Of all the Hollywood love stories, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn’s is the most complicated. It’s a little crass to look for narrative patterns in the lives of others, or superimpose the tracing paper of a three-act structure. But if Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s romance was a Theatre of the Absurd, all modernist repetitions and life-art self-circlings, Tracy and Hepburn’s had the architecture of a 19th-century novel: grand, tormented, perversely moral, stuccoed with the Catholic guilt of Graham Greene and the high-society depression of late Scott Fitzgerald.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1907, Katharine Houghton Hepburn was the daughter of a surgeon and a suffragist whose enlightened opinions on venereal disease and birth control instilled a progressive lilt towards sexual politics. She challenged female stereotypes from a young age, one summer cutting her hair and insisting on being called ‘Jimmy’. Aged 14 she discovered the dead body of her beloved brother, Tom, hanging from the ceiling. Her parents always insisted it wasn’t suicide (one theory is that it was a magic trick gone wrong). He was 16.
After graduation from Bryn Mawr College and parts with stock theatre companies, she asserted control of her career with the help of her first husband, Ludlow Ogden Smith, a wealthy Pennsylvanian businessman, and of other lovers. Capitalising on the stage success of The Philadelphia Story (whose rights her on-off flame Howard Hughes had bought for her), Hepburn agreed to let M.G.M. film it on the condition she played the lead. She asked for Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable to play her suitors; she got Cary Grant and James Stewart. It was a monumental hit. Though they’d still not met, she requested Tracy again for her next film, Woman of the Year, to play the sports journalist opposite her political reporter. She got him, and so it began.
"She challenged female stereotypes from a young age, one summer cutting her hair and insisting on being called ‘Jimmy’."
Spencer Bonaventure Tracy was born in Milwaukee in 1900. His family were stout Catholics, his father a truck salesman. A charismatic, hyperactive child, he cheeked his way through a school run by Jesuits, briefly joined the Navy, then won a place at Ripon College, where he made his stage debut. Rising through the ranks of stock theatre, Broadway and television for Fox, he was signed by M.G.M., the most prestigious studio in Hollywood. While a member of the New York Wood Players, his first stock company after Ripon, he met the actress Louise Treadwell. They married in 1923 and had a son, John, the following year. When Tracy found out, shortly after John’s first birthday, that his son was deaf, he was distraught, certain that his own sins (such as adultery) had been vested on the child. He emotionally estranged himself and threw himself into his work.
Hepburn was more open about the guilt she felt over her first marriage. She made her husband change his surname so she wouldn’t be known as Kate Smith, reaped his contacts, and divorced him as soon as she won her first Oscar (in 1934, for Morning Glory). She later admitted in an interview that she had been “an absolute pig with Luddy … he was an angel.” Tracy left his family home in 1933 and reached an amicable separation with Louise, though they never divorced. He had affairs with co-stars including Loretta Young, Joan Crawford and Ingrid Bergman before he met Hepburn on the set of Woman of the Year in 1942, when he was 41 and she was 34. Initial impressions were cagey, and their first exchange had the zip of a screwball comedy. Hepburn served with, “Mr. Tracy, you’re a little short for me”. “Don’t worry,” he shot back, “I’ll cut you down to size.” Hepburn “knew right away that I found him irresistible”.