Thursday, 14 March 2013

Spence and Kate: The Definitive Story - Part I

Don't tell me every single one of you didn't see this coming from miles away.
Talk about overdue.

This is a story that was hidden in the pages of diaries and letters, in the minds of friends who never said a word and in the chest of silent lovers who made history just by making the world around them their own. 

I could not come up with a clever title for this post. This one will have to do. Simple, earthy and truthful, just like them. Spence and Kate. 

Spencer Bonaventure Tracy.
Katharine Houghton Hepburn.

Tracy biographer James Curtis said: "Their relationship was the real thing." Somehow, there's no better way to describe what it was. 
They were not sneaking around, they weren't friends with benefits, they weren't pretending to have a relationship to hide each other's homosexuality (no matter what William J. Mann might tell you), she did not break up his marriage, the Tracy's were estranged long before she ever came into the picture. As my friend very accurately puts it: They were together for 26 years because they wanted to be. 

It all started with a handshake. It was outside the Thalberg Building in a hot morning in mid-'41. She, armed with a script from a nameless unknown writer, walked around the lot as a recently revived screen legend, who after descending almost as rapidly as she rose, was finally seen by the public as the unmatched talent that she was. He, just back from Florida after his latest picture encountered an unexpected failure: bugs on the cameras. He had had a sparkling career, but the same couldn't be said about his personal life. 
Each one already knew who the other was, so the introduction made by Joe Mankiewicz was mere formality. He found her great and had coincidentally suggested her as his co-star for his previous movie "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1941), which showed a desire to work with her. She was one of his biggest fans, fascinated by his ability and concentration since "Up The River" (1930). "I'm sorry, Mr. Tracy," Kate said, when realizing her 5-inch heels had made her tower over his 5'10'' frame. "Next time I'll watch what I wear." He just looked at her, with "those old lion eyes of his" (K.H.), while Mankiewicz cracked: "Don't worry, Kate. He'll cut you down to size." 
It was the beginning of the production of a movie called "Woman of the Year" (1942), perhaps the most important movie of their lives. Kate had sold the idea for 250 grand: half for her, half for the script; and she got to pick her co-star. Unlike 'Philly', what I spoke of in the last post, this time Spencer was available. They started August 29th, 1941. 

Ten days into filming, they had dinner together. Some say it began there. Spencer was in a casual relationship with Ingrid Bergman at the time, and for a while he thought, I'm afraid, that he could carry on with the two women. And for a while he did until he realized his relationship with Kate would soon be more than casual. An article from the 1950s states that early on in their affair, still in 1941, he took her to a baseball game and, when impressed by a fabulous play, she swung her arms around his neck and kissed him for half an inning. And an inning lasts 20 minutes - I googled. 

"Woman of the Year" (1942)

There's no way of knowing exactly how things scaled up, but they did it fast. By 1942, they were in another movie together, "Keeper of the Flame". Everyone noticed how distracted she was on the set in Spencer's presence, the effect he had on her, and by then it was clear there was something going on. Screenwriter Donald Ogden Stewart, who had known her since The Philadelphia Story (1940), approached her about it and got an apologetic letter, where she explained the reason. I am desperately in love. And she needn't say with whom. 

Kate died without knowing what is was that made her fall for him. Most fans have guesses on what the attraction resided in, but nobody will know for sure. As for Spencer, he didn't live long enough to discuss his relationship with the public, but James Curtis has a pretty good guess. "Kate sustained him in some ways that Louise [Tracy, Spencer's wife] couldn't, and she was assertive where Louise wasn't." The truth is that they defied each other and matched each other par by par. Kate was allured by his acting ability and power in the business, but at the same time fascinated and compelled by the depth of his emotions and how difficult he found life to be. He was amazed at her breezy approach to life and at the same time at her firmness of character and strength of opinion and personality. Above all they shared a mutual admiration and an identical sense of humor. Kate was willing to put herself in the back burner for once in her life and he was willing to share in her unorthodox lifestyle. To each his own house, his own car, his own little life - with the opportunity to love, support and rely on another human being.  

A funny episode happened during the filming of "Keeper of the Flame". Kate was visited by a Japanese war official (don't ask me how that happened) and suddenly showed herself very interested in his married life to a Japanese woman. The official thought she was coming on to him and got excited at the possibility of having an affair with a movie star. But it was actually because Kate was gonna play a Japanese woman in Dragon Seed (1943) and wanted tips. Before he knew it, when Kate was called away by the director, Spencer barged in and angrily told him she was gladly taken. "You seem like a nice guy", he said "If you weren't trying to destroy my relationship." When the man revealed what happened, Kate is said to have burst out laughing.  

They would be separated a lot while Kate worked on the Broadway play "Without Love" and the movie "Dragon Seed". When she came back, they worked together again on the movie adaptation of the play she worked on. She had high hopes for it but it had a lukewarm reception. By then, they were just like the average adult couple - plus the paparazzi, the press and the Academy Awards. 

In 1947, they worked together in a mediocre picture: The Sea of Grass. I didn't like it at all, but they were so lovey-dovey at the beginning of the movie that I sometimes watch just those parts. During filming, director Elia Kazan complained about Kate kept changing her character's outfit in every scene. Her costume designer, who had been dressing her and her characters since 1933, explained: "It's because of Spence. He's the love of her life, she wants him to think she's prettier than any other girl." Kazan explained. "I mean in the movie." And the designer, Walter Plunkett, replied: "The movie! I mean in real life. That's what matters." 
This story, sweet as it seems, takes on a sad facet when you hear from Kate's niece Katharine Houghton: "She never thought she was beautiful enough for him." While Spencer's insecurities have been widely publicized, those of Kate are usually overlooked because she reacted to them differently. But, in fact, she stated that one of the reasons she loved caring for Spencer so much is that "I had no time to think about myself." (K.H.) One easily realizes how much they trusted each other with their bumps along the road. 

Sea of Grass (1947)

In 1948, Kate and Spence worked with the brilliant patriotic director Frank Capra, who gave them a highly politicized flick: State of the Union. After Claudette Colbert was fired days before production, Spencer saved the day with an alternative: He had been "rehearsing the lines with her at home" (S. T.) anyway, so Kate would have no problem adjusting to the part. I absolutely adored the movie, but I have met people who didn't. It may be my revolutionary vein talking, but I thought the political undertones were genius. There was also a terrific flying scene with a Lockheed 12 Twin. It is said that during filming, there was a lot of tension between strongly right-wing Adolphe Menjou and Kate, who was not only a liberal, but had recently spoken against the communist hysteria that took over Hollywood. It was said that they never spoke, except for the strictly essential for the movie. 

A cute anecdote is that when Kate turned 41, Spencer drew her a card with a reference to "State of the Union". "To the old one, with love, from The President."

They closed the 1940s with probably my favorite movie of theirs, "Adam's Rib" (1949). Katharine Houghton says that in their best periods, they were just like Adam and Amanda Bonner. It makes me feel all warm inside that this is true. There's a very sweet scene with a home movie of the Bonners. This was actually filmed in Garson Kanin's farm, where they had spent many weekends in the past. This is why the footage seemed so natural and spontaneous: Because it was. 
It was their co-star, Judy Holliday's film debut, and they were very eager to launch her into a nice career, so Kate urged director George Cukor to focus the camera on Holliday instead of on her and deliberately leaked stories of how Holliday's performance was so great that it overshadowed her and Tracy's. This is a testament against Hepburn's famous so-called selfishness. 

In a scene filmed in a car, they couldn't seem to get it right. Spencer intervened: "Why don't we try it my way?" No one was surprised at what he came up with. 

Sadly, the scene wasn't kept and it is now lost. 

As the forties come to end, so comes this post. I will make two more for the two more decades they spent together. These two deserve many of our words, even though they gave us so little of theirs.

To be continued.


  1. I remember seeing Kate talking about their first meeting in a video, so moving! Really, a lovely relationship, and I enjoy that it is beeing analyzed in three texts instead of only one. And I have to find free time to watch State of the Union!