Spencer Tracy: A Biography

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Release Date: 
October 18, 2011
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“From page 435 onward, Spencer Tracy is an excellent biography indeed, albeit one that would have benefited greatly from losing at least a good 200 of those first 400 pages. . . . Spencer Tracy is slow to start, but, once it gets rolling, it leaves other books like it in the dust.”

It does not happen until an almost unbelievable 435 pages into this massive volume; but when it happens, everything changes. The reader’s eyes, which had admittedly fallen to half-mast around page 350 (and Tracy’s arrival in Omaha for the filming of Boys Town), are suddenly wide open and alert, and the book that had only moments before been digging into the reader’s abdomen becomes suddenly light in his hands.

Everyone knows this story; it is an ultimate Hollywood story, two great stars colliding like the Titanic and the iceberg. But it merits recalling here, as it is the moment in which Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn finally meet—nearly halfway through what has, until this moment, been the most ponderous of movie star biographies—that, suddenly, joyfully, not only the unhappily married, drunken, baleful Spencer Tracy, but also the biography named for him come fully, vibrantly to life:

Spencer Tracy and [writer/producer Joseph] “Mankiewicz were exiting the Thalberg Building—which Joe had dubbed the Iron Lung, the air conditioned administration building where ‘paralytic minds were at work’—when they encountered Hepburn on her way in. ‘I have no idea where she might have been going,’ said Mankiewicz. ‘She stopped as we stopped. I said, “Well, it’s certainly high time you two knew each other.”’ Hepburn was in slacks, wearing no makeup, her angular architecture—which caused one detractor to remark, ‘Throw a hat at her and wherever it hits it will hang’—on full display. Her eyes were a pale, nearly colorless blue-gray, her skin drawn tightly across her face. She affected an illusion of height, which gave her a psychological advantage over a lot of men, not simply her costars. ‘Spencer was five-eleven. I was five seven and a half,’ she said. ‘I wore very high heels.’ She always disputed what Joe Mankiewicz remembered her as saying as they stood on the landing that lead to the guard’s gate and the lot beyond: ‘I might be a little tall for you, Mr. Tracy.’

“’I wouldn’t have been dumb enough to say what I [supposedly] said to him.’ she asserted decades later—and she had a point, given how badly she wanted Tracy to be in the picture [Woman of the Year]. According to Hepburn, there was instead an awkward silence. ‘I couldn’t think of anything else to say, so I said, “Sorry I’ve got these high heels on. When we do the movie, I’ll be careful about what I wear.”’

“It wasn’t quite the wholesale emasculation that Mankiewicz recalled, but it had much the same effect. ‘And Spencer’s just sort of eyeing her. He did that, and I think she didn’t know at the time that he was going to pay her back. But I spoke up and said, ‘Don’t worry, Kate. He’ll cut you down to size.’ And she smiled and walked on. And we walked on. Said Hepburn, ‘I think he thought I was awful. And he said [to Joe], “She has dirty fingernails. Her hands are dirty. And she’s bossy.” That was his impression of me. Not that I was too tall. I think he found me rather unattractive and disappointing. And thought: “My God, what am I stuck with?”’”

Not quite the story that is usually repeated, of the two stars meeting for the first time, exchanging barbs, and falling in love:

Hepburn (wearing a woman’s business suit with skirt that shows here long legs. She is standing with one foot on stairs, shaking Tracy’s hand): “I might be a little tall for you, Mr. Tracy.”

(She begins walking up the stairs, haughtily, back to the men.)

Tracy (Touching the brim of his hat in vague salute. Face cheated to the camera, he winks): “Don’t worry, I’ll cut you down to size.”

(She does a double take on the stairs. The men laugh. She looks at Tracy, suddenly, possibly, in love.)

It is the job of author James Curtis to dispel such stories and to refine them with the truth, no matter how the punch line has to shift in the process.

It is also his job, at least in his own mind, to tell the whole story, every detail, no matter how minute.

But talk about burying the lead.

Instead of opening the story of the man’s life with the specific story that surely all readers everywhere were waiting for, author James Curtis opens with Tracy meeting another woman, one far less well known, and, with the simple fact that, when she first saw him, actress Louise Treadwell saw him in profile.

She was, of course, to become his wife. His one and only wife, the one he cheated on, left and returned to (especially when his marriage enhanced his career), had children with, punished during his drunken rages, and, somehow managed to love in one way or another for his entire adult lifetime, before leaving her as his legitimate, legal widow, who covered her face with a black veil as a means of hiding her grief from the world.

All of which makes Louise an important person to know when considering Spencer Tracy’s life. In fact, the reader might himself divide the biography into two parts, each identified with the woman whose relationship with the actor anchored his life during that period. As Katharine Hepburn would say in a phone call to Louise after Spencer Tracy’s death, a call in which she said that she hoped at last the two women could be friends:

“You knew him in the beginning, I at the end.”

The issue that the reader has with the book is that its author seemingly intends that the reader work his way through the Louise years—years spent playing in repertory (often performing opposite his wife), in plays that were long forgotten 50 years ago, in places like Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Lima, Ohio, and later working in small parts in small pictures when at last he hits Hollywood—and apparently feels that his reader wants to know everything there is to know about them.

The truth is that the first half of this hefty volume is as long, slow and as devoid of excitement as Tracy’s marriage to Louise reportedly was. And, further, it takes the sudden, revivifying arrival of Miss Katharine Hepburn, all flush with victory after the surprise success of Philadelphia Story (who, enjoying her new clout, was determined to cast Spencer Tracy opposite her in her next film, Woman of the Year), to shake the narrative out of its doldrums and get things moving at last.

From page 435 onward, Spencer Tracy is an excellent biography indeed, albeit one that would have benefited greatly from losing at least a good 200 of those first 400 pages.

Truthfully, with the aid of this brief synopsis (offered as something of a public service), it is entirely possible for a new reader to jump into the book when Kate does and to fully enjoy it to the end:

Spencer Tracy, “The Louise Years,” A Synopsis:

Spencer Tracy was, by all accounts, a born actor. As author James Curtis puts it:

“His silences were astonishing in their power. No artificiality, no grand gestures, no playing to the gallery. He scarcely moved; it was all in his eyes and the way he held himself. Subdued, natural, he was the character in all of its subtle shadings. He demanded the crowd’s attention, dared them not to feel what he was feeling, not to think what he was thinking.”

Tracy was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (“a city known for brewing and bratwurst”) on April 5, 1900. He was raised in poverty, sent to live, at times, among nuns and among Jesuits; he became an altar boy and a devout Catholic and fell in love with acting and movies at an early age.

He joined the Navy in 1918, where, as the author puts it, “he spent the war in a classroom.”

He attended Ripon College. Here he performed in his first play, entitled The Truth, in 1921 and decided upon a career on the stage. He then attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

Tracy married Louise Treadwell in 1923. They had a son, John, who turned out to be almost completely deaf. This had a profound impact on Louise, who turned her back on the theater and dedicated here life not only to her own son, but also to all children who were born hearing impaired. She began a clinic in Los Angeles that, with the help of Tracy’s generosity, flourished to become an important treatment center for deaf children.

Long separations—caused first by theatrical tours and later by movie location shoots—interfered with the Tracy’s marriage, as did Spencer Tracy’s roving eye. He is known to have had relationships with several actresses (most notably with Loretta Young, with whom he was seriously involved enough to seek a divorce from his wife for the first time) before meeting Katharine Hepburn.

As his reputation as an actor grew, so did his thirst for alcohol. Spencer Tracy would, in time, become increasingly unpredictable due to the effects of alcoholism and would be hospitalized on several occasions when his life was threatened from binge drinking.

Truly, this is all the reader needs to know in order to fully understand and experience the second, and vastly more interesting, portion of the book.

Once Hepburn meets Tracy, sparks fly. More important perhaps, they both proceed to produce the best work of their careers and challenge each other, as equals, intellectually, emotionally and creatively. (Although, shockingly, Tracy continues to cheat on Hepburn just as he did on his wife.)

The electricity that flowed between them (in spite of Tracy’s cheating, drinking, and shocking cruelty) flows across the page as well and Spencer Tracy transforms into a biography that transcends the curriculum vitae of the early chapters and becomes instead a portrait of a deeply talented, deeply conflicted, and troubled man. One who would go on to embody some of most deeply felt and nuanced characters ever seen on a movie screen.

The reader needs only to think of the breadth of his work, from the potent Bad Day at Black Rock to the exquisite romantic trifle Desk Set, to the staid and magnificent Judgment at Nuremberg to the comic masterpieces Adam’s Rib or Father of the Bride to remember the quiet perfection that was Spencer Tracy on screen.

What author James Curtis shows especially well is the price that this quiet perfection exacted from Tracy, and from those around him. This is especially illustrated in the way that Mr. Curtis presents Tracy and Hepburn in the filming of the last movie the made together—his last film ever, in that he died days after making it.

The story of the filming is told, not as a movie within the pages of a book, but as a film within a film, so beautifully visual is Mr. Curtis’ use of language. The reader is drawn into the days of the filming—days in which Spencer Tracy was so weak that he could only work two hours per day. And nights after filming in which Hepburn would pour her life’s energy into Tracy, willing him to be able to rise up again from his bed the next day and work.

The movie was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and the climax of the film was a long monologue spoken by Tracy’s character, a speech recalling love and passion as the driving forces of life—sparks themselves that sustain and that are, therefore, worth any price.

In relating the filming of this key sequence, Mr. Curtis intercuts between the lines spoken by Tracy and the effort it took for the actor to say those lines. Not only the physical effort of acting in front of the cameras, but also the emotional effort of speaking of his love for the woman playing his wife in the film—the woman who, in life, was the one that he loved in secret for so long, for decades.

With filmic skill rare in most biographical works, James Curtis makes this climatic moment in the movie the climatic moment in his work as well, and allows his reader, in that moment, to fully comprehend not only the life of this very difficult, hurtful, yet remarkable man, but to comprehend as well this relationship that sustained, restrained and, ultimately, defined him.

Spencer Tracy is slow to start, but, once it gets rolling, it leaves other books like it in the dust.