July 17, 2003

I never bought that “great romance” crap about Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Their relationship struck me as sort of pathetic and selfish, to say nothing of contrived.

Hepburn’s latest biographer, A. Scott Berg, seems to have bought it hook, line, and sinker, but Scott Eyman, in a review published in the New York Observer (“The Biographer Besotted: Hepburn’s Posthumous Power”), isn’t letting anyone involved off the hook too fast:

Any book on Katharine Hepburn inevitably circles around the quarter-century she spent with Spencer Tracy. On-screen, Tracy was a stolid, know-it-all Oberon who learned a few overdue lessons from her dancing Ariel. He stared and fumed; she smiled and moved languidly away. He kept her from getting too flighty, made her girlish, and she could calm the grumpy bear.

Off-screen, the situation was rather different. More treacle has been spilled about Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn than any couple since Abelard and Heloise, and Mr. Berg doesn’t help much. This is possibly because all the treacle was either spilled or stage-managed by Hepburn -- and she’s still doing it, even though she’s dead.

Mr. Berg sees her clearly, but only up to about arm’s length. He says, correctly I think, that “[Tracy] and Katharine Hepburn experienced the ups and downs of any married couple; but in never sealing their arrangement legally, they were able to retain an element of unreality in the relationship, a false quality based on neither of them being locked in.”

So far, so good. But when he asks Hepburn why nobody ever tried to get Tracy into Alcoholics Anonymous, she responds with a stuttering explanation that encompasses several different rationales, all blatantly phony: She points to Tracy’s own psychological cover-up that told him that as long as his drinking didn’t interfere with his work, it wasn’t really a problem. She also says, “Spencer Tracy was the biggest star in the world [sic], and I don’t think he would have been anonymous there for very long. And news of this sort would have killed his career.”

So she and, apparently, Mr. Berg would have us believe that Howard Strickling, the vice president in charge of publicity (or lack of it) at M.G.M. -- the man who could cover up news of Tracy’s room-shattering destruction, brawls, liaisons of various degrees of seriousness, not to mention boorish behavior that was by no means limited to the times when he was drunk -- would have been powerless to suppress the news of Tracy’s going to A.A. Mr. Berg’s acceptance of this manifestly lame rationale proves only that he was utterly besotted by Hepburn.

The truth is that nearly every quasi-romantic relationship that Hepburn had -- Leland Hayward, Howard Hughes[,] and John Ford as well as Tracy -- was with a man who was completely unsuitable for any conventional relationship. Hepburn wanted men who were as gifted and cantankerous as she was -- especially if they were tortured Irish alcoholics -- but she only wanted them up to a point. Co-existing with her caretaker streak was a strong sense of self-preservation: Tracy could never push her too hard about anything because he was basically dependent on her, at first because of his guilt over his drinking, later because of the interior and exterior corrosion wrought by the drinking. Hepburn would only have left Tracy if he’d gotten divorced -- and sobered up.

Not so pretty when looked at in that light.


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