Actor George O’Brien was Spencer Tracy’s friend, but even he was disgusted with his pal’s treatment of Kate Hepburn. She would help get him to his hotel room, bathe him, cook dinner for him and get him into his pajamas. ‘Sometimes the ungrateful bastard would kick her out of his bedroom and lock the door behind him. It was the sickest relationship I’d ever heard of’, said O’Brien. Staff and guests at the hotel would discover Kate curled up in the hallway outside Tracy’s door awaiting his summons. ‘To my dying day, I’ll never understand why Katie subjected herself to this kind of abuse.’
Ruth Gordon and in her later years
Kate told George Cukor: ‘Spencer leads a life of crippling despair and stays up all night haunted by his demons. I’ve never known a man as deeply, even profoundly, troubled as he is. Often he blames himself for his son’s deafness and sometimes uses that as an excuse to drink. But that was back around 1924 or some such time. He’s had plenty of time to get over that.’ Kate learned the hard way that his boy, John, was deaf – but not ‘deaf and dumb’. She used the words ‘deaf and dumb’ in Tracy’s presence one day and he hauled off and slapped her in front of Cukor and actress Ruth Gordon. ‘There is no such God damn thing!’ he shouted at Kate. She never used the expression again.
Spencer & Carroll Tracy
If further evidence of the violent nature exhibited by Spencer when he drank is needed, we need look no farther than his brother Carroll. On at least two occasions others had to intervene to prevent Tracy from hurling him out of a high-rise building! As far back as 1937, at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Los Angeles, only the timely intervention by MGM security chief at Culver City, Whitey Hendrey, saved Carroll’s life. A decade later, this time at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, a quick-thinking maid called security who narrowly managed to stop Spencer tossing his brother from a window several floors up. Actor Don Taylor just happened by the room as Spencer was being trundled away in a straitjacket. ‘If you want to work in Hollywood’, Hendrey warned him, ‘you didn’t see a God damn thing! Okay! Got that!’
Garson Kanin & his wife Ruth Gordon
On a more positive note, in 1945 in Washington, both Tracy and Hepburn took a major political stand on segregation when such stances were extremely rare indeed. The National Theatre, (it was actually owned privately in spite of its illustrious title), would not permit Negroes, not even visiting diplomats or representatives of foreign governments, to be in their audiences. The likes of Paul Robeson and Ethel Waters were permitted to appear on stage, but even they could not actually attend a performance. Tracy had agreed to give a command performance for President Truman, his staff and the Justices of the Supreme Court, but when he learned that wounded veterans from the nearby hospital were being screened according to color, he refused to go on unless that discrimination ended. Kate supported his stance. As writer/director Garson Kanin later commented: ‘The end result was that Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn almost single-handedly ended racial discrimination at the National Theatre.’ It did not happen instantly, but it was due to their united front that the policy was ultimately changed forever.
It was years before the Tracy-Hepburn relationship reached the ears of the Hollywood ‘insiders’. When word finally got out, the rumors of his boyfriends and her girlfriends subsided accordingly. In a way they each served as the other’s ‘beard’. To her friends Kate disavowed any real knowledge of Spence’s homosexual flings, but privately she had her suspicions. Her boss Louis B Mayer, however, had no doubts about either of his stars, telling his daughter, Irene Mayer Selznick, that the very idea of Tracy and Hepburn being ‘the ideal American screen couple’ was laughable. ‘The perfect American male and female’, he sneered. ‘Don’t make me laugh. My spies have kept me up to date. They’re the ideal couple alright, if you consider a ‘lez’ and a cock-sucker the ideal American couple.’ LB was never strong on ‘political correctness’, although the term was not yet in regular use.
Perhaps, Kate’s long-time friend and confidante, Pat Peardon, summed up the Tracy-Hepburn relationship best. ‘Kate lived in fear all her life that her lesbianism would be exposed. The general public didn’t know about her relationship with Tracy, but virtually everybody else – at least everybody who mattered – did know. As long as Hollywood or the theatrical circuit in New York thought that Kate was screwing Tracy, no-one looked at who she was really having an affair with – Irene Mayer Selznick and Claudette Colbert, among others. In my view, and I’ll go to my grave believing this, Kate and Tracy agreed to deceive the world. All I know is that when Tracy returned to Hollywood, and I used to visit Kate often on the coast, I heard that there were more handsome young men seen leaving Tracy’s cottage than there were beautiful actresses. Of course, Cukor made all the arrangements. Cukor auditioned the guys first. If he was impressed, he booked them for another night with Tracy. Cukor and Tracy were the original dial-a-hustler duo in Hollywood. It was the talk of the town. Everybody knew what was going on back then, even Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper. They just didn’t put it in the newspapers. Tracy retired from the sexual battlefields long before Kate did. His last known affair with a woman was with Grace Kelly, who liked to screw around with the stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, even when they were gray-haired, wearing a wig, and most definitely having to conceal their paunches on camera by wearing a girdle. Kate, being a far healthier and more vibrant sexual animal, would carry on a lot longer, of course.’
All the above information appears in Darwin Porter’s biography, Katharine the Great (2004). The book is a smorgasbord of rumor and gossip that readers can accept or reject. Most of those mentioned in it are long dead and, therefore, beyond comment and unable to acknowledge or refute Porter’s statements. At the end of his 500 plus page tome he devotes a number of pages to those he claims to have known and spoken to down the decades. Personally, I feel his writing would be a lot more believable had he done away with the ‘dime novel’ dialogue he attributes to almost everyone. I do not refer to the ‘recollections’ of individuals recorded above, but to so-called ‘conversations’ between individuals that are clearly contrived by the author. I have selected the statements that sound most credible from the book, the ones that do not have the ‘dime novel ‘ sound of the dialogue obviously concocted by the writer. Even so, the man’s reputation as a ‘muck-raker’ has more than likely consigned everything he writes to the realms of fantasy. You be the judge.