If we can believe the studio hype imparted to biographers, the relationship between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn was one of the deepest and most enduring loves in Hollywood history. On the other hand, if we can believe the account written by Hollywood insider Darwin Porter, it was a whole lot different. I imagine the complete truth lies somewhere in between. I am not convinced by a great many statements written by Mr. Porter, but much of his account of their long term relationship does seem to have the ring of truth about it, if for no other reason than the fact that he names a lot of people who back up much of what he says. The following assessments have come, so he claims, from many reliable sources, but the bottom line is – are these comments entirely accurate or not? Personally, I do not know, but I shall let you judge for yourself. Here is some of what he wrote in Katharine the Great in 2004.
Assistant-director Robert Golden aided George Stevens when he directed Spencer and Kate in their first picture together, Woman of the Year in 1942. ‘It would take a fool not to see that Hepburn had fallen in love with Spence’, he recalled. ‘As for Spence, I think he was intrigued by this Yankee phenomenon. To this day, though, I have never believed that Spencer Tracy was in love with Katharine Hepburn. Spence had two loves in his life – himself and the bottle.’
Director George Cukor was Kate’s close friend and he apparently told Cary Grant a similar thing. ‘It was some sort of love I guess’, he confided. ‘The love was mainly on her part – not his. Instead of love, he developed a dependence on her that he could never shake. When she wasn’t there, he went on alcoholic binges so severe that they were life threatening. For all the self-confidence Spence portrayed on the screen, he was the complete opposite in private. He was filled with self-doubt. Self-loathing might be more accurate. At times he would become a virtual basket case.’
Tracy and his wife Louise Treadwell with Loretta Young at the Coconut Grove
From the beginning Tracy told Kate that marriage was out of the question. That did not bother her in the slightest for she had no desire to marry ever again anyway. ‘I’m free to live my own life’, she said, ‘Spencer will have his affairs. But so will I.’ It is generally believed that he could not divorce his wife, Louise, even if he wanted to because they were both Catholics. Not so. ‘I actually proposed to Loretta Young’, he once told Kate. ‘I was prepared to divorce Louise. Somehow the studio put out some cover-up statement claiming that I could never marry because Louise and I are both Catholics. I’m Catholic. She’s Episcopalian.’
Kate’s close friend Patricia Peardon was another who refused to buy the myth perpetuated about the great Tracy-Hepburn love affair. ‘For me he was just an old roué’, she said. ‘Once when he was staying at Turtle Bay with Kate, I invited the two of them to go with me to the theatre with my own date. The moment Tracy was alone with me, he propositioned me. So much for this grand love affair.’
Hedy Lamarr 1940
‘Kate’s relationship with Spence was not about sex’, Cukor told confidantes. ‘Believe me, I knew both of them intimately and their relationship was definitely not about sex. As the operator of every bordello in New York and Los Angeles knew from their gals, Spence had a penchant for oral sex performed on him. He was not known to reciprocate, as he found that act disgusting – at least with a woman. From what I’ve heard from countless actresses, he would sometimes crawl onto a woman in the missionary position. Like his pal, Clark Gable, Metro’s two biggest stars were not great lovers.’ Hedy Lamarr was also unimpressed by Tracy as a lover. ‘Some of the most handsome and virile men have made love to me’, she said. ‘I would not consider Spencer Tracy among them.’
According to Cukor, he thought the sexual part of the Tracy-Hepburn relationship lasted for only 18 months, even though they stayed together for years. ‘After that, they found other relationships’, he added. ‘Hell, during their first 18 months together, they both had other relationships going. Spence had Ingrid Bergman among others, and Kate had Colbert in the West and Laura Harding in the East.’ Kate’s intimacy with Claudette Colbert lasted for over a decade until Kate’s absence in New York resulted in Claudette and Joan Crawford becoming an item.
Although he would continue to have affairs throughout their years together, Tracy in middle age suffered serious bouts of impotence. When he sobered up he would often have a sudden sexual resurgence that saw him chase men and women with a renewed vigor. Of course, his excessive drinking led to kidney and liver complaints, and these in turn brought on long periods of melancholia. At such times Kate would cook dinners for him, wait on him, bathe him and clean up his mess. ‘They not only slept in different beds’, said Cukor, ‘but under separate roofs. When they stopped having sex with each other rather early in their relationship – probably around 1943 – they remained good buddies to the end. It was like two males bonded at the hip.’
Judy Garland 1937 Tracy 1937
In 1943, according to Porter, LB Mayer asked Kate to try to ‘straighten out’ his troubled singing sensation Judy Garland. Kate met with the girl and was immediately touched by her desperation and admitted dependency on amphetamines and barbiturates. When the conversation got around to Tracy, Judy openly admitted to not only dating the actor back in 1937, but to falling pregnant to him when she was fifteen. ‘Mayer arranged for me to have an abortion’, she said. ‘I started dating Tracy again when I was eighteen, but he dumped me.’
Constance Collier 1948
Constance Collier arrived on the set of Keeper of the Flame in 1943 and was appalled to learn that Kate had more or less put her own life on hold to look after the much-troubled Tracy. ‘In Kate, Tracy found a slave’, she said. ‘She drove him to the studio. She was his maid, nurse, cook and bottle-washer. Andy Lawler told me she even wipes up his shit when he dirties himself. She’s his confidante and professional adviser – not to mention nurse and psychiatrist. And God forbid, perhaps his lover, too, although I have serious doubts about that. When is Tracy ever sober?’
Part Two on Dec 13.