A Love Story for the Ages

UPDATED 03/17/1986 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/17/1986 at 01:00 AM EST

Acting with Spencer Tracy always came naturally to Katharine Hepburn; what one critic called the "he-she chemistry" of their nine films together, now the stuff of Hollywood legend, was real. Talking publicly about Tracy, though, has never come naturally to her at all. Even when she took the stage of Broadway's Majestic Theatre last week at a star-studded benefit for a Tracy scholarship fund, her comments were confined to Tracy the actor. Her thoughts about the private Tracy—the bedeviled, often hard-drinking man who anguished over his Catholic faith and who would not divorce his wife while Hepburn shared his life from 1941 until his death in 1967—have been her closely guarded secret until now. And even now she parts with them cautiously, careful to respect the intricacy of his life, careful not to explain away its mysteries.

A visitor is invited to her four-story Manhattan brownstone to discuss the 90-minute PBS documentary she narrated on Tracy's films (it airs this week). While the cook prepares a lunch of Jerusalem artichoke soup and chipped beef on toast, Hepburn, 77, bends down to straighten out an Oriental carpet. "This is how I spend my life," she says with mock exasperation, then leads the way upstairs to the second-floor living room. From here, high windows look out over a block-long common courtyard shared by, among other neighbors, composer Stephen Sondheim. There is no sign of her record four Oscars (it turns out they are on exhibit at New York's World Trade Center). The only statuette in evidence is a peculiarly shaped chrome figure of a woman—a "lifetime achievement" award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. "Looks pregnant, doesn't she?" says Kate (as she asks to be called), scrutinizing the award. Today she is wearing her usual: battered blue clogs, black slacks, a pullover and a red sweater tied loosely about her neck by the sleeves. "Can you imagine? Winning a fashion award for hot giving a damn about clothes? Absolutely hilarious."

The missing Oscars notwithstanding, the place is chockablock with mementos and with sculptures and paintings she has done over the years. Hepburn is a skilled artist whose oil paintings depicting the beaches and lighthouses near Fenwick, the Hepburn family summer home at Old Saybrook, Conn., have fetched thousands of dollars at charity auctions. She has painted portraits as well, but one subject continually eluded her. "I've done lots of portraits, of my friends, of children," she says, "but for some mysterious reason I could never quite paint Spencer's face. Oh, I could paint his form, the way he sat, the way he held himself. But that face—there's just something about it. So when I painted him reading, I hid his face behind a newspaper."

Tracy too, Hepburn confides, had artistic ambitions. "Spencer tried to paint, but it's a very curious thing—he'd paint a mountain without a single thing on it or a lake without any boats or anything. Never any people. Very simple, stark, lonely pictures. Single-minded. In the end he decided that he was just lousy at it, but those pictures said a lot about him."

A few months ago, Hepburn says, she was suddenly "hit by the feeling that I had to write to Spence." She bounded upstairs and, sitting on the edge of her bed, scrawled a four-page letter to him. "It took me 10 minutes," she says. The letter, which Hepburn reads at the end of the tribute, tells of a sick, tormented man whom she had to talk to sleep at night in his last days. "Living was never easy for Spence," she says. "He was deeply troubled—not at all like that totally confident figure the public saw up there on the screen. But whatever it was that made him so unhappy, he never talked about it—not with me, not to anyone. I realize now that I never really knew him."

What she did know, from her first day of working with Tracy in 1942's Woman of the Year, was that she had met her match—"and then some." That first day Hepburn was so nervous that she knocked over a glass of water while filming a restaurant scene. She expected him to stop everything and call a prop man to clean it up, but instead "he never batted an eyelash. Looking straight into my eyes and continuing with his lines, he picked a handkerchief out of his breast pocket and handed it to me. I thought, 'You old son of a bitch,' and began damping up the mess. Then it started dripping through the table, so I just said, 'Excuse me,' and bent down to mop it off the floor—all the while saying our lines as if nothing unusual had happened! It worked beautifully, and we kept it in the film."

While Hepburn bows to Tracy as the more skilled actor ("Watching him was like being grabbed by the front of the shirt and held"), she had her own very different approach to the job. "The daily reworking of the script—the whole creative process—always fascinated me. I've always found it to be more fun than the actual acting. But it bored Spencer. He just went out there and made it work."

He was no less set in his ways outside the studio. While they were locked in a constant male-female struggle for dominance in films like State of the Union, Adam's Rib and The Desk Set, at home it was no contest. "Let's just say," allows Hepburn, "that where change was required, I adjusted. In every relationship that exists, people have to seek a way to survive. If you really care about the person, you do what's necessary, or that's the end. For the first time, I found that I really could change, and the qualities I most admired in myself I gave up. I stopped being loud and bossy." She pauses. "Oh, all right. I was still loud and bossy, but only behind his back." She called him Spencer or Spence; to him she was Kathy or Kath, never Kate.

Onscreen, they were the perfect couple. In public, they couldn't even pretend to be. Louise and Spencer Tracy had separated three years before he and Hepburn met in 1941, in part over his frequent bouts with alcohol. Wed in 1923, the Tracys had two children: John, now 61, who was born deaf, and Susie, 53. Spencer's religion (Louise was Episcopalian) forbade divorce, but he moved into the Beverly Hills Hotel and in the 1950s took up residence in a cottage on director George Cukor's California estate. He and Hepburn (who had divorced insurance broker Ludlow Ogden Smith after six years of marriage in 1934) always maintained separate residences, the actor all the while sustaining a warm friendship with his wife. Tracy, in fact, strongly supported Louise when she set out to establish the John Tracy Clinic for the deaf in Los Angeles. Says Kate: "He really admired Louise for that." Mrs. Tracy died in 1983 at the age of 87 and was buried alongside her husband in the family plot at the Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.

If his decision not to divorce Louise hurt Hepburn then or now, she doesn't say. Garson Kanin, who co-wrote Adam's Rib for the Tracy-Hepburn team in 1949, recalled that during Tracy's visits to the family home in Beverly Hills Kate filled her time as best she could: "A neglected friend, a postponed chore or a long think by herself...She understood the necessity for Spencer to stay close to his family."

Susie Tracy, now a professional photographer who appears on the TV tribute with Hepburn, says that she and her brother (formerly an artist with the Disney Studios) understood her father no better than Hepburn did. "He would come home every Sunday and play tennis with us and tell wonderful stories. He was generous, funny—he loved to kid. But he was also complex and extremely sensitive. You couldn't convey the depth of feeling he did onscreen without knowing what pain was personally."

Part of Tracy's pain was his son John's deafness. "That was an enormous upset to both Spencer and to Johnny," Kate says, "but they did the best they could under the circumstances. They coped." Often Tracy turned to the bottle for help in coping. "He had a drinking problem, no doubt about it," says Kate, though she admits she never asked him to go on the wagon. "His drinking was no problem between us," she explains. "Drinking is your own problem, and the only person who can do anything about it is you. I admired Spencer for his ability to just stop. Spencer was amazing. He never went to Alcoholics Anonymous, yet he would quit with a case of bourbon in the cupboard. And he wouldn't touch another drop for two or three years." Having followed her father's advice to "drink only when you're happy—never to escape," Hepburn has her own theory about addiction: "I believe we are all born into a room with lots of doors, and some of the doors you must not open."

Just why Spencer opened the door that released his demons remains a mystery even to the woman who was closest to him. "He was never happy just being Spencer," she says. "I don't think he liked himself very much. Acting must have been a relief for him—pretending he was someone else." And she remembers his periodic crises of faith, a spiritually embattled side of him that she could never know or understand. "A priest named Father Cyklic used to tell Spencer, 'Your problem is that you forget all the good things about your religion and just let the bad things about it drive you crazy.' Spencer wasn't really philosophically inclined, so we never discussed it, thank God. It's a difficult subject for me, because I couldn't care less about the next world. I'm just trying to do my best with what I've got in this one." Yet it was Hepburn who found Tracy slumped over a chair, dead of a heart attack, two weeks after they finished Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? in 1967—and she, the agnostic, who, said Kanin, placed the rosary and St. Christopher's medal in his casket.

She didn't attend the funeral. As ever, in Tracy family matters, she chose not to intrude. Perhaps Louise Tracy's death freed Hepburn finally to talk of their life together, to speak of him as one would of the closest family, to utter her grief at all the maddening questions about him that she can never answer. "Why the escape hatch?" she asks of his drinking in her letter. "Why was it always opened to get away from that remarkable you? What was it, Spence? I meant to ask you. Did you know what it was? What did you say? I can't hear you...."

Hepburn says she agonized for days about reading that letter on the air before deciding it would "give people a true sense of the man." But Spencer Tracy isn't the only person who stands revealed. In exorcising the ghosts of her past, Katharine Hepburn has come close to something she has never before allowed herself: a public declaration of love.

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