A Conversation with
SPENCER TRACY: A BIOGRAPHY
Q. Aren’t there already a number of books about Spencer Tracy?
A. Actually, there are only two formal biographies. Larry Swindell published the first in 1969, but it was too soon after Tracy’s death to tell the full story. Too many people were still around. The second, published in 1988, was sensationalized by its author, Bill Davidson. So this is really the first major Tracy biography in 40 years; I don’t think the Davidson book really counts.
Q. What did Davidson sensationalize?
A. Practically everything. Davidson invented a story, for instance, that has Tracy attempting to throw his brother Carroll out of a hotel window in a drunken rage. The centerpiece of his book is a supposed interview he had with Tracy in which Tracy touches on his long relationship with Katharine Hepburn. He also has Tracy discussing things that didn’t take place until long after his death.
Q. Why do you think Davidson did that?
A. I can’t say and Davidson is dead. Quick money, I suppose. All his fabrications are absurdly easy to disprove, yet they’ve found their way into a lot of other books. One of the things I’ve had to do in this book is correct all the misinformation out there.
Q. Is that why the book is so long?
A. The book is so long because there is so much to cover. Tracy made 73 feature films and was nominated for nine Academy Awards. Then there’s his acting technique, his relationship with his wife, the deafness of his son, his alcoholism, his Catholicism, the insomnia that plagued him. There are also 124 photographs, full stage and screen chronologies, a bibliography, and 56 pages of source notes. It’s a big package.
Q. All the many books on Katharine Hepburn cover him.
A. Yes, but he was 41 years old when he met Katharine Hepburn. She played no part in the first four decades of his life. I think it’s fair to say she sustained him, but he developed as an actor entirely on his own. He was fully formed by the time she came along.
Q. If Katharine Hepburn wasn’t around, who was?
A. Louise Treadwell, who married Spencer Tracy in 1923. She was the lead actress in a White Plains stock company. He was fresh out of school and playing character roles.
Q. What was Louise Tracy like?
A. Louise was a fine actress and an excellent writer. She was a varsity basketball star in high school, a suffragist and a performance dancer. She made it to Broadway in 1922, the year her future husband got his first look at New York. She wrote humor for the New York Times, sold poetry to H.L. Mencken, and co-founded the first women’s polo league on the west coast. She was athletic, wry, brilliant. Of all the women Spencer Tracy was involved with, the closest to Louise was Katharine Hepburn.
Q. What happened to that marriage?
A. It’s a very complicated story, and it doesn’t lend itself to easy answers. Tracy’s faith was a factor, as was the deafness of their first child, John. Louise’s struggle as the parent of a deaf child led to the founding of John Tracy Clinic.
Q: What was the true nature of Tracy’s relationship with Katharine Hepburn.
A. It was the real thing, initiated by Hepburn, who privately acknowledged she was “desperately in love” for the first time in her life. She seemed to dedicate herself to his life and art, and I think without question he lived longer because she was there.
Q. How did Tracy feel about her?
A. That’s harder to say. She said that he never told her that he loved her, and I don’t think she would have made that up.
Q. Who was more important to him? Louise or Kate?
A. To me, there’s no question that they were equally important–in very different ways, of course. It’s utterly impossible to understand Tracy without knowing Louise and her background, and what they went through together as a young married couple. Those years shaped him, and Louise played a vital role in his development as an actor. Later, her founding of the Tracy Clinic gave him a constructive way to respond to their son’s deafness.
Q. What made Spencer Tracy such a good actor?
A. I think it was his ability to internalize a character before that really became an accepted technique. Lee Strasberg once described Tracy as the “perfect method actor” because he came by it naturally. It’s not a label Tracy would have encouraged, however. He thought Stanislavsky’s “sense memory” technique, when misapplied, encouraged overacting–the doing of more than was necessary. Tracy was, if anything, a subtractive actor. He was always striving to do the least possible to achieve an effect.
Q. What made him so popular?
A. He was the average guy on screen, and I think audiences, particularly American audiences, identified with him. Nobody in real life looked like Clark Gable or Robert Taylor–they were creatures of the screen–but Tracy didn’t particularly look as if he belonged in the movies. The fact that he was such a good actor contributed to the “everyman” illusion. As Humphrey Bogart said, you didn’t see “the mechanism working, the wheels turning.” He covered it up.
Q. When did you first see Tracy on screen?
A. I was taken to see “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” (1963) on my tenth birthday, so that was probably my first exposure to him. Later, I caught “Inherit the Wind” on television, and that’s what really did it for me. I’ve been fascinated by him ever since.
Q. Those are two very different movies.
A. I think one of Tracy’s great strengths was that he was as adept at comedy as he was drama. If you think of his great films, a good number of them are comedies–“Libeled Lady” (1937), “Woman of the Year” (1942), “Adam’s Rib” (1949), “Father of the Bride” (1950), “Pat and Mike” (1952).
Q. Is it true he was once asked what he looked for in a script and he said, “Days off”?
A. That’s true, but that came at a time of great professional frustration. Tracy was under contract to Fox and unhappy with the quality of films they were giving him.
Q. Is that the period when his drinking got out of control?
A. One of them. He was an Irish-Catholic binge drinker–a classic. He’d go for months without a drop, then disappear into a hotel room and not come out for two weeks.
Q. Did he ever seek help for his alcoholism?
A. He did, but his need to drink went deeper than a mere craving. There was tremendous guilt that grew from his son’s deafness. He took responsibility for that, and it created within him a dark core of self-loathing.
Q. Was that the only reason for his drinking?
A. No. In general, I don’t think he could ever live up to his own standards–as a man or as an actor. He could always see where he fell short, even when others could not. In some ways, I think he aspired to be the man his audience believed him to be. And he knew that was an image he could never live up to.
Q. Where did such high standards come from?
A. From his father, who died in his mid-fifties. “He wants to be an actor,” his father once said. “Can you imagine that face ever becoming a matinee idol?” He never thought Spencer could make a respectable living as an actor.
Q. Did he have a favorite film?
A. For all its faults, “Captains Courageous” (1937) was his favorite film, although he once said that “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961) was the best script he ever saw.
Q. Was there anything you discovered about Tracy that surprised you?
A. I found that he initially wanted to study medicine, and that by becoming an actor he felt that he had left the world with one less doctor. So once he got to Los Angeles and started earning money from a movie contract, he found a promising medical student and underwrote his entire education at McGill.
Q. Did that student go on to practice medicine?
A. Yes, indeed. He died in 1985, but fortunately left an unpublished memoir describing his years as Tracy’s surrogate.
Q. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” (1967) was the final teaming of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. Was it she who helped get him through it?
A. As much as anyone. Hepburn and, of course, Stanley Kramer, who produced and directed it. Tracy was in such poor health that he couldn’t be insured. He died 17 days after they finished it.
Q. Ironically, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was the biggest hit of his career.
A. Yes it was. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” and “Mad, Mad World” were his two greatest financial successes. He never saw either one of them.
Q. Was he the best actor of his generation?
A. I think so. That’s one of the reasons I wrote this book. Although Tracy was one of America’s greatest actors, he’s been reduced over the last 40 years to a supporting player in the Katharine Hepburn story. It’s time for a reassessment.