SPENCER TRACY – A nightmare of a man.

A portrait of a young Spencer Tracy (1900-1967). --- Image by © Underwood & Underwood/CORBIS


As an actor Spencer Tracy had few peers and cinema-goers adored him. Off screen he was a very ordinary human being, a man beset with all kinds of problems. He was a violent alcoholic his entire life and a rampant womanizer who had almost as many conquests to his name as Gable although, unlike ‘the King’, he is alleged to have taken male lovers as well. When he went on a ‘bender’, which was often, he was known at times to demolish hotel rooms a la Charlie Sheen.

As a youth he was thrown out of half a dozen grammar schools, the only subject he handled with relative ease being drama. There is no doubt he became one of the greatest movie actors in history, an achievement made more meritorious when we consider that he came to the screen with virtually no stage experience behind him. All the other greats such as Brando, Olivier and Bette Davis, brought a wealth of stage experience with them, but not Tracy.

He started his movie career at Fox in 1930, made sixteen movies there, but could not establish himself in the top echelon of performers. And he was trouble with a capital ‘T’. He rarely slept, suffered from depression, had a hair-trigger temper, was obsessed with death – and, most troublesome of all, he was a hopeless alcoholic. He also seduced starlets at a rate of knots for, regardless of his issues, the man could charm the birds out of the trees when he chose to. In 1933 he made Man’s Castle with Loretta Young, and the couple began a tempestuous affair that Loretta eventually called off. Why? Because her priest would not give her absolution for ‘dating’ a married Catholic man. Two years later she would have a child to the equally married Clark Gable after they made The Call of the Wild together. Evidently, her priest was away on vacation or something.

A Man's Castle Spencer Tracy Loretta Young Photo A552 | eBay

With Loretta Young in Man’s Castle

On his week-long benders Tracy would rent a hotel room, load up with two or three cases of whiskey, then settle himself in the bathtub and commence to drink. In fact, he would drink himself unconscious, wake up; then drink himself unconscious again. And he would continue the cycle until the booze was gone. This might take several days, during which time he would not leave the bathtub – for any reason. Fox put up with his abominable behaviour for five years before calling it quits. Called in to the head office, he was given an ultimatum. Curb his drinking or his contract would not be renewed. He listened very attentively, then walked across the street to the nearest saloon and got blind drunk. He then returned to the office and destroyed it and its contents. Fox fired him the next day. MGM quickly picked him up. L B Mayer’s protégé, Irving Thalberg, knew talent when he saw it.

Irving Grant Thalberg, Sr (1899 - 1936) - Find A Grave Memorial

Irving Thalberg

Of course, MGM knew of Tracy’s problems (everyone in the industry did), but the studio fixers, Howard Strickling and Eddie Mannix, formulated a plan to control him. A ‘Tracy Squad’ was created, consisting of four ‘heavies’ whose job was to follow the actor at all times. If they saw him enter a bar or a liquor store they were to immediately apprehend him and confiscate any booze he might have acquired. They would also pay off hoteliers if he happened to give them the slip, get plastered, and trash a room. MGM considered the trouble and expense of the ‘Tracy Squad’ was worth it, convinced he could make money for the studio. Lots of it. And they were right.

Writer/producer Joseph Mankiewicz once said of Tracy: ‘Nobody at MGM gets more sex than Spencer Tracy – except for Joan Crawford.’ Among his other lengthy relationships throughout the thirties and forties were, Myrna Loy, Paulette Goddard, Hedy Lamarr, Joan Bennett, Ingrid Bergman, Olivia de Havilland and her sister Joan Fontaine and (like everybody else), Joan Crawford. Mannix and Strickling also knew that Tracy had been seducing 17 year-old Judy Garland for three years. According to writer EJ Fleming, all of MGM knew it. By 1940, both Tracy and Garland had both moved on to others, Judy falling head over heels for 28 year-old bandleader Artie Shaw. She fully expected him to pop the question sooner or later. He never did. Instead, he eloped with Lana Turner.

That's Entertainment Sheet Music - Judy Garland - Big Band ...    Artie Shaw - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Judy Garland circa 1940                                            Artie Shaw

In 1943 Tracy made A Guy Named Joe with Irene Dunne and Van Johnson. While rehearsing their love scenes he would whisper graphic details in Irene’s ear, luridly detailing what he would do to her sexually if he ever got her alone. The very prim and proper Miss Dunne threatened to walk off the picture unless he desisted. Around that time Johnson was badly injured in a car crash. Production was put on hold by LB Mayer until he recovered, but only if Tracy agreed to ease up on Dunne. To his credit he agreed, for once putting someone else’s needs ahead of his own and Johnson’s career was saved.


With Irene Dunne in A Guy Named Joe

In 1954, the aging Tracy heard about Grace Kelly’s reputation for nailing older, married men, so he gave the makers of Bad Day At Black Rock an ultimatum. He would agree to promote the picture, but only if they arranged a date for him with Kelly. They did so, and the 54 year-old, white-haired Tracy wined, dined and bedded her that night.


Tracy & Grace dating

During the thirties and forties he would often stay at gay director George Cukor’s home for days at a time. It was rumoured he would have sex with young male friends of Cukor’s when the urge arose. Years later, several sources claimed that Tracy and John Derek also had a lengthy relationship. Informed sources further claim that his long-term relationship with Katharine Hepburn may not have even been consummated, given the ambivalent sexuality of both parties.

Old Hollywood Handsomes on Pinterest | Gregory Peck, Actors and ...

Tracy’s lover or not?

There was certainly great affection displayed in the relationship, so whether or not it was simply plutonic is debatable. He still disappeared from time to time, usually to his hometown of Milwaukee, where he would hole up in one of its numerous saloons on one of his benders. Kate knew it was virtually impossible to track him down, so she did not even try. Eventually, he would dry out and return to her.

Katharine Hepburn's secret torment | Express Yourself | Comment ...

with Kate in the early years

Tracy was nominated for nine Oscars and won two – the first, in spite of his abominable Portuguese accent, for Captains Courageous (1938), the second for Boy’s Town a year later. He and Kate made nine movies together, the last of them being 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? Just seventeen days after its completion Tracy was dead. Kate heard a cup crash to the floor in the middle of the night. He had suffered a massive heart attack, and she found him dead on the kitchen floor. For the rest of her long life she could not bring herself to watch the picture. Not without him beside her.

the little cInema of opinIon | film and tv

In Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?

A lot has been written about his staunch Catholicism preventing Tracy from divorcing his wife Louise and marrying Kate, but he often told friends that both women preferred the arrangement as it stood. So did he. He and Louise lived apart for many years, but he never moved in with Kate either. They just spent a lot of time together alternating between his place and hers. Out of respect for Tracy’s family Kate did not attend his funeral. She would outlive him by 36 years, dying in 2003 at the age of 96.

I have been a fan of Spencer Tracy the actor all my life. Like most movie-goers I was taken by the seemingly effortless way he projected intelligence and integrity. His acting style was relaxed and natural. It was fun to compare his performances with, say, Errol Flynn’s. Errol, in my opinion, was unbelievably awful. I still watch Captain Blood on occasion, just to remind myself of how bad a player can be, yet still become a huge success. But Tracy was the ultimate movie actor. It is disappointing to learn that the man could not live up to the actor. But then, the actor was so damn good – who could?


  1. The first time I turned on Sunday Afternoon Classics on WGN Channel 9 Chicago was in the early 70s. An actor was swinging across the forest to a tree, dressed in a green outfit replete with green leotards. He exclaimed “Welcome to Sherwood!” Please don’t try and burst my long-standing bubble with Errol Flynn. I certainly liked Spencer Tracy and think he was a wonderful actor, but he couldn’t pull off a “falling in love” with the sexy tension. No way…no how.

  2. I recently watched a documentary about Katharine Hepburn. Never realized she was so beautiful and complex.
    The beauty of all time is Elizabeth Taylor. The greatest actor in my lifetime is Jack Nicholson.
    Don’t bother to look me up because I’m nobody.

  3. WOW! You really nailed Tracey! This is the kind of stories that also have to be shared. Even Mother Thresea was a horrible person, so the standards of the Stars is should not be held so high. But the movie stars works will last/live forever.

    • Very little about the stars back in the big studio days holds up to close scrutiny, Tony. It was mostly hype, image building (or image maintaining) and a lot of covering up. Not every star was what he or she was projected as by the studio ‘fixers’. Of course, that does not mean everyone had clay feet; not by a long shot, but the heads of the studios ran interference when it was required. And they were very good at it.

  4. No, Alan. After Dread, in 1930, he appeared in The Last Mile. According to Wikipedia, The Last Mile opened on Broadway in February, where Tracy’s performance was met by a standing ovation that lasted 14 curtain calls. The Commonweal described him as “one of our best and most versatile young actors”. The play was a hit with critics, and ran for 289 performances.

  5. I find it incredibly disappointing that this piece explicitly says Spencer Tracy raped Judy Garland, and yet author and all in the comments section still shower him in praise, accolades and grace… very unfortunate that we still can’t even see how wrong he is, who cares what movies he was in he was 36 years old and she was 14

    • As more and more individuals publish their memoirs about Hollywood, many of the studio myths are being exposed, Jack. Not every story is 100% factual but it is most interesting to read and assess each one and then formulate an opinion on what is believable and what is not.

    • The story about Judy Garland and Spencer is false no doubt a product of the dreadful Darwin Porter who spreads this sort of nonsense around in his fictional books – Judy Garland never made this claim and they had had any relationship

  6. Again another great article. I too put Spencer Tracy very high on my list of great actors. Possibly the top. However, to be fair, to other actors, I’m not sure he really had the range to do any kind of part. Can I imagine Spencer Tracy playing Lawrence of Arabia? Nope. I do think he’d have been a great King Lear though. Maybe I’m not being fair. I guess no actor/actress can do EVERY part. And like I said, I love Spencer Tracy. I noted once in an article I once did on Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn that their very FIRST screen moment together on film foreshadowed their very LAST screen moments on film. That being, in Woman Of The Year, when they first are shown together, Hepburn is sitting on a desk straightening her stockings (a rare cheesecake shot for Hepburn for sure) Tracy walks in. What do they do? Well Tracy looks at her legs of course and then the two simply stare at each other for an extended moment and it’s their cinematic HELLO…years later almost at the very end of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (a movie I love) near the end of a long speech delivered by Tracy, he declares to a room full of people that if the love between his daughter (played by Katharine Houghton, Hepburn’s real life niece) and her fiance a doctor (played by the great Sidney Poitier) is half as much as the love he’s had for his wife, well then that is everything. And it is at this point, he turns his head and looks straight at Hepburn, she returns his look and again, there is a protracted moment of their staring into each other’s eyes. Moments after that shot the movie ends. That look/gaze was in fact their cinematic goodbye. Incredible how life and art can collide like that and show the beginning and the end in mirror moments.

  7. It’s just insane to suggest Spence was gay or bisexual, that’s just nonsense and invented recently by Scotty Bowers (known liar). He and Kate DID live together at George Cukor’s Malibu cottage from 1942-1967, this is exceedingly well documented. And of course they had sex! Consult Garson Kanin’s oral history, which shows they had an active sex life until the late 1950’s when Spencer’s health failed.

    • I have not read Mr. Bowers’ book and do not intend to, Thomas. I base my assessments on many sources and no doubt some may be dubious, but then so are almost all the OFFICIAL Hollywood studio assessments. All we can do is sift the available data and arrive at our own conclusions. How you can say ‘and of course they had sex’, and not deem that an assumption is beyond me. As for Garson Kanin, he may be telling the truth, he may be protecting his friends’ reputations. He would not be the first reputable person to do that, especially in the entertainment business. We can merely agree to disagree on the validity of whichever sources we choose. Thankyou for your comments.

    • Yes, lots of fiction in this piece. Convenient that Tracy isn’t around to defend himself. Tracy was one the best actors of all time, a womanizer & bully when he drank. But he was not gay.

  8. Late to this posting but its an inaccurate statement to claim that Spencer Tracy was a violent alcoholic his entire life . Lots of inaccurate biographies particularly the Bill Davidson biography . He was a binge drinker who could go without drinking for years and his drinking tapered off from the early 1940s . Yes he could be violent but that was not the norm .

    • That is probably a fair assessment, Kerrie. Sadly, he was quite unpredictable. Like most people, I feel he was the most gifted movie actor of all time. We can only wonder how good he could have been if he could have overcome his drinking problem.

  9. Always enjoyed this story about Spence. He & and Kate Hepburn were cast to do their first film together,Tracy would receive top billing.

    A friend asked Tracy why not let Kate go first in the billing,you know,like woman first off a sinking ship?

    Spence replied with a growl “It’s a movie not a lifeboat.”

  10. I love these larger than life stories. They did everything to excess! My head reels at the thought of all those stunning women, the booze, the great lifestyles, Its… HOLLYWOOD!! It is a very guilty fascination. Tracy was great but I don’t know why.

  11. Spencer Tracy didn’t have have a lot of stage experience? Tracy studied in New York at the American Academy Of Dramatic Arts, and then spent seven years on the stage (stock companies and Broadway) before ever making a movie. He returned to Broadway in the 40’s in the play, The Rugged Path.

    • Fair enough, Dave. I should have said that he did not have a lot of SUCCESS on the stage. He was in a number of plays but went almost un-noticed until ‘Dread’ in 1929 looked like putting him on the map, but the Stock Market crash the next day ruined any hope of the play being financed.

  12. Yes Spencer Tracy was a great actor and some other actors considered him the best. I though put actor Fredrick March side by side with Tracy and then some. March could play romantic leads. Tracy didn’t or couldn’t in pulling it off).

    • By MOST accounts (but not all), Jean was quite a player. Unfortunately, Dawn, the studios concocted so much downright baloney about their stars, it is difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff.

      • Robards yelled at me and kicked me off his property as I was crossing his lawn to get to the beach in Southport, Connecticut. A neighborhood of Fairfield. Not a nice man but then again his property has a big no trespassing sign on it. I was 17 at the time.

        • No excuse, of course, Betsy, but the man had a serious alcohol problem for much of his life. A little leeway for a teenager, however, would not have hurt him. Interesting story, Thankyou.

  13. I’ve read similar stories about Tracy. During Bogart’s terrible illness, he and K. Hepburn were daily visitors to the Bogart home.
    After Bogie’s death, Betty Bacall asked Tracy to speak at his funeral, but he was so devastated, he refused, and John Huston
    eulogized his dear friend Bogie.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.