He’d scrawl things like “More milk, Bossy” in the margins.
That’s no way to talk to a legend, but then, that’s precisely the point. Once, as Berg was helping Hepburn open her mail, he noted that she’d received an invitation to accept a fashion award. “Are you sure they didn’t mean Audrey?” he quipped, at which point she smooshed an ice-cream cone in his face.
Berg captures the rhythm and tone of Hepburn’s voice and carriage and behavior so well — at least as far as we can tell, seeing that most of us know her only from movies, the written word, and TV appearances — that we trust him immediately. He’s less trustworthy when he’s offering his own observations about certain Hepburn movies or projects. Berg doesn’t have a strong critical sense — he doesn’t seem to understand what makes a good romantic comedy tick, or a good movie, for that matter. But you do get a sense of what Hepburn was like as a person, and you can hear her voice in every quote. When Berg asks her if she ever regretted not having children, she responds, “I would have been a terrible mother, … because I’m basically a very selfish human being. Not that that has stopped most people from going off and having children.” She goes on to say, “I’m terrifying. But I’m smart enough to know I’m terrifying. And that’s why I didn’t have children.”
And it’s fascinating to hear what Hepburn has to say about other actors. Actors are very seldom the best judges of their peers’ work — they’re often either too respectfully fawning or too jealously dismissive. But Hepburn had a sharp critical eye and ear. She loved Vanessa Redgrave in everything the actress did; she “flipped” over John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever.” “She found most of the Merchant-Ivory pictures ‘a bore,’” Berg writes. And she said that Melanie Griffith in “Working Girl” “reminded her of Judy Holliday but feared her career would fade fast. ‘There’s something lethargic about her,’ she explained, ‘where Judy was full of energy.’” It’s the kind of observation you might have heard from Pauline Kael, and you can’t help but wonder what kinds of conversations the two would have had if they’d ever met. (As far as I know, they never did.)
“Kate Remembered” is light on blockbuster revelations — but then, to its credit, it’s not that kind of book. Berg is more interested in weaving a web of small, intimate details, and he’s good at it. Hepburn speaks plainly but movingly about the apparent suicide of her beloved older brother, Tom, in 1921, when he was 15 and she was 13. (She was the one to find the body.) And in the portions of the book that most bookstore browsers are likely to immediately flip to, she speaks openly and candidly about her long-term relationship with Spencer Tracy.
Hepburn clearly loved Tracy, despite the fact that his serious drinking problem (the sort of thing that had to be kept under wraps in ’40s and ’50s Hollywood) made him difficult to live with and often cruel toward his partner. Berg asked Hepburn outright if Tracy had ever struck her, and she replied that he had, once. Other stories have been reported elsewhere: In a drunken rage one night, he threw Hepburn out of his hotel room. She slept in the hallway, so she’d be there to pick up the pieces from his tirade once he awoke.
Hepburn and Tracy never married, and although it has been widely assumed that that was Tracy’s choice (he was a Catholic and remained married to another woman until his death), Hepburn states clearly in the book that she wasn’t interested in getting married. Her brief earlier marriage, to a Philadelphia Main Line businessman, Ludlow Ogden Smith, had ended in divorce, and Hepburn expresses clear regret that she “used” her first husband, for financial and emotional security as she built her career. She assesses herself coldly, saying she was a “pig.”
But, she makes clear to Berg, she loved “Spence” deeply, and although she continued to work on her own movie projects and Broadway shows throughout most of their 27 years together, she largely put his welfare before her own. In one of the book’s most moving and surprising passages, she asks Berg, with genuine interest, “What do you think was Spencer’s problem? … Why do you think he drank?”
Berg stalled, saying that he had never met Tracy, that at best all he’d be able to offer would be “dime-store psychology.” Hepburn pushed him (“Well, you always have an opinion on everything else. I don’t see why you don’t have one on this particular subject”). With some embarrassment, Berg outlined his assessment of what made Tracy so unhappy, beginning with the fact that he was raised by a father who was tough on him and often told him he was worthless, and moving on to the fact that once Tracy had started building a successful career, and was about to prove his father wrong, he faced other difficulties. His and his wife Louise’s first child was born deaf, and Tracy felt guilty and responsible. He began misbehaving, taking up with other women and drinking heavily, reinforcing his own cycle of worthlessness.
“And then you came along,” Berg said to Hepburn, “and you were the best and most beautiful creature he had ever seen. You got high on life. And he couldn’t quite believe that somebody like you could be interested in somebody like him; and he figured he could never keep up with the likes of you. And so he often tried to tear you down, squash your good nature … He tried to cut you down to size. And when he couldn’t do that, he started to realize that maybe he wasn’t so worthless to have kept somebody like you hanging in there. But periodically, he’d find that too hard to believe, and so he’d drink some more. Or, you would abandon him. You’d go off on location or go off and do a play. And he’d say to himself, ‘See, I told you I was worthless.’ And so he’d drink some more.
“But in the end, you both hung in there. And that — not all your movies — remains the most important thing in either of your lives. That’s what I think.”
After Berg had finished, Hepburn fell silent. The two of them went up to their respective rooms to prepare for bed, and neither spoke. Finally, Hepburn asked Berg if he was going to stay up to write. He said he didn’t think so, as it was late. “‘See you in the morning then,’ she said, closing the door. ‘But you should write that all down.’” Berg’s assessment of the Tracy-Hepburn relationship may have traces of dime-store psychology. But so what? It reinforces the most valuable quality of “Kate Remembered”: This is an intimate book, and much as Berg and Hepburn may have enjoyed gossiping between themselves (what close friends don’t?), it’s as far as you can get from a bitchy tell-all. Berg’s book is respectful without being sycophantic — he is, after all, writing about someone he cared for very deeply, and although he accepts her flaws and foibles, he’s also understandably protective of her reputation and her image and, most of all, her life.
At the very least, the book is a salve to Claudia Roth Pierpont’s thumbnail evisceration of Hepburn in last week’s New Yorker, in which she claimed that Hepburn-the-actress really only ever played herself (a surpassingly idiotic assessment), and that even though we all like to harbor notions of Hepburn as a genuinely modern and independent woman, she basically subjugated herself to a man — and a roaring alcoholic at that.
In a world in which information flows nonstop, we like to think that if we just watch enough TV, or read enough, we’ll end up knowing all there is to know about everything. But the deepest truths about people, even (or maybe especially) famous ones, are so much more elusive than the mere facts. The problem with Pierpont’s argument is that she assumes the choices a person makes about his or her life can be assessed in the same way we’d assess an actor’s choice of roles. Hepburn and Tracy fell in love and proceeded to work out a mode of living together — one that held them together until Tracy’s death in 1967. Berg accepts that even an idol’s choices can be messy. More to the point, he squarely faces, without sentimentality or judgment, a relationship that clearly brought his “idol” a great deal of both joy and pain — in other words, it made her human.
Berg’s intuitive and engaging almost-biography succeeds on so many counts. But its publication raises one lingering and difficult question: What’s the “right” amount of time to wait before you spill a departed friend’s secrets?
“Kate Remembered” butts up against two conflicting realities. First, there’s the reality of the book’s quality: It was written by an intelligent and perceptive man, who, on paper at least, gives no hint of wanting to take undue advantage of his friend’s fame. And then there’s the reality of the marketplace — a reality that dictates, “Better get this thing out fast, before a gazillion Hepburn bios hit the tables.”
Berg has said he feels that he’s honoring Hepburn’s wishes in publishing the book so quickly, that she would have wanted the record set straight as soon as possible after her death. But getting that book into readers’ hands so rapidly meant that, some time ago, the impending death of Katharine Hepburn became the linchpin of a marketing decision. Even if Berg believed she would have wanted the book published as quickly as possible, he shouldn’t be surprised if some readers find the whole business a little unsavory. It still comes across as unseemly that a Hepburn bio — especially one written by one of her friends — should arrive not even two weeks after she’s been laid to rest.
Berg seems to feel strongly that he has followed Hepburn’s wishes, and since few other people were privy to their conversations, we’ll have to take his word for it. But whatever his intentions were, the business of publishing and selling books doesn’t exactly do him any favors. In that New York Times article last week, Carole Baron, the president of Putnam, explained, “['Kate Remembered'] had all been written, edited and set in type in 2001, and then we locked it in a drawer. When we received word of Ms. Hepburn’s death, Scott wrote the end and then we pushed the button.”
So even as Katharine Hepburn lay on her deathbed in Connecticut, even as she drew her last breath on this earth, a publishing executive in not-so-very-far-off New York was waiting for a call — essentially waiting for the right moment to tell the technician at the printing plant to go ahead and flip the switch. However the book sells, Putnam will cash the lion’s share of the checks. But A. Scott Berg will cash some of them too, and his signature on the back might have looked a lot cleaner if only he’d negotiated for a little time and distance between his friend’s death and the publication of a book about her life. At the very least, then, no one would have suspected him for an instant of just looking for a quick cash-in. Maybe the better part of valor is refusing to give anyone — your publisher or the world — a button to push in the first place.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)