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  • Written by James Curtis
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A Biography

Written by James CurtisAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by James Curtis

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On Sale: October 18, 2011
Pages: 1024 | ISBN: 978-0-307-59522-5
Published by : Knopf Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

“The best goddamned actor I’ve ever seen!”—George M. Cohan

His full name was Spencer Bonaventure Tracy. He was called “The Gray Fox” by Frank Sinatra; other actors called him the “The Pope.”

Spencer Tracy’s image on-screen was that of a self-reliant man whose sense of rectitude toward others was matched by his sense of humor toward himself. Whether he was Father Flanagan of Boys Town, Clarence Darrow of Inherit the Wind, or the crippled war veteran in Bad Day at Black Rock, Tracy was forever seen as a pillar of strength.

In his several comedy roles opposite Katharine Hepburn (Woman of the Year and Adam’s Rib among them) or in Father of the Bride with Elizabeth Taylor, Tracy was the sort of regular American guy one could depend on.

Now James Curtis, acclaimed biographer of Preston Sturges (“Definitive” —Variety), James Whale, and W. C. Fields (“By far the fullest, fairest, and most touching account . . . we have yet had. Or are likely to have” —Richard Schickel, The New York Times Book Review, cover review), gives us the life of one of the most revered screen actors of his generation.

Curtis writes of Tracy’s distinguished career, his deep Catholicism, his devoted relationship to his wife, his drinking that got him into so much trouble, and his twenty-six-year-long bond with his partner on-screen and off, Katharine Hepburn. Drawing on Tracy’s personal papers and writing with the full cooperation of Tracy’s daughter, Curtis tells the rich story of the brilliant but haunted man at the heart of the legend.

We see him from his boyhood in Milwaukee; given over to Dominican nuns (“They drill that religion in you”); his years struggling in regional shows and stock (Tracy had a photographic memory and an instinct for inhabiting a character from within); acting opposite his future wife, Louise Treadwell; marrying and having two children, their son, John, born deaf.

We see Tracy’s success on Broadway, his turning out mostly forgettable programmers with the Fox Film Corporation, and going to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and getting the kinds of roles that had eluded him in the past—a streetwise priest opposite Clark Gable in San Francisco; a screwball comedy, Libeled Lady; Kipling’s classic of the sea, Captains Courageous. Three years after arriving at MGM, Tracy became America’s top male star.

We see how Tracy embarked on a series of affairs with his costars . . . making Northwest Passage and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which brought Ingrid Bergman into his life. By the time the unhappy shoot was over, Tracy, looking to do a comedy, made Woman of the Year. Its unlikely costar: Katharine Hepburn.

We see Hepburn making Tracy her life’s project—protecting and sustaining him in the difficult job of being a top-tier movie star.

And we see Tracy’s wife, Louise, devoting herself to studying how deaf children could be taught to communicate orally with the hearing and speaking world.

Curtis writes that Tracy was ready to retire when producer-director Stanley Kramer recruited him for Inherit the Wind—a collaboration that led to Judgment at Nuremberg, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and Tracy’s final picture, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner . . .

A rich, vibrant portrait—the most intimate and telling yet of this complex man considered by many to be the actor’s actor.

Excerpt

Chapter 1: The Last Mile
 
In the years prior to 1924, Texas counties with inmates convicted of capital crimes conducted their own executions, generally by hanging. Then the legislature consolidated all such business at the State Penitentiary in Huntsville, establishing a death row at the birthplace of Sam Houston. Its centerpiece, at the end of a brief corridor adjacent to nine holding cells, was a handsome new electric chair, built of solid oak by prison craftsmen. They did their work well; over the next forty years, “Old Sparky” would become the final unpadded resting stop for 361 men and women on their way to court-mandated eternity. One such prisoner, a condemned killer called Robert Blake, was dispatched on April 19, 1929—but not before having set down on paper a taste of life in the Texas death house called “The Law Takes Its Toll.”

When the American Mercury posthumously published the sketch in July of that year, it attracted a lot of attention, including that of a twenty-two-year-old actor and playwright named Ely John Wexley. Blake’s account, in the form of a one-act play, covered the eighteen hours leading up to the execution of Number Six, one of a handful of condemned men—five white, one Mexican—at Huntsville. Number Seven breaks into verse more often than not, Number Nine has gone mad, howling “Jo-------nes!” at all hours. The talk among the others centers on clemency, then the banter turns grim as the details of the condemned man’s ritual play themselves out—the last meal, the slitting of the trouser legs, the shaving of the head, and the ceremonial reading of the death warrant.

“Wonder how it will feel,” Six muses. “I hope it won’t take long. Wonder if a fellow knows anything after the first shot hits him . . . You know, it’s funny. I was worse at my trial than I am here. I almost broke down there at the trial. I lost 15 pounds when my trial was going on.” The guard, having some difficulty opening the door to the death chamber, yanks at the lock and rattles it. Number Seven tells Six to take the keys and open the door himself. “I’d stay here until next Christmas before I’d open that door for ’em,” Six declares. “Well, the door is open. I’ll say goodbye to everybody again.”

These lines, Blake notes, were written while Six was being strapped into the chair. “I hope I am the last one that ever sits in this chair,” Six calls out. “Tell my mother that my last words were of her.” The lights go dim as they hear the whine of a motor. The others cry out, and then the lights go dim again and yet again. “They’re giving him the juice again!” shouts Number Five. “Wonder
what they’re trying to do, cook him?”

Wexley saw the basis of a full-length play in “The Law Takes Its Toll,” struggled with the problem of expanding it to three acts until the events of October 3, 1929. The attempted escape of two prisoners at the Colorado State Penitentiary in Cañon City went awry when a guard was killed while grappling over a set of keys. Knowing they’d hang for his death and, consequently, had nothing to lose, the convicts began taking hostages. In the bloody standoff that followed, eight guards and five inmates were killed and another ten were wounded. Wexley plumbed the New York dailies for details of the riot, and his play took shape within a couple of weeks.

The first act was Blake’s sketch almost verbatim, Wexley’s chief liberty being to change Blake’s Mexican prisoner to a black man. The second and third acts portrayed an opportunistic escape attempt patterned on the events at Cañon City. In the end, the matter of a title was more vexing than the structure; Wexley had inserted bits of Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” amid the machine gun bursts of his play’s final moments (“Oh, the wild charge they made! All the world wondered!”) and so he decided to call it All the World Wondered. Inexplicably, his agent sent the play to producer Herman E. Shumlin, a onetime reporter and press agent whose track record was 0–4, his last play having tanked just two days prior to the onset of Black Tuesday. Shumlin, who was used to seeing only “the bottom of the barrel,” was astonished at the raw power of Wexley’s play and managed to scare up the money to produce it at a time when “all the backers anybody could think of were jumping out of high windows.”

“It was one o’clock when I finished reading it,” Shumlin recalled, “and I went all the way out to Brooklyn and woke up Sam Golden, the printer, and read it to him.* He gave me a check for $500 to buy an option on the play, I think maybe because he wanted to go back to bed. After that, my troubles began, raising the money to put the show on. I borrowed from a bank. I squeezed my relatives dry.” The title was the first thing to go, but it would be nearly a month before the play had the title under which it would see its Broadway debut: The Last Mile.

To direct, Shumlin selected Chester Erskine, who had earlier had a hand in staging The Criminal Code, a similarly themed prison drama that was one of the season’s few genuine hits. Briefly an actor but too tall and pale for anything but character work, Erskine knew the success of Wexley’s play would depend on its casting and the ability of its actors to inhabit their characters to the point of morbidity. Skeptical of Spencer Tracy from the outset, Erskine regarded their meeting as a courtesy at first, not the urgent mating dance that comes with the ideal match of actor and role. “I had seen a few of his performances,” Shumlin said, “and was not overly impressed by him as a candidate for the lead in The Last Mile. I was just about to dismiss him when something about our too-brief casting interview stayed with me. Since it was getting on to dinnertime, I invited him to join me at a theatrical haunt. There, in a less strained atmosphere, I was suddenly made aware as we were talking that, beneath the surface, here was a man of passion, violence, sensitivity, and desperation: no ordinary man, and just the man for the part.”

Wexley’s play was intense, grim, uncompromising; hard to take over the course of three acts. And there were no women in the cast, an anomaly on Broadway, where the ticket-buying decisions were often made by wives and girlfriends and where the matinee trade was crucial to the success of a show. Louise, as was her habit, read the script and told Spence she thought it “pretty bad.” There was little that jumped off the page, other than the unusually coarse language tossed between the prisoners. “It was so violent, she said, grimacing. “That was the kind of part I never liked him in.”

Tracy’s contract for All the World Wondered, signed on January 14, 1930, called for his now standard price of $400 a week, payable Saturdays, and weekly bonuses of $50 and $100 if the gross hit $8,000 and $10,000, respectively. Rehearsals began the following day, Tracy meeting his fellow prisoners for the first time: James Bell, who would play the gutsy Richard Walters, Cell 7, whose execution is imminent as the curtain rises; Howard Phillips, whose hot-tempered Fred Mayor, Cell 3, would be next in rotation; Hale Norcross, who, as “Red” Kirby, Cell 9, would be the graybeard, the senior member of the group; Ernest Whitman, the muscular black man engaged to play the superstitious Vincent Jackson, Cell 13; George Leach, chosen by Erskine to play Eddie Werner, Cell 11, Wexley’s crazy man, a poet of sorts; and Joseph Spurin-Calleia, the Maltese actor and singer who would by playing the dapper Tom D’Amoro, Cell No. 1. All took their places alongside the men who would be their captors: Don Costello, Herbert Heywood, Orville Harris, Ralph Theadore, Richard Abbott, Henry O’Neill, Clarence Chase, Allen Jenkins, Albert West.

“The sixteen were seated in a straight line across the stage,” Herman Shumlin recalled, “and when they read their parts for the first time, it was clear they meant business . . . Maybe (in part, at least) the absence of women in the cast had something to do with it too. With no good-looking actress to make them feel self-conscious, they seemed to forget they were actors of long experience, with all kinds of past performances and position to live up to. Instead, they gave themselves up completely to the emotional fury of the play and into the guiding hands of the director.”

“Tracy was perfect. Tracy made the show. But then Tracy got worried and he said he wouldn’t do it. He had to shoot a priest in the play and he said he’d rather not.” Henry O’Neill, the actor playing Father O’Connors and a fellow Catholic, could see that Tracy’s torment was deep and genuine and not simply a dodge, and he took him downtown to see a priest. As Shumlin remembered it, “The father told Tracy he need have no scruples,” but then Wexley fixed the problem by writing the priest’s death out of the script altogether, finding the mere threat of his shooting more effective in sustaining the tension than the act itself.

Erskine quickly got the show on its feet, marking out the individual cells—each just two and a half steps wide—on the floor with a piece of chalk. Tracy spent a lot of time miming the window in the back of his cell, looking out to such an exaggerated degree that Erskine, three years his junior, made a memorable comment: “Spence, I didn’t tell you to break the window, I told you to look through it.” His point, which Tracy took to heart, was that a good actor didn’t look out the window—he let the audience look out the window.

“He was,” said Erskine, “cooperative and disciplined, and set an attitude for the other performers who followed his lead. He was the kind of actor whom a director leans on for just such behavior.” They spent such long hours at it that Tracy took a room at the Lambs Club, three blocks from the theater, to avoid traveling all the way home to Ninety-eighth Street. Tensions ran high, rehearsal being a thoroughly emotional process, and there were more than the usual flashes of temper.

“I cannot remember,” wrote Tracy, “when I have spent so much time with other members of the cast outside of the theater, discussing the story of the play back and forth. And I don’t think any of us can ever forget the first dress rehearsal inside the completed prison set. It had been all very well to pretend to be clutching at bars on bare and dingy stages—but now, confined within a four-by-nine cell, chafing at real cold steel—well, it was a sensation! The end of the first act found us rushing out into the wings, desperate for cigarettes. Nobody had any intention of staying in the cell longer than necessary.”

Never before had Tracy immersed himself so deeply in a part, and never had he felt so completely drained by one. “As Killer Mears he had to expose a less-winning phase of his personality,” Erskine said, “one which might unlock secrets of his inner self and which he would have preferred to remain hidden. It is a choice many actors have to make but which only the artists can survive.”
Tempting fate, Shumlin set the New York opening of the play, still titled All the World Wondered, for February 13, pointing out that the numerals in “1930” added up to thirteen. Tryouts took place at Parsons’ Theatre in Hartford beginning on the sixth, and the cast, to a man, was dubious. “They all felt that the play was a good one, an unusual one,” Shumlin said, “but they were almost all a little doubtful of its chances for success. This was hardly astonishing since it departed to such a great extent from the traditional rules of what a successful play should be.”

That first performance was a ragged affair, the set being insubstantial compared to what they would have in New York, but Tracy as Mears was letter perfect. “Tracy fought the role through rehearsal—not the doing of it, but the surrendering to it,” Erskine said. “When, however, he finally did surrender to it, it was total, absolute, and frightening. He did not simulate anger and violence, he was anger and violence. In one night—at the out-of town opening—he changed from a presentable juvenile and a hopeful leading man to an artist, a true artist. He had crossed the threshold into that area where he could submerge himself in a role to the point of eliminating himself completely, to the point where he could no longer tell which was which himself.”
James Curtis|Author Q&A

About James Curtis

James Curtis - Spencer Tracy

Photo © Marilyn Sanders

James Curtis is the author of W. C. Fields: A Biography; James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters; and Between Flops: A Biography of Preston Sturges. Curtis is married and lives in Brea, California.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with
 
James Curtis
 
author of
 
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.    

Praise

Praise

“Definitive . . . [James Curtis] charts the life, loves and struggles of the Milwaukee-born, Oscar-winning screen legend in expert detail, leaving no source or story unchecked. . . Curtis taps deeply mined remembrances and fresh anecdotes collected in years of interviews with just about everyone in Tracy’s life.”
 —Chris Foran, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 
 
“Definitive . . . well written. . . I marvel at the research.”
—David Thomson, The New York Review of Books  
 
“A great story about a great actor. . . [James Curtis] is an excellent researcher and writer . . . definitive . . . belongs in the classic movie fan’s library.”
 —Douglass K. Daniel, Associated Press
 
“Exhaustively researched. . . ”
—Jeff Dawson, The Sunday Times

“A balanced and intriguing look at one of the screen’s greatest actors . . . Curtis has obtained access to everything from Tracy’s datebooks to his health records . . . all of this research makes possible an incredibly detailed account of Tracy’s life . . . those who remember him will be fascinated; younger readers will be spurred to rent his film and revel in his talent.”
 —Booklist (starred)
 
“Impeccably researched . . . a monumental, definitive biography of one of the finest film actors in the history of the medium.”
 —Kirkus

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