Actress Jean Simmons once said of Spencer Tracy, “When you saw him work, it didn’t seem like acting at all, it just was.” In the first serious biography of Tracy in more than four decades, author James Curtis examines the actor’s life on and off the big screen. He offers insights on Tracy’s career, his Catholicism, and his turbulent relationship with Katherine Hepburn.
An Actor’s Start
Born in Milwaukee, Tracy loved silent movies. He spent hours absorbing split-reel westerns and nickelodeons, to the point that he could memorize and reproduce the action. But Curtis thinks Tracy’s first taste of performance was serving mass in church. Tracy went to college at Ripon, where he got a part in the spring play, and he found he had a talent not only for absorbing the lines, but also for understanding the essence of a character. Tracy first appeared in a Broadway play in 1930 titled “The Last Mile,” which producer John Ford saw. Ford signed Tracy up for his 1930 film “Up the River,” in which Humphrey Bogart also made his movie debut.
Insomnia and Alcohol
According to Curtis, Tracy was not the “drunkard” that some have made him out to be, though he did struggle with alcoholism. He would reportedly go for years without touching a drink. He was plagued by insomnia, and would often drink huge quantities of tea and coffee to keep him awake during the day. “And so he was wired on caffeine at night, bedeviled by his own personal demons, the things that he thought about, the crimes, the misdemeanors that he had committed over his life which he would not forgive himself for, and also he did his best work in the middle of the night preparing for the next day, something he liked to hide,” Curtis said.
The Hepburn-Tracy Romance
Tracy met Katherine Hepburn during the filming of “Woman of the Year” in 1941. Interestingly, a line that is often attributed to Tracy from an early meeting with Hepburn was actually uttered by producer Joe Mankiewicz. When Hepburn said that she would refrain from wearing heels so she wouldn’t be taller than Tracy, Mankiewicz told her not to worry because Tracy would cut her down to his size. Tracy and Hepburn had, at times, a troublesome relationship, according to Curtis, owing at least in part to Tracy’s struggles with alcohol addiction. Hepburn “saw him as a project and she was also madly in love with him,” Curtis said. Tracy’s later films, Curtis said, may be a credit to the fact that Hepburn looked after and sustained him so that he lived to an older age than he might otherwise have.
Before beginning his relationship with Hepburn, Tracy had been married to his wife, Louise, and they had several children, one of whom was deaf. He was raised Catholic, and Curtis says he had a very visceral sense of Catholicism that apparently led him to believe his son’s deafness was God’s punishment for his early philandering. “He never forgave himself for that until the day he died,” Curtis said.
You can read the full transcript here.