In 1969—when the couturier was still among the living—a curious co-mingling of legends occurred. Producer Frederick Brisson finally brought his long-gestating show Coco, The Musical to Broadway. He intended it as a vehicle for his wife Rosalind Russell, but she dropped out due to poor health. Instead, Brisson cast Katharine Hepburn to play Chanel, at the suggestion of their mutual friend Irene Mayer Selznick.
It was an odd choice. Not only did Hepburn lack experience with song or dance, her own myth rivaled Chanel’s and not in a complementary manner. Coco was the embodiment of understated feminine elegance. Hepburn, in her men’s trousers, exuded Yankee idiosyncrasy and fortitude. A Chanel twin set suited her about as well as it would have Spencer Tracy. The story goes that the selection took Chanel by surprise as well. She assumed that the Hepburn cast to portray her was surely Audrey.
Added into this mix was one more strong personality—Cecil Beaton, designer of the sets and costumes. He had the difficult task of not only making Chanel fashions theatrical but fusing them into a style acceptable to Hepburn. As his posthumously published diaries reveal, she was his bête noir by the end of the production. He seethed that Katharine Hepburn was “a schoolmarm, a Victorian sportswoman or suffragette … a woman without a vestige of humour with very little grace.”
One should not put too much stock in Beaton’s harsh words, however. A. Scott Berg, a great friend of Hepburn’s in the last decades of her life, offers a contrasting and warm portrait of her in his marvelous memoir, Kate Remembered. He depicts a complicated and strong-willed woman who was willing to use her public image to further her career but who refused to be a slave that to that legend.
There is no need to rely on critical reviews of Hepburn’s performance. A grainy version the show-stopping number she performed at the Tony Awards is available via YouTube.