Monday, 11 May 2015

The Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon: The Love Story of Kate & Spence

The year was 1941. Katharine Hepburn was stepping out of the side entrance to the Thalberg Building in the MGM studio lot when she noticed Spencer Tracy and Joseph Mankiewicz coming along from the commissary. She decided to approach them.
"How do you do?" Kate said. She was wearing high heels and as she got closer to Tracy, she realized that she stood two inches taller than him. "Sorry I've got this high heels on," Kate said, after a few moments of awkward silence. "But when we do the movie I'll be careful about what I wear."
Spencer looked at her with those lion eyes of his, while Joe Mankiewicz quipped:
"Don't worry, Kate. He'll cut you down to his size."

And that was how the love story of Kate and Spence started.


In mid-1941, writer-director Garson Kanin, a close friend of Katharine Hepburn, proposed to her the idea for a film about a sports writer and a political columnist that he had just developed with his brother Mike and Ring Lardner, Jr. Enthusiastic about the project, Kate immediately took the outline to MGM chief Louis B. Mayer and said: "If you want it, it's yours, but I want to play the columnist and I want Spencer Tracy for the sports writer. The bargain price for the script and me is $250,000." Surprisingly enough, Mayer accepted Kate's terms without making any objections and soon greenlighed the project, entitled Woman of the Year (1942).

Spence and Kate in Woman of the Year
The first time Kate saw Tracy was in 1930, when he was appearing in John Wexley's grim Broadway play The Last Mile. She became a great admirer of his work and had even tried to get him to be one her leading men in The Philadelphia Story (1940), but he had been unavailable at time. Now that she had finally been given the chance to work with Tracy, she was absolutely thrilled. Although she had never met Tracy before Woman of Year began production, Kate was sure he would be perfect in the film and that they would be perfect together. She later said, "We started our first picture together and I knew right away that I found him irresistable. Just exactly that, irresistable."

Tracy, on the other, was not particularly excited to be working with Kate. He found her to be a rather strange creature. He kept calling her "that woman" and thought she was of ambiguous sexuality, had dirty fingernails and utterly disliked the fact that she always wore pants. He was especially bothered by the close friendship Kate had with director George Stevens, fearing that he might turn Woman of the Year into a "woman's picture" by giving her all the best angles and close-ups. But sometime fate works in mysterious ways. As the on-screen relationship between Tess Harding and Sam Craig seemed to be changing, so did the real-life relationship between Kate and Spence seemed to be changing as well. Suddenly, he stopped calling her "that woman," asked Stevens to favor her more his his setups and they even started sharing their lunch breaks in his dressing room. Before production on Woman of the Year finished, it was clear to everyone that Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were deeply involved in a romantic affair.

It was the first of nine films that we did together and it was the beginning of a 27-year... What should I call it? Relationship, madness, happiness, love affair. It was everything, and made me understand for the first time what it really meant to be in love.
(Katharine Hepburn)

In Keeper of the Flame
It was during the making of their second film together, George Cukor's Keeper of the Flame (1943), that they were allowed the time to really fall in love with each other. Kate started to devote herself completely to Spencer, taking care of him almost like a mother takes care of her child. She would comb his hair, arrange his collar, wipe his face and massage his temples, always making sure that he was comfortable and had everything he needed. People wondered why such a fiercely independent woman like Katharine Hepburn was so submissive with Spencer, but the truth was that she enjoyed doing those things for him. From the beginning of their romance, Kate realized that Tracy was a deeply troubled and painfully insecure man and understood that the only way to make their relationship a lasting arrangement was to devote her life to him.

Some people are shocked that I'd give up my independence for a man, do everything to please him, change things about myself he didn't like. What you have to understand is that, it gave me pleasure to make him happy, to ease his agonies. I'd never felt that way about anyone before.
(Katharine Hepburn)

Officially, however, they were just good friends. After all, he was a married Catholic and father of two children. Around the time Kate and Spence became involved, his wife Louise was in the process of founding a clinic to help hearing impaired children like their son John. Although his marriage was over long before he met Kate, he would not divorce Louise, as he felt she needed to remain Mrs. Spencer Tracy to ensure the future of the clinic. Out of respect for Louise and the important work she was doing, Tracy and Hepburn kept their relationship as private as possible. They never went out in public and even the press and the gossip columnists left them alone. It was only after Louise's death in 1983 and after she became friends with Susie Tracy, Spencer's daughter, that Kate felt it was finally acceptable to talk about her relationship with him.

As Adam and Amanda in Adam's Rib
Throughout the remainder of the decade, Kate and Spence appeared in a series of films that made America's highest-grossing twosome: Harold S. Bucquet's Without Love (1945), based on a Philip Barry play written specifically for Hepburn; Elia Kazan's The Sea of Grass (1947), a melodramatic western that became the biggest moneymaker of all of their MGM pictures; and Frank Capra's State of the Union (1948), based on the Russel Crouse/Howard Lindsay play of the same name about a aircraft tycoon who runs for President of the United States.

But it was really Cukor's Adam's Rib (1949), the story of married lawyers in opposite sides of a murder case, that defined Kate and Spence as a couple in the public's mind, convincing the audience that their lives were the same off the screen and they were on. Written by their friends Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, the picture perfected the Tracy-Hepburn formula that seemed rooted in their own relationship: an independent woman gets put in her place by a down-to-earth man. On screen, it was like they represented the typical American male and female. He was strong but vulnerable, intelligent but not intellectual, and she just kept needling and irritating him until he stopped her, always back and forth until they tamed each other. Audiences loved that sort of bantering male-female relationship; they thought it was rather romantic.

Spencer was a natural actor. He just did it, no fuss. He could read a script, have it memorized in a flash, extraordinary concentration. He never wanted to discuss a scene ahead of time. I always say he was like a baked potato, solid, dependable. I'm more like an ice-cream sundae. With whipped cream.
(Katharine Hepburn)

On the set of State of the Union
Kate and Spence were different in life too. She thought life was a thrilling adventure. He found life difficult; it was acting that was easy. Unlike Hepburn, Tracy's ambition was not about fame or applause. That sort of narcissism that always drove Kate onward was not present in him.  For Spencer Tracy, acting was just an escape from his torments and it was a relief for him to be someone else for a while. His deep unhappiness and lifelong guilt over his son's deafness, which he was convinced was a punishment for his own sins, drove him to alcoholism, often turning him into a mean and aggressive drunk. Both Kate and Spencer realized that as long as she remained by his side, he would have the strenght to resist temptation, so she just tried to help him as best as she could. "Though they were both extremely sophisticated people," George Cukor said, "he was like a boy with her and she was like a little girl with him. She helped by distracting him from his drinking with love."

In the 1950s, Hepburn and Tracy made only two films together: Cukor's Pat and Mike (1952), designed to showcase Kate's expert athletic abilities; and Walter Lang's Desk Set (1957), their first color film and their first shot in CinemaScope. By the early 1960s, all those years of heavy drinking, made worse by smoking and addiction to pills, finally caught up with Spencer Tracy and his health began to fail. In 1963, when doctors discovered that he was suffering from pulmonary edema, Kate moved into his house to properly take care of him. In 1965, he was diagnosed with hypertensive heart disease and diabetes and spent the following couple of years at home with Kate, living a quiet life that consisted of reading, painting and listening to music.

On the set of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
In 1967, despite Tracy's failing health, Hepburn and director Stanley Kramer convinced him to do one more film. It was a way to get him out of the house and forget about his troubles. When they began shooting Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), the story of a couple whose daughter brings home a black fiancé, everyone worried whether Spencer would be able to cope with the film's shooting schedule. He got increasingly sicker as the film progressed and they had to shoot his scenes between 9:00 a.m. and noon of each day so as to give him enough time to rest. Against everyone's expectations, Tracy managed to finish the film without causing any delays in the production.

It was about 3 a.m. on June 10, 1967, seventeen days after they finished filming Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, when Spencer got up to make himself a cup of hot tea. Kate heard him in the kitchen, so she decided to get up as well and go downstairs to meet him. Suddenly, she heard the sound of a cup hitting the floor followed by a thud. As she opened the kicthen door, she found Spencer lying on the floor, lifeless. Spencer Tracy, her companion of almost 27 years, the love of her life, had died from a heart attack, at the age of 67. Kate chose not to attend the funeral out of respect for Spencer's family, but she did get a chance to "see the old boy take off". On the day of the funeral, Kate drove down to Cunningham & Walsh, the undertakers, and since no one was there, she helped them lift Spence into his spot in the wagon. The funeral car went off and she went off after them. About a block from the church, she turned over and drove back home. That was goodbye.

In a publicity still for Woman of the Year

You would never think of putting a baked potato and an ice-cream sundae with whipped cream on top together, would you? No, neither would I. But the truth is that it worked. Why it worked, no one knows. Not even Kate herself knew. With all of their differences, they were strangely compatible. Kate never found out what really bothered Spencer, but she stood by him for almost three decades and tried her absolute best to distract him from his troubles and ease his pain. He may not always have beeen as warm and caring towards her as she was towards him, but he was grateful for her. And boy, was she grateful for him!

When people write and ask me about love, I think to myself, well, I've been lucky. I've really known a lot about love. Thank you, Spencer.
(Katharine Hepburn)

This is my contribution to The Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon hosted by Margaret Perry. To view all entries, click HERE.

Me: Stories of My Life by Katharine Hepburn (1991) | I Know Where I'm Going: Katharine Hepburn, A Personal Biography by Charlotte Chandler (2010) | Kate: The Woman Who Was Hepburn by William J. Mann (2006) | Spencer Tracy: A Biography by James Curtis (2011) | Katharine Hepburn: All About Me (1993) | Katharine Hepburn: On Her Own Terms (1996)


  1. Ahhh this post was so good. I think you really hit a lot of right points about their relationship, especially since so much is speculated. I truly believe they loved each other deeply, or at the very least, Kate loved Spencer deeply. But she said "I can only say I think that if he hadn't liked me he wouldn't have hung around."

    Have you seen her read the letter she wrote to him? You can find it on my Blogathon contribution

    I loved reading this!

    1. Aww, thank you so much. I loved writing this article, so I'm really glad you enjoyed reading it.

      No, I haven't actually seen her read the letter, but I've read it in her book "Me: Stories of My Life". It's such a beautiful and heartbreaking letter. The love she felt for him is truly inspiring.

      Once again, thank you so much for stopping by and taking the time to read my post and comment. :)

  2. This is a lovely tribute to both Hepburn and Tracy. I've often wondered why she would give up her independence for him, being who he was, but I can also see why making him happy would make her happy. Wonderful post! Thanks for sharing all your research and hard work.

  3. This post was marvelous! I myself learned some things, like they didn't "clicked" rightin the first moment. It's an interesting and very, very intense relationship. As you said, nobody could imagine that a potato and an ice-cream sundae would be so good together!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

    1. Thank you very much. I'm glad you enjoyed reading it. :)

  4. Yuo won one of #TheGreatKH blogathon prizes: check out the video on my blog to find out more!