Monday, 1 April 2013

Spence and Kate: The Definitive Story, Part II

From my last post, you've probably gathered that this is the most perfect relationship in the history of men. No unsavory moments. Only birthday cards, high-heeled shoes, pet names, helping young actresses, simply one big party of love, trust and support. A man who's an alcoholic and suffering from guilt complex and depression and a woman who is unfit at best for living in couple are magically in sync. How did this ever happen?

Answer: It didn't. The Tracy-Hepburn relationship was far from being perfect. And it's time I tell you the truth.

I deliberately chose to paint a sweet picture of the perfect couple in the first article, so you wouldn't be misled by what I'm about to tell you now. They had problems, yes. But, their love ultimately faced those problems down. What you're about to read doesn't change the fact that they chose to endure the difficulties and bumps along the road together. Now, I must say: Some of these stories are shocking, but in time, with lots of reading and putting one's self in other shoes, one understands the circumstances and reaches the unavoidable conclusion: These were two wonderful people meant to live wonderful lives together. 

When Katharine Hepburn began dating Spencer Tracy, she knew she was picking up a very damaged man. And I used the verb "pick up" as a very literal metaphor, because with her arms around him she intended to protect him, improve him, heal him, save him. It was a romanticized ideal, but that due to her resilience and willingness to let many serious things slide, she got remarkably close to achieving. Just like in '67, when he died in front of her and she took his lifeless body in her arms, hoping that a bit of her life force, her power would transmit into him; she did the same in '41, with a seemingly lifeless man, ready to give up her livelihood, her time, her career to save him. He, in his own way, recognized the effort and the essential effect it had on him, and was grateful for two and a half decades. Our mistake is to expect perfection. And, even coming from the most perfect actors that ever graced the silver screen, perfection is unattainable. 

Let's start still in the 1940s. The biggest problem was, without a doubt, Spencer's drinking. It was only when drinks were involved that the couple ever got physical with each other. Hepburn transited from wrestling drinks out of his hand and pushing him away from the booze counter to handing him drinks to rid of him of the guilt of getting one himself, when she felt drinking was inevitable. I can only imagine was a difficult situation it must've been and one cannot blame her when she snapped. However, having said that, Spencer's private life had been a wreck for over a decade. The stress he had gone through with Louise and the deaf son, the alcoholism and the insurmountable all-around guilt he felt was also almost unimaginable. The worst moments happened on Kate's brownstone. The worst of them all, in my view, was one day where he was extremely drunk and they were in the master bedroom, when he tried to strangle her and she knocked him down. According to Katharine Houghton, it frightened her aunt immensely, but he outweighed her by 70 pounds, so if he really wanted to hurt her, he would've succeeded that night. It's inexcusable to physically assault a spouse in my view, but in this episode, I don't think either can be held accountable for their actions. 

Now let's move on to something more cheerful. As this episode went by, they - proving the "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" proverb - got firmer as a couple. By all accounts, the rest of the 1940s was smooth, as you could see from the last post. Pet names such as "Ratty" and "Old One" came up in this period, and, whenever they were separated, they were in contact daily over the phone. 

Now, onto the 1950s. In the early parts of the decade, there was yet another blow. Katharine Martha Houghton, Kit, passed away. Kate had an immeasurable admiration for her, and admiration which she and I share. Kit was an incredible woman - an educated woman, a fighter, a mother. 
Kate and Kit, circa 1940s
Her loss shook Kate's world like nothing before. And before she was emotionally ready to plunge into work again, she traveled to Africa to film "The African Queen", already committed to a tour on the play "The Millionairess". The result? 100 dollars a day spent in phone calls to Spencer in America. And that sometimes included huge time zone differences. He even drove to see her in a few cities on her "Millionairess" tour. However, still unable to contour her mother's loss and carry on with her life, Kate began to immerse herself in work, in an effort to get her mind off what had happened. She overworked herself to the point of hospitalization and, to a degree, emotional withdrawal from Spencer and from the world at large. That, combined with a ludicrous article released about them that pried into their life together like nothing had before, resulted in a fight and a temporary separation. 

Kate's self-portrait, made during hospitalization
As it was always the case with Spence and Kate, the fight didn't last very long and they got back together after a couple of months. They then starred in one of their best pictures together, Pat and Mike. It was the story of a lady athlete managed by Spencer's character. It put Kate's athletic ability to good use and filming went by smoothly. They were then, separated again for Kate's next picture, Summertime, and multiple tours with the Old Vic Theatre Company, in which she engaged in Shakespeare plays. They were still a great deal in contact, and, by all accounts, a happy couple. On their free time, they took to traveling together, especially to Europe: London and Paris. The only existing footage that they ever took of each other was in the United Kingdom. They took turns behind the camera and were there alone. In Europe it was slightly easier to dodge the press, so they were comfortable in their travels. Comfortable enough to, despite staying in different hotels, spending the night in each other's room. 

A bit of the aforementioned footage, of Spence and Kate in Europe.

By 1957, they had been five years without working together. She asked in an interview if there weren't any scripts for a romantic comedy duo like her and Spencer any more. A week later, she got dozens. They chose Desk Set, a very sweet, very fun picture, and one of my favorite of theirs. Certainly the crowning glory of the relationship that had lasted, by then, over a decade and a half. 
By then their relationship had become an open secret. Everyone and his uncle knew they were together, but made a point of keeping their comments in a merely speculatory tone. They still didn't discuss their relationship with the press, but at this point they couldn't help but be seen around together. They went to see Lauren Bacall in a play and sat in the front row beside each other. Tracy biographer James Curtis states that they could often be seen window shopping or browsing bookstores together in the evening, often holding hands. It had come to a point where the press and the public respected so much their standing as actors that they stayed away and respected their privacy to an unprecedented degree. 

A last anecdote: At an unknown time during the fifties, Spencer and Kate were in a picnic at a god-forsaken area in Europe where they couldn't be found. While picking their eating spot, Kate saw a beautiful field, covered with yellow flowers and the greenest grass around. The only problem? The barbed wire around it. But keeping with her "Never fear, Kath is here" philosophy, she proceeded to jumping the wire and going in anyway, followed by Spencer. It was said to be Winston Churchill's property. Shee! 

As the fifties come to a close, so do we, for today. In the next post, we will explore the beginning of the end: the 1960s, when they each took a break from their careers to simply enjoy each other. We will find out that Spencer's old age was much more a fascinating time of love and laughter than a miserable walk to the death. 

Thank you for sticking with us, and we'll see you later. 

So long,
Marcela, Kate and Spence.

1 comment:

  1. Which relationship - romantic or not - isn't full of problems and far from perfect? The important is to know how to overcome the problems, like Spence and Kate did. In this post I saw a lot of images I've never seen before. And the anedocte about Churchill's property is priceless.
    See you later!