Friday, March 4

The Great Hoax: Kate & Spence

Movie-making is about illusion.  Quite often that illusion spills over into what the public is fed about the lives of movie stars.  In the good old days, it often took quite an army of friends and family, publicity people and sycophants, police and press to push the public's heads in the sand.  It was perhaps never done so completely, so beautifully than that which was accomplished by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.

They pulled off the great hoax so well that I'm guessing even you believed it... possibly you still do.  They were Hollywood's great love story (along with Cary Grant and Randolph Scott) of the 1940s.  They lived together for a stretch in the 50s-60s and if you were around at that time and interested, you didn't know that they did.  It was all kept very hush-hush.  Cohabitating in those years was a giant no-no anyway and they were both highly secretive.  They kept in the public eye by making nine films together, starting in 1940 and ending in 1966.  If anyone spoke of them as living together or even being an item, someone was quick to point out that, after all, Mr. Tracy was married, even if he hadn't been living with his wife for years.

Many books have been written about them over the years.  She authored one of her own after he passed away and by then confessed that they had resided together for 14 years or so.  She always said that they had a special relationship.  I don't recall her saying that she loved him but I have no doubt that she did.  I also don't doubt that he loved her (which he apparently never told her) but he was a little more darkly complicated than she was and infinitely more needy. 

For years there were whispers about her sexuality but it wasn't, of course, until after she passed away that writers began to say more openly what people had known all along.  She was a lesbian.  (At least one woman writer of a Hepburn bio claimed that she knew she was gay but was not given any sign that is was ok to comment on it.) Very few people were surprised.  She was not given to wearing dresses or skirts except on screen, she was given to bursts of butchness, she was immensely private and she had two close women friends who lived with her at different times over the years.  They were referred to as secretary-companions.  She had once been married briefly and I surmise that he was gay as well.  They remained friends for years and years after their divorce, something gays are able to pull off a great deal better than straight people.

She likely learned how to be a public person who is privately gay through her relationship with Howard Hughes.  It was great fun watching Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett portray them in The Aviator (2004) but it was a mix of truth and fiction.  Hughes was bisexual who hid his gay side by seeing to it that the press painted him as a Casanova.  The public bought it.  I've read biographies or autobiographies of most everyone who hung on his arm and they claimed the relationship was platonic.  (Apparently his entire relationship and marriage to actress Jean Peters was sexless.)  Hepburn listened to him and picked up his exact m.o.  Be maniacally private, then give the public some seemingly juicy tidbit that keeps them satisfied for a spell and return with a wry smile to a life deep in the closet.

Let's not think of Hepburn's gayness as being anything other than secretive.  And by that I mean she was as secretive with the gay world as much as she was with straights.  She wasn't hanging out in bars with the girls.  Her one exception, and she wouldn't have participated in it either if it produced any folly, was to have gay male friends.  Hughes, for one.  (Their relationship was based on four things, ambition, golf, flying and privacy.)  Cary Grant was another gay pal and he introduced them.  Director George Cukor goes to the head of the line... as does one other... but let's not go too fast here. 

She may not have spent a lot of time thinking about what she was anyway... besides being a non-conformist, which she loved.  She simply engaged in two longtime relationships with Laura Harding and Phyllis Wilbourn and that solved all that needed solving.  When Hepburn and Tracy traveled together, out of the camera's eye was Wilbourn or Harding.  Interestingly, Tracy couldn't stand either one of them.

Hepburn was born into the right family for her.  Always a loving family, the six kids were encouraged to do and be anything they wanted.  For years as a youngster, what Kate wanted was to be a boy.  She kept her hair cropped and insisted that everyone call her Jimmy.   She was the daughter of a true feminist and Kate never particularly saw the need for a man. 

The light came out of young Kate's life when in 1921 her beloved brother Tom hanged himself.  He was her closest sibling but she hadn't seen it coming and she was devastated.  Family members always said they had no idea why Tom killed himself.  Perhaps not.  They sometimes said it was an accident. The truth is possibly that Tom was gay... a good reason the two eldest sibs were so close.  She wore his clothes for a long time afterwards and slept in his room.  She also changed her birthday to his... that is to say for decades, when asked when her birthday was, she gave his.  He was born in November and she was born in May.  She became Tom.  Even though she had a quickie marriage, she couldn't belong to someone else... only Tom.  A meeting in 1940 was to change that to a large degree.

I'll hazard a guess that even if all of the above rattles you a little, you're not really all that surprised.  But I am also guessing that if I offer up that Spencer Tracy was gay or bisexual as well that you'd go all now-just-wait-a-bloody-minute on me.  Where'd I come up with that?  Damn, you gay folks just think everybody is gay.  Gay, gay, gay.

Well, I have read it in a book or two although it's more proper, perhaps to say that most of the time (not all), it has been suggested that he may be like that.  Or some biographer will take the time to say the rumors are all wrong.  You don't say?  Those same books have written about the numerous dalliances he had with some of the actresses he worked with (Young, Bergman, Crawford, Tierney).  I say... so?  Then perhaps he would swing both ways. 

Most biographers have agreed that the Great Hollywood Love Affair was chaste.  Always.  I don't dispute for a moment that they loved one another (I would hope it was love considering what she had to put up with from him).  Long before it became more topical to discuss his sexuality, I wondered whether he was gay because I was certain she was.  I'd considered a couple different scenarios.  If she was and he wasn't, then whyinthehell did they live together for 14 years and have an overall close relationship for 26?  What was in it for him, a straight man to be in a live-in relationship for all those years with a lesbian?  I would feel the same if she were straight and he were gay.  If both were gay, however, in the sanitary and closeted 40s and 50s, I don't think it's all so mysterious.

Tracy was a deeply troubled man... one can't get beyond the forwards in his biographies without reading that.  With the black that could come from being Irish and the guilt that seems to accompany being Catholic (I am neither, by the way, but since I was a young child, I have always paid good attention), Tracy was in for a rough ride from the beginning.  He took up drinking early in life as a way to ward off demons.  He freaked out when he first took up acting as a youth since he was branded a sissy for his efforts.  He could be as exasperating as a teenager as he was always known to be as an adult.  He could be dismissive, stubborn, needy, clingy, hyper-apologetic, full of himself and mean... really damn mean.

He married Louise Treadwell when he was 23 and she would be, as she said she would be, Mrs. Spencer Tracy forever.  Early in their marriage they got along well, although his drinking concerned her and his cheating bothered him.  The drinking increased after their son John was born deaf.  It's been written that Tracy went crazy because he was certain God punished him for cheating so He made the son deaf.  Of course, it didn't stop him from cheating or drinking but in time he did leave the family home.  Joe Mankiewicz, who produced the first Tracy-Hepburn collaboration, Woman of the Year (1942), said that Tracy didn't leave Louise, he left the guilt.  He would maintain a friendship with Louise for the rest of his life.

Spencer, Susie, Louise, John

An initial attraction for Hepburn was that she thought he was a better actor than she was... and she never thought that about anyone.  Their styles of acting couldn't have been more different.  She wanted to dissect every scene, every movement, every word, every comma.  He wanted none of that and he usually won.  Early on she envisioned that they would sit around and have discourses on acting.  Boy, was she in for a surprise.

She also found it utterly compelling that she could not push him around.  She could and did push most people around.  He would come to say that he had never run into a woman more bossy.  That alone would cause them untold problems as their relationship progressed, especially after they moved in together.

She would also wax rhapsodic over the balance he restored in her life, as if at one point she actually had such a thing.  The few who knew of their living arrangement didn't see much balance.  He would spend a lot of time telling her what a messed up situation they had.

The greatest source of Kate's attraction to Tracy was that she could help him.  She needed to care about someone, to fuss, to comfort.  Likely it dates back to the helplessness she felt over brother Tom's suicide and her inability to be there for him.  Whether or not she could articulate this, it was something she needed to do.  Let her find a wounded bird and she was right there.

And Tracy was a wounded bird.  He may have appeared cocky and independent but he needed someone to look after him.  He got exasperated over the little details of life and she was always there, Katie-on-the-spot, and he was usually grateful.  He also needed someone to crab at.  Her camp, over the years, would say that he treated her terribly, demeaned her, told her she was stupid and needed to shut up.  But his cronies, the few who knew anything about them, thought that Hepburn was rude to him and treated him shabbily.  With their temperaments, his black Irish moods and her New England imperiousness, everybody was likely correct.

If all was going well and both were in good spirits, they might admit to a good friend, especially George Cukor, that what they both cherished was the ability to be direct with one another.

Cukor, a renowned Hollywood gay, often referred to as a woman's director, had been good friends with both of them.  He directed Hepburn in four films before he directed them both in Keeper of the Flame (1942).  He would go on to direct them in two more films together, Tracy once without Hepburn and then in her later years, after Tracy had died, Cukor directed her in a couple of good television movies.

Cukor had a sprawling estate on Cordell Drive in West Los Angeles and at the start of the 50s, he decided to build two cottages on the western end of his property.  Both would have separate entrances on St. Ives Drive.  They were ritzy, comfortable, and best of all, private.  That is both private from the street and private from the rest of Cukor's property.  They ignored his frequent boys-only pool parties but would often attend his regular Sunday parties with the crème de la crème of Hollywood, gay and straight.  Few ever knew the pair lived on the property.

Tracy moved in in 1951 and died in its kitchen in 1967.  Hepburn spent the night or weekend here and there but she didn't actually move in for a few years later.  She also never gave up other homes and either Laura or Phyllis would still maintain them when Kate moved in with Tracy.  She always traveled a great deal for movie roles or stage work so despite their living arrangement, they were often apart as well.

She was able to do some good with him on his drinking and he had  periods of sobriety but they never lasted.  They would have some good rows when he was blasted.  He would go off on benders, sometimes taking a plane across the country just to hole up in some hotel and drink himself into unconsciousness.  Many a hotel room was trashed and many a cop was called.  He was usually contrite with Kate, promising to stop, but the ordeals continued.

The wily Hepburn could often locate him, although not always, much to her annoyance and worry.  She'd hired private detectives to trail him or locate him.  Even her old pal Howard Hughes would be enlisted to help.

From their finest film; neither of them ever saw it

It's been suggested that Tracy's homosexuality was even more closeted than Kate's was.  Prior to living on Cukor's estate, it is a given that he didn't frequent gay bars or visit Fire Island.  Tracy likely paid for his gay encounters or arranged very discreet ones with like-minded people at the studio. It later years Tracy's long association with alcohol rendered him unable to do much sexually but he was able to provide some relief to others.  It's not difficult to imagine that Cukor helped him to meet discreet others.  While Hepburn certainly knew, just as he knew about her, I don't see them sitting at the breakfast nook talking about being gay. 

Most writers never included any passages on his being gay although later bios brought it up only to deny it.  (It's been floated around more and more since she passed away.)  They all mention his tremendous guilt but few have stopped to consider that it had more to do with his sexuality and his inability to handle it.  I certainly do better with this version than God punishing him for his cheating by making his son deaf.

In his final, big speech in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, where he's talking to all those around him, Tracy looks at Kate and says something to the effect that if the young biracial couple had half as much as her parents had, it would really be something.  He spoke as Matt Drayton to Christina Drayton but everyone knew it was Spence speaking to Kate.  He was finally telling her that he loved her.  Her eyes filled with tears.  It was very touching indeed.  Tracy died a couple of weeks after filming was completed.  Hepburn said she could never bear to watch the film.  Too bad.  It was the best one they ever made together.

So what's it all mean?  Folks today like to point out that we don't need all the labels.  Who cares what people are?  Admittedly the sexual lines are getting more blurred all the time.  In this day and age, perhaps the only label worth mentioning is the one that's the  label of truth. 

In their day and age, Tracy and Hepburn simply could not come out of the closet.  No matter the whispers, mum's the word.  They actually chose not to discuss their relationship at all (partly out of respect to Louise and the family).  But at the same time they were utterly aware of what the few people who knew of their arrangement were saying and that was that they were living as a straight married couple.  She particularly got off on  the hoodwinking.

So, ok, we've shown their relationship in a bit of a harsher light.  Even while being involved in an industry trafficking in illusion and allowing much of it to spill over into their personal lives, I do believe the chaste relationship of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy was built on a bedrock of love and caring and support and feisty companionship. 

Next posting:
The Brothers


  1. Now wait just a consarned minute here! I er, well, um, WTF up in here?

  2. My great-uncle was a sound man for the movies, working out of NYC. Once, he excoriated Spencer Tracy up and down as one of the worst people he'd ever met. They had worked together on an aborted production of "The Yearling." Then again, my great-uncle was a rather bombastic man.

  3. Perfect post, echoing what I wrote myself. Spence and Kate did not actually spend that much time together in the 50s - she was filming a lot in England and Italy, and doing plays in Australia with gay pal Robert Helpmann. She was wise and rich enough to be off the screen from 59's Suddenly Last Summer to 67's Guess Who;s ... (the 62' Long Days Journey Into Night was an arthouse film at the time and little seen till it came out on dvd). Spence too was quite pals with young Robert Wagner who did 2 films with him - Wagner's own bio is very coded on bisexuality of the great stars, most of whom he knew ..... read between the lines. Cheers M.