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Spencer Tracy bio sheds new light on an actor's actor

James Curtis' book benefits from the cooperation of the actor's daughter, Susie, who offers insight on her mother, Louise Treadwell, and Tracy's long-running affair with Katharine Hepburn.

September 26, 2011|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in the 1942 film "Woman of the Year."
Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in the 1942 film "Woman of the… (MGM, MGM )

According to James Curtis, author of the new 1,056-page "Spencer Tracy: A Biography," it could have been actress Loretta Young who became the love of Tracy's life, not Katharine Hepburn, his partner for 26 years with whom he made nine films.

Tracy and Young, both Catholics, began their romance while working together on the 1933 Depression-era drama "A Man's Castle." Though Tracy was married to Louise Treadwell, the illicit pair would go to Mass and confessions together.

"I think they were drawn together because of the shared bond of faith," said Curtis, who spent six years on the book, drawing from Tracy's own papers and obtaining the cooperation of the actor's daughter, Susie Tracy.

But it was also their faith that caused the relationship to end after about a year. Tracy wouldn't divorce Treadwell and Young wouldn't have married a divorced man.

Hepburn didn't have such hang-ups. Tracy met her on the set of George Stevens' 1942 classic romantic comedy "Woman of the Year."

"Hepburn really kind of inserted herself into Tracy's life," said Curtis. "She fell madly in love with him, though she was never sure that he felt the same way about her. They had some rough times, but she was absolutely devoted to him. I think she's a very interesting person who was, in some ways, completed by Tracy. He was not reluctant to tell her to shut up."

Curtis will be appearing Sunday at the American Cinematheque's Tracy-Hepburn double bill at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood: 1967's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (the frail 67-year-old Tracy died just two weeks after its completion) and the sparkling 1949 romantic comedy "Adam's Rib." Also appearing at the event will be Katharine Houghton, Hepburn's niece, who costars in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," a drama that deals with a white couple who discover that their daughter is marrying an African American man.

The Milwaukee-born Tracy is considered one of the most versatile and accomplished actors of the Golden Age of Hollywood — an actor's actor who won two Academy Awards, one for playing a vibrant Portuguese fisherman in 1937's "Captains Courageous," the other for portraying the noble Father Flanagan in 1938's "Boys Town." He moved effortlessly between comedies such as 1950's "Father of the Bride" and dramas such as 1961's "Judgment at Nuremberg." He even did a horror movie: 1941's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

But Tracy was beset with demons, including a drinking problem and guilt over his marital affairs and that his son, John Tracy, was born deaf.

Susie Tracy is thrilled that Curtis' book offers new insights into her mother, who stayed married to Tracy for more than 40 years and founded the John Tracy Clinic for the deaf. "He didn't meet Miss Hepburn until 1942," she said. "There were many years before that where a lot went on that people should know about."

Her mother, who had been an accomplished actress and polo player, "could do almost anything," said Tracy. "She was also a writer. She wrote some lovely poetry."

Tracy said that her dad was very much like the charming, devoted father of Elizabeth Taylor in "Father of the Bride" and 1951's "Father's Little Dividend."

"He had a sense of humor," Tracy remarked. "He was funny. He always had a joke at the dinner table. He told a joke wonderfully."

It was director-producer Stanley Kramer who gave Tracy a splashy final act, casting him in 1960's "Inherit the Wind," "Judgment at Nuremberg," 1963's "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" (after which he had a massive heart attack) and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner."

Houghton recalls that her aunt was a "basket case" during the production of "Dinner" because of Tracy's failing health.

"I think they both wanted to do the movie," said Houghton, who had known Tracy since she was little. "They thought it was an important film, and they loved Stanley Kramer. I think they felt that, 'OK. It's better than just sitting around waiting to die. Let's try it.' I think it did prolong Spencer's life by several months because he had to meet the challenge."

For information on the screening go to

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