The Making of 'The African Queen'
Or, How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind
Refreshingly candid and humorously acerbic, the style is exactly what you would expect: actress, rebel and now author Katharine Hepburn writes with the energy that characterized such dauntless, witty heroines as Rosie Sayer, Tracy Lord and Eleanor of Aquitaine.
But The Making of 'The African Queen' -- or, How I Went to Africa With Bogart, Bacall and Huston and Almost Lost My Mind seems as it if were being narrated by one of Hepburn's characters, and not by the actress herself.
Hepburn provides ample personal anecdotes and insights into the lives of co-workers and friends, yet the feeling remains that the author has held herself back. The Making of 'The African Queen' is not a private glimpse into Hepburn's life, but a public statement.
Not that the lack of intimate detail is a reason to shun the book, but Hepburn makes it clear that she will not reveal the sort of "fundamentally dull" tidbits biographies often contain. She accuses her audience of voyeurism when she senses readers may clamor for more -- "What brand of cigarettes do I smoke? Oh! How could you!" -- but proves willing to discuss Bogart's drinking and Huston's buffoonery.
Beginning many reminiscences with statements such as, "I'll let you in on a secret...," she proceeds to relate stories of an embarrassing but somewhat impersonal nature. Prominently featured in the book are Hepburn's African Queen co-star Humphrey Bogart, his wife Lauren ("Betty") Bacall, director John Huston, native assistant Tahili Bokumba and several crewmen and producers who accompanied them to Africa for the filming. In her recollections of conversations with Bogie and Huston, Hepburn casts herself as the straight man to their quizzically comic behavior.
Hepburn's most personal reminiscences include her bladder problems, which she relates with a delicate yet amusing tone. At one point her chamber pot leaks all over her bunk bed with Bogart and Bacall directly underneath her. Evidence of her frothy recklessness emerges when she goes elephant hunting with Huston and walks right up to a wild boar to photograph it.
Hepburn maintains an overly earnest, frank tone that allows her to slide into irony. Recalling Bogart's appropriation of a pair of her pants, she says, 'A perfect fit -- we just split the pants a bit down the rear seam."
Small details, such as descriptions of various African landscapes and meticulous attention to the illnesses that plagued the team, are not ignored. The photo captions, including the utterly bored "As you see, I arrive in Africa with Bogie and Betty" and the impish "At a press conference, pretending to be adorable," exemplify Hepburn's wryness and add to the reader's appreciation of the nearly 50 photographs.
Nowhere does the book become more intimate than descriptive. Even an account of the dying Bogart's farewell to Spencer Tracy has the detached quality of an objective observer. The only acknowledgement of Hepburn's affair with Tracy consists of an oblique reference to breakfast habits.
Hepburn makes it amply clear that she values privacy -- particularly in the morning, on the toilet and during illnesses, according to the book -- and, in a Garbo-like way, wants to be left alone, without being forgotten.
The Making of 'The African Queen' is a model in restraint which other celebrities who write memoirs a la Shirley MacLaine should study. Fans of the film, of Bogart, Bacall and Huston, and of books about movies will not be disappointed. But fans of Hepburn will probably come away wishing for more.
This review originally appeared in The Daily Pennsylvanian, 1987.