Monday Musing: Hepburn and Heloise, A Tribute to the Defiance of Women

(On the occasion of a recent viewing of The Philadelphia Story)

For Shuffy.

In the early twelfth century a brilliant philosopher and logician named Abelard fell in love with a remarkable young woman named Heloise. Abelard tricked her uncle into thinking that he would be giving her academic tutoring and then the two fell into a torrid love affair in which the rest of the world seemed to melt away. But the world always comes back. The uncle discovered the ruse and plotted his revenge. Eventually, the uncle hired several men to break into Abelard’s home and chop off his testicles. Abelard became a monk and Heloise a nun. But before that fateful day Abelard proposed that he would marry Heloise and though this would end his career as scholar and teacher and force them into a layman’s life it might protect them from further censure or retribution. Heloise refused and then later acquiesced, though it did nothing to prevent their terrible fate. In his Historia calamitatum, Aberlard, rather self-absorbedly, relates that Heloise realized that marriage would have removed his great mind from the public sphere and could not allow such an event to occur. In a letter written to Abelard many years after the events in question Heloise corrects him on this matter. Referring to Abelard’s Historia calamitatum, she writes, “[b]ut you kept silent about most of my arguments for preferring love to wedlock and freedom to chains. God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honor me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to posses for ever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore.” Nowhere in recorded history does there exist a more astoundingly moving, if somewhat disturbing, testimonial to love. It is as beautiful a thing as a human can say. “God knows I never sought anything in you except yourself” she writes to Abelard, “I simply wanted you, nothing of yours.” Thus, for Heloise, “[t]he name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding, but sweeter for me will always be the word mistress, or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore.” The point, she is saying, is in the trust and love that holds two people together, screw what the world thinks.

One can’t help feeling in reading the letters between the two that Abelard is never as steadfast to that ideal as Heloise. It is she who upholds the ethics of pure intention that Abelard had set forth in his Scio te ipsum (Know Thyself). By that doctrine, there is nothing in the act itself that merits praise or condemnation, but everything in what the act intends. “Wholly guilty though I am,” she says “I am also, as you know, wholly innocent. It is not the deed but the intention of the doer which makes the crime, and justice should weigh not what was done but the spirit in which it was done.” The ‘as you know’ that she throws into the phrase directed at Abelard is not without its bite. That is why she can proclaim herself a whore as an act of defiance, and an act of love.

Katharine Hepburn was a whore. She fell in love with Spencer Tracy and he fell in love with her but because of his allegiance to the Roman Catholic Church he would never get a divorce from his wife. So he and Hepburn lived in some form of sin together until his death. It is hard not to feel that her position was the nobler and braver of the two, though she never seems to have chided him much for it. They made a number of classic films together and one in particular, Adam’s Rib, that is a secretly utopian film. It imagines a situation in which a man and a woman could love one another and make each other better for it, instead of tearing one another apart, slowly or quickly as the case may be. One of the best details of the movie is the fact that they both have the same pet name for each other, Pinky. One can only imagine the process of emotional exhaustion by which they finally reached the sublime stasis of Pinky and Pinky. That, in itself, is one of those small triumphs of love.

Hepburn liked to wear pants and she wanted to live, as she put it, ‘like a man’. By that she meant primarily that she wasn’t going to take any shit and, moreover, she was going to get away with it. She was sometimes accused of being cold and lacking in emotional range as in the famous quip by Dorothy Parker that her performance in “The Lake” ‘ran the gamut of emotions, from A to B’. Still, it’s not hard to imagine that Parker was occasionally jealous of a woman who could be exactly what she wanted and never seem particularly tortured about it either. Hepburn always claimed to envy the ‘meat and potatoes’ style of her love, Mr. Tracy. Which is to say that one can do a lot in the space between A and B. Perhaps no role captures the full range of that limited range better than her Tracy Lord character from The Philadelphia Story. Her eventual route back to marriage with CK Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) is a tribute to everything she ever stood for as the marriage seems the least important part of the process. Indeed, she considers marriage to no less than three different men throughout the film. But that only serves to make her all the more wonderful, more powerful. It is the ethics of pure intention that really matters. The link between woman, whore, defiance, freedom, etc., and the ambiguity of it all is made further delicious by the fact that the notorious underage porn star of the 80’s took her name, Traci Lords, from the Hepburn character in the movie.

Every once in a while Hepburn will look away from the camera in one of her movies. Her chin will point upwards a bit, imperiously, and the high cheekbones will give the whole performance a far away feel. It is not clear entirely what she is looking at in such moments. It is simply remarkable that someone would be able to look away like that.