Hollywood’s Most Dignified Romance
By R.S. Karunaratne
Love affairs in the filmdom, especially Hollywood, are quite common and they receive much publicity in the media. Some affairs end up in marriage and others lead to tragic ends. When male and female actors work very closely in films they are naturally attracted to each other. It may be due to their body chemistry or natural feelings they have for members of the opposite sex.
The relationship between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn is an unusual love affair to emerge from Hollywood. Tracy, born in 1900, was a rough-hewn American film actor who became one of Hollywood’s greatest male leads and the first actor to receive two consecutive Academy Awards for Best Actor. He became an actor quite by accident. As a student he was bored with studies and joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 17. After some time he gained admission to Wisconsin’s Ripon College to study medicine. While following a course in medicine he discovered that acting was more to his liking than what he was doing. Then he enrolled himself at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts with a view to becoming an actor. After completing the course he first acted in Broadway plays and moved on to act in films. Unlike other aspiring actors, he developed an uncanny ability to act without ever appearing to be acting.
Although he got married to Louise their marriage was a disaster. Being a Roman Catholic he did not want to divorce his wife but they lived separately. Tracy was a troubled soul. He had to battle with alcoholism, depression, anxiety and insomnia. According to his wife, he had the most volatile disposition she had ever seen. He was also worried about his son who had a physical defect.
Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003) was no ordinary woman. She was an indomitable actor known to be a spirited performer with a touch of eccentricity. Hepburn was noted for her upper-class New England accent and tomboyish beauty. Her father was a wealthy surgeon and her mother was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement. Her parents encouraged her to speak the truth and nothing but the truth. They also ensured that their daughter was kept in fine physical condition. Strangely, she applied those inherited qualities even to her acting career which began after her graduation. Like most other actors, she also started her career acting on stage. Hepburn made her Broadway debut in “Night Hostess” and her performance in “The Warrior’s Husband” proved to be a Broadway success. Shortly thereafter, she started her acting career in Hollywood movies.
As an actor Hepburn earned plaudits from moviegoers and film critics as well. Everybody knew that she was an outspoken woman and an iconoclast. Unlike other actors who craved for publicity, Hepburn refused to grant interviews to journalists and wore casual clothes much to the annoyance of others who exuded glamour 24 hours a day. She was a bit of a rebel and clashed with her co-workers when they failed to meet her standards. She made her movie debut in “A Bill of Divorcement” screened in 1932. Thereafter she acted in a host of other films such as “Morning Glory, Alice Adams” and “Mary of Scotland.” Hepburn won an Academy Award for her performance in “Guess who is coming to dinner.” She also won the prestigious Emmy Award for her role in “The Glass Menagerie” released in 1973. She was a 1990 Kennedy Center honoree and in 1999 the American Film Institute named her the top female American screen legend of all time.
Hepburn got married to Ludlow Ogden Smith but she divorced her husband in 1934. While filming “Woman of the year” in 1942 she fell head over heels in love with Spencer Tracy who was living separately from his wife. From 1932 onwards Tracy maintained a warm, intimate relationship with Hepburn. Their romance developed further when they acted together in films such as “Woman of the year” and “Adam’s Rib.” The strong bond between Tracy and Hepburn lasted for nearly three decades without exposure in the media. They never got married or acknowledged in public that they were in love.
“It was a unique feeling I had for Tracy…” wrote Hepburn in her autobiography. “I loved him … I would have done anything for him.” As an American journalist put it, she was blindingly in love with Tracy. On screen their body chemistry was undeniable. They were a perfect couple. Moviegoers flocked to cinemas to witness their meaningful looks that spoke more than any lines of dialogue could represent.
In today’s world you cannot keep such a major love affair a secret. However, their clandestine relationship was kept under wraps by the studio system. Even gossip columnists and newspapers left them alone in their fairyland without disturbing their peace. Tracy took care not to publicly acknowledge his feelings towards her. Being a highly intelligent woman, Hepburn too respected his way of thinking. They lived separately in their own houses and made no public appearance.
Hepburn spoke about their love only after the death of Tracy in 1967. She wrote in her autobiography, “I have no idea how Spencer felt about me. I can only say, I think that if he hadn’t liked me, he wouldn’t have hung around. As simple as that, he wouldn’t talk about it, and I didn’t talk about it. We just passed 27 years together in what was to be absolute bliss. It is called LOVE.” During that long period they remained invisible in all the proper places.
There are many legends about Tracy and Hepburn including the story of their first meeting at MGM. Hepburn looked at Tracy and said, “Mister Tracy, I’m afraid I’m going to be too tall for you.” Tracy lost no time by saying, “Don’t worry. I’ll cut you down to size.”
Although there have been many Hollywood romances conducted in public, they lacked the passion, perseverance and dignity found in Tracy-Hepburn love affair.