Birth: April 5, 1900
Death: June 10, 1967
Spencer Bonaventure Tracy was born April 5, 1900 in Wisconsin. He was the second son of Caroline and John. They were a loving and happy family, but John had inherited the ‘family curse’ of alcoholism and would go on drinking binges where nobody could find him except his brother. Spencer and his older brother Carroll were raised with the Catholic faith. Spencer was interested in everything but school and tended to hang out with the wrong crowd, so during his teenage years he was sent to multiple Jesuit academies. As a result, religion would always be an important part of Spencer’s life.
At 18, Spencer enlisted in the Navy while World War I was raging. But the war ended as Spencer was still in training, so he was discharged in 1919. His war credits did earn him a place at Rippon College. College was a great time for Spencer: he was popular, loved to play pranks on his fellow students and was even voted ‘cleverest’ and ‘most talented’. Soon, he became part of the theatre program and fell in love with acting.
A Struggling Actor
Spencer auditioned for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York in 1922. He was accepted on a scholarship and immediately left Rippon and moved to New York. Upon his graduation in 1923, he joined a stock company. There he met young actress Louise Treadwell and soon they were engaged. They shared a love of the stage and a down to earth nature. But mostly the level-headed Louise was a good influence on the sensitive, melancholy Spencer. Although Louise was not Catholic, Spencer’s family loved her and welcomed her with open arms. They married on September 10, 1923, between a matinee and evening performance of their show, because acting was still their number one priority.
Spencer joined a few struggling stock company’s and money was tight. In June 1924 their son John was born. During this time, Spencer enjoyed some minor success in a stock company where he was paired up with popular stage actress Selena Royle. He was rumored to have had an affair with her and another young actress who was part of the stock company. Louise heard these rumors and although the couple fought about it, she was mostly focused on her newborn son. When John was ten months old, she noticed he did not respond to a slamming door and she subsequently learned that he was deaf. The news devastated Spencer. He secretly blamed himself, feeling that because he had sinned, his son had been punished. Meanwhile Louise took John to multiple doctors asking for advice and she decided to focus on her son and quit acting altogether. Though Spencer started appearing in Broadway shows with mild success, his big break was yet to come. He contemplated quitting acting. By this time his son John had contracted Polio and had to have sufficient care, aside from his lessons specifically for deaf children. This was all very expensive and Spencer desperately needed money. He was in a bad place emotionally as well, because during this time, his beloved father passed away. Spencer was a melancholy man by nature, but his son’s illness and his father’s death exacerbated this in him and family and friends found it difficult to reach him. Even more concerning was the fact that he seemed to have inherited the ‘family curse’ and would go on drinking binges. His brother was often the only one who could track him down during these times, mirroring their father and uncle years earlier.
But an opportunity arose: Spencer took a role in the play The Last Mile and when Hollywood director John Ford saw the play, he decided that Spencer should star in his next picture. Spencer had never wanted to be in films, but a contract at a Hollywood studio meant steady money and less traveling. He signed a long-term contract with Fox and moved Louise, John, his brother Carroll and his mother to Hollywood. Up The River was released in 1930 and was Spencer ánd Humphrey Bogart’s movie debut. But at Fox, Spencer found himself cast in mostly unpopular films of low quality. Louise felt her husband needed a hobby to lift his spirits and she introduced him to horses and polo. Spencer loved it and spent most of his spare time playing polo, while Louise and John would watch him. For awhile the romance was back again. Louise became pregnant with their second child and in 1932 their daughter Susie was born.
In that same year his contract at Fox was up and after nine unsuccessful films Spencer thought about leaving the studio. But a rise in his paycheck made him stay. He subsequently made The Power and The Glory which was his first minor hit and the press finally seemed to notice him. But at home, things were not going well anymore. Spencer drank a lot and was rarely home. Things came to a head when he met the 20-year old Loretta Young while filming Man’s Castle in 1933. He began a relationship with her and told the press he was separated from Louise. But even Loretta could not contain Spencer’s alcoholism and after a year of dating she broke up with him. Spencer went back to Louise, claiming it was just a little adventure, but the two would never have a conventional marriage.
Meanwhile, he signed a contract with studio giant MGM. This studio saw his potential and had big plans for him. They teamed him up with two of their most popular actresses: with Myrna Loy for Whipsaw and with Jean Harlow for Riffraff. It was a smart promotional move, which introduced him to the public as a worthy leading man. He then made three hit films in a row: Fury, San Francisco and Libeled Lady. MGM had finally made him a star. By now, Spencer felt ready to buy a house for his family: a ranch in Encino, big enough for his beloved horses. He did his best to keep away from alcohol and spent time with his family. Though he was uncomfortable feigning a foreign accent and having his hair curled for Captain Courageous, the film was a big hit and earned him an Academy Award. By now, he had earned the respect of Hollywood, critics and the public, but things at home were still not going well. He lived at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, fell off the wagon every now and then and was not faithful. While filming Mannequin he had a short affair with co-star Joan Crawford. On the other hand, his career was going better than ever. In 1938 Spencer was assigned to play Father Flanagan in Boys Town, based on a real-life priest. He was nervous about playing this man he so admired and asked his permission before he signed on to do the film. It earned him his second Academy Award and the film was so popular that a sequel was soon made. Meanwhile, his age was on his mind. The grueling filming of Northwestern Passage left his body sore and a few acquaintances had passed away. He became a lifelong hypochondriac, convinced at times that he had an incurable illness and was dying. Spencer and Louise were still officially married and seemed to be on good terms, but they didn’t live together and Spencer still had affairs with other women. During the filming of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Spencer was reportedly seeing Ingrid Bergman. But these temporary flings changed when he signed on to do Woman of the Year opposite Katharine Hepburn.
Katharine and Spencer were opposites in many ways: Spencer was known as friendly and a prankster, whereas Katharine was known to be arrogant and serious. But they were a surprisingly good pairing and soon the two were inseparable. Katharine was crazy about Spencer and took care of him during his bouts of depression and whenever he fell off the wagon. She even scheduled her career around him: between 1942 and 1950 she made ten films, six of which were with Spencer. Still, Spencer did not want his wife and children to know about her, even though they made no secret of their relationship at work or with friends.
Meanwhile, his wife Louise used everything she had learned about raising and educating a deaf child and started the John Tracy Clinic: a non-profit education centre for infants and pre-school children with hearing loss. Spencer thought this was a marvellous idea and he donated money and held speeches whenever it was needed. In fact: he felt that the John Tracy Clinic was the part of his legacy he was most proud of, though he always credited Louise for her hard work. Meanwhile, he was struggling with insomnia and had started to rely on barbiturates to sleep and Dexedrine in the morning to wake up. He was also going on increasingly dangerous drinking benders again. So he went back to his first love: the stage. In 1945, he was back on Broadway in the play The Rugged Path. But Hollywood had spoiled him; he now found it boring to do the same play over and over again and the responsibility made him anxious. So he went back to Hollywood and immediately started working on another Tracy-Hepburn film.
A new chapter of Spencer’s career came with his role in Father of the Bride alongside Elizabeth Taylor. His role as the exasperated father Stanley Banks spoke to audiences and critics alike and Spencer was surprised at how much he enjoyed doing comedy. Meanwhile, Katharine did everything she could to make his life easier. She hated the cold hotel rooms and bungalows he lived in and arranged for Spencer to live in a bungalow on the property of their friend director George Cukor and decorated it herself.
In 1951 he starred in The People Against O’Hara while Katharine was in Africa filming the African Queen. With Katharine away, Spencer was restless. Again, he had affairs, one of which was with actress Gene Tierney. He even secured a role for her in his next film Plymouth Adventure. Spencer was starting to get a reputation for being difficult on set as well, threatening to leave mid-production in multiple films. During filming of Tribute To a Bad Man in 1955 things got so bad, he pulled out of the film altogether. After that it was decided that his contract at MGM would not be up for renewal and he was independent for the first time in his movie career.
A Living Icon
One of his first independent projects was an adaption of the Ernest Hemingway novel The Old Man and the Sea. Meanwhile, John had a son, making Spencer a grandfather, and Louise had moved to a new, smaller home and was busy with the clinic. Nobody really knows why Spencer and Louise never got divorced, though Louise once said she would ‘always be Mrs. Tracy’. Spencer’s religion probably played a part as well and Katharine did not seem to mind, as she was not a conventional woman. In 1960 Spencer started a fruitful collaboration with director Stanley Kramer. Together they made Inherit the Wind, Judgement at Nuremburg and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. All very successful films, though one of his most successful films during this time was The Devil at 4 O’Clock, a disaster movie with Frank Sinatra. Spencer was a living icon by now and film crews and co-stars all treated him as such. They loved listening to his many stories about ‘the old days’, which he told so well. He was fatherly towards younger co-stars, who all raved about him.
Spencer was now entering his sixties and was in ill health. His drinking binges and bad diet had caught up with him and he had a very high blood pressure and was starting to suffer from diabetes. In 1963 he was hospitalized for pulmonary edema. He recovered quickly, but Katharine moved into his house to take care of him full-time. In January 1965 he was diagnosed with hypertensive heart disease and in September he almost died when his kidneys were failing after a prostatectomy. He miraculously recovered and spent the next two years living a quiet life with Katharine and visiting Louise and his children. Stanley Kramer managed to get Spencer to perform in one last movie: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, a comedy about an interracial relationship.
He could only work two to three hours a day, but he managed to pull through with the help of co-star Katharine and an understanding cast and crew. Seventeen days after completing the film, Spencer passed away of a heart attack on June 10, 1967.