Cagey Facts About Spencer Tracy, Hollywood's Golden Boy

July 12, 2019 | Mathew Burke

Cagey Facts About Spencer Tracy, Hollywood's Golden Boy


Spencer Tracy may have been one of Hollywood’s biggest stars—but he also lived a secret double life.


1. He Was A Sinner

Spencer Tracy was a born misfit. Though he hailed from a wealthy, Catholic family, he also had a cheeky, rebellious streak. In an effort to set him on a righteous path, his parents sent him to live with Dominican Order nuns. But that wasn’t all.

In his teen years, he also attended Jesuit academies. Tracy claimed that this helped remedy his “badness”—but as we’ll see, Spencer Tracy’s preoccupation with his own sinfulness proved to be his Achilles’ heel.

Spencer TracyMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Wikimedia Commons

2. He Became Obsessed

Tracy’s love for acting began early. In fact, he later confessed that he “never would have gone back to school if there had been any other way of learning to read the subtitles in the movies”. He became utterly obsessed with watching movies—and it eventually eclipsed all of his other desires. Though he intended to pursue a major in medicine in college, fate had a different plan in store for him.

 Spencer Tracy in suit and a hat looking at the camera Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Wikimedia Commons

3. He Chased After HisDreams

In 1922, Spencer Tracy landed a golden ticket—and it made him wave goodbye to his college aspirations. He landed a scholarship to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York. However, he didn’t go alone.

His good friend Pat O’Brien was also a student at AADA—and together, they realized that the life of an aspiring actor wasn’t glamorous at all.   Photo of Spencer Tracy and Freddie Bartholomew from the 1937 film Captains Courageous.MGM, Wikimedia Commons

4. He Was Poor

Though Tracy was destined to one day stroll down red carpets and woo the hottest women in Hollywood, his beginnings were undoubtedly humble. He and his roommate barely scraped by. The two of them shared a single suit, and often, mealtimes were downright bleak, with the two men living off of rice and pretzels.

Of course, it was only a matter of time before life threw Tracy another curveball.

Spencer Tracy FactsLibrary of Congress, Picryl

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5. He Fell In Love

After graduating, Spencer Tracy joined a stock company. Unfortunately, it wasn’t exactly the kind of work he’d dreamt of as he only landed smaller roles. However, disappointments aside, it set the scene for the first real romance of Tracy’s life, Louise Treadwell—another member of the company.

But though the happy couple wed in September 1923, their marriage was destined to face unspeakable heartache. Spencer Tracy  at Ripon College in suit and bow tieUnknown, Wikimedia Commons

6. He Found Fatherhood Challenging

The very next summer, Tracy and Treadwell welcomed their first child, John. But this initial blessing quickly became a nightmare. When John was only 10 month’s old, Tracy’s wife made a chilling discovery: Her son didn’t react to loud noises. The doctors did nothing to alleviate her worries—and instead, delivered a tragic diagnosis.Spencer Tracy and wife Louise Treadwell Tracy in formal wearMichael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

7. He Blamed Himself

When Spencer Tracy heard the news that his son was deaf, he was utterly destroyed. Weirdly enough, Tracy blamed himself for John’s deafness. He believed that his sins were the cause, and that his son’s condition was a punishment. However, in a twisted way, this only caused Tracy to hurt his family in an even deeper way.

This screenshot shows Spencer Tracy as Dr. Jekyll speaking at a dinner tableWarner Home Video, Wikimedia Commons

8. His Guilt Drove Him Away

Instead of being there for his family, Spencer Tracy’s guilt drove him away from them. From then on, Tracy struggled to form a bond with his son. His wife, on the other hand, had the opposite reaction.

Treadwell strove to give John the best possible life and threw herself into learning about how to educate deaf children—and she’d eventually retire from acting just to focus on him. Spencer Tracy, as we all know, had stardom in his future—and it would lead him down a road of scandal.

Spencer Tracy and Martin Spellman in Boys TownMGM Press Photo, Wikimedia Commons

9. He Was Unknown

In 1930, Spencer Tracy jumped from the stage to the big screen. A contract with Fox studios convinced the actor to move to Hollywood—but he certainly wasn’t a star right out of the gates. He made a picture after picture, but most of his films were unpopular and his name always flew under the radar. However, this didn’t stop Tracy from getting his kicks in wicked in places.

Humphrey Bogart & Spencer Tracy in American comedy film Up the River (1930)Fox Film Corporation, Wikimedia Commons

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10. He Cheated On Her

In 1933, Spencer Tracy and his wife separated, which left him free to indulge in a scandalous affair. He had a shameless, public tryst with one of his gorgeous co-stars, Loretta Young, who he’d worked with on Man’s Castle. The two actors bonded over their strong religious beliefs—but this would also be the catalyst for their eventual downfall.

Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young in Man's CastleColumbia Pictures, Wikimedia Commons

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11. He Refused To Leave His Wife

Spencer Tracy may have been a man of faith, but he certainly had no problem engaging with other women while still married. Ironically, he and Loretta Young would accompany one another to Church and confession, while behind closed doors their “sins” knew no bounds.

Of course, in the end, Tracy’s strong beliefs meant that he would never divorce his wife. Likewise, Young would never have tied the knot with a divorcé. But this wasn’t the only messy moment Tracy faced during his time at Fox studios.Humphrey Bogart & Spencer Tracy in American comedy film Up the River (1930)Fox Film Corporation, Wikimedia Commons

12. He Had A Terrible Vice

In addition to his penchant for womanizing, Spencer Tracy also had a worsening drinking problem. While at Fox, he became known for his dubious relationship with the bottle. In 1934, his bad behavior reached a chilling climax. While filming Marie Galante, the actor didn’t show up for work—and the consequences were severe.Spencer Tracy in suitWarner Home Video, Wikimedia Commons

13. He Didn’t Show Up For Work

After Tracy failed to make it to set, he was found in his hotel room, completely out of it. He’d gone on a two-week binge and couldn’t function. In fact, he ended up in the hospital, which caused a serious delay for the production. Infuriated by Tracy’s lack of professionalism, Fox turned around and sued the actor for $125,000. For his career, there was more turmoil on the horizon.

James Dunn and Spencer Tracy playing cards in home wearFox Films press photo, Wikimedia Commons

14. He Switched Sides

After his behavior on the set of Marie Galante, Spencer Tracy only made two more films for Fox studios. In 1935, he began a new chapter of his life after being approached by MGM studios. It really seemed like the perfect time for Tracy to start over with a fresh slate. His time at Fox had been rough, with the majority of his movies losing money at the box office.

But this wasn’t the only big change in his life.

Spencer Tracy and Luise Rainer looking at each other in black jacketsClarence Bull, Wikimedia Commons15. He Tried To Make Amends

That same year, Spencer Tracy tried to repair his crumbling marriage. After being separated from Treadwell for so long, he returned to her side—but nothing could revive the spark between them. It was only a matter of time before Tracy had his head turned by another stunning Hollywood actress.Actor Spencer Tracy And wife Louise Treadwell  in formal wear looking at the camera at an eventMichael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

16. He Had A Brief Fling

For the next few years, Spencer Tracy took his affairs to a whole new level. In 1937, Spencer Tracy starred in Mannequin alongside Joan Crawford, and Tracy just couldn’t resist her. The two stars slept together while filming, and Crawford later admitted that Tracy liked to mess with her. She said, “He did cute things like stepping on my toes when we were doing a love scene—after he chewed on some garlic”. Spencer Tracy in Mannequin  sitting at a desk in suitMGM, Mannequin (1937)

17. He Was A Womanizer

Tracy sure knew how to get around, and he continued his romantic escapades on the set of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1941. Ingrid Bergman was something of a kindred spirit when it came to the art of seduction and the two enjoyed a brief affair while working with one another. It was never meant to be—and for good reason. There was another woman Tracy seemed fated to be with. Ingrid Bergman as  Ivy Peterson in home wearMGM, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

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18. He Broke Hearts

Now, as many already know, Spencer Tracy’s greatest love was Katharine Hepburn, and she certainly seemed to slow the flow of the actor’s constant philandering. However, there was one actress who certainly didn’t appreciate being tossed to the side. Back in 1935 and 1936, Tracy had had an affair with Myrna Loy—and she later dished on her and Tracy’s split.Myrna Loy in colorful top and earringsEric Carpenter, Wikimedia Commons

19. He Didn’t Want Her

Unfortunately for Myrna Loy, once Spencer Tracy met Katharine Hepburn, he only had eyes for her. Loy later confessed in a 1990 interview, "I loved Spence, he was adorable...I loved him and I really did love him. I loved him. I mean I was in love with him and she [Katharine Hepburn] got in the way”. And boy, was she right.

Spencer Tracy in jacket and Katharine Hepburn in striped shirt looking at each otherAKeen,Wikimedia Commons

20. He Met The Love Of His Life

In 1942, Spencer Tracy finally crossed paths with destiny. On the set of Woman of the Year, the 41-year-old actor met a 34-year-old Katharine Hepburn—and their first impressions came with some unforgettably quippy banter.

Hepburn: “Mr Tracy, you’re a little short for me”.

Tracy: “Don’t worry, I’ll cut you down to size”.

But other reports suggest that the actors’ first meeting wasn’t necessarily as romantic as it seemed.Katharine Hepburn as Tess Harding in spotted top speaking to someoneMGM, Woman of the Year (1942)

21. He Thought She Was A Lesbian

In meeting Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy certainly found a woman to challenge him. At first, he looked at her with preconceived notions, he judged her dirty fingernails and even wondered whether she was a lesbian. But in the end, Hepburn couldn’t help but find Tracy “irresistible”.Spencer Tracy as Sam Craig in suit looking shockedMGM, Woman of the Year (1942)

22. He Had Amazing Chemistry With Her

Within days, the two actors were on a first-name basis. Of course, they still managed to butt heads, and Tracy would sometimes call Hepburn “that woman” or “Shorty”. Their individual approaches to acting were unique, with Hepburn always well-prepared while Tracy was more relaxed and uninhibited. And yet, the two of them balanced each other quite well.

With such easy chemistry, it’s no wonder these two actors fell into bed with one another—but there was a heartbreaking twist to it all. Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy huggingGeorge Rinhart, Getty Images

23. He Lived A Rootless Existence

Spencer Tracy had no plans to divorce his wife despite the fact that his marriage was barely a marriage at all. Though he’d reconciled with Louise Treadwell, he barely saw her or his two children. Instead, Tracy lived a rather rootless existence, staying in hotel and rentals most of the time. And when it came to his relationship with Hepburn? Well, that was even more dysfunctional.

dr jekyll and mr hyde spencer tracy in suit and police officerMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Wikimedia Commons

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24. He Kept A Scandalous Secret

Though Tracy’s affair with Hepburn would span 26 years, it was to remain a secret—albeit, a secret that many in the industry were aware of. Tracy and Hepburn knew how to keep their lips sealed. They were extremely discreet. Tracy never talked about Hepburn in public, or confessed his true feelings for her. But they went even further.State of the Union with Tracey and HepburnLassos the moon, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

25. He Kept His Fans Happy

The studio system and everyone involved in this affair worked hard to keep it quiet. Tracy and Hepburn lived in different homes and barely ever went out in public together. The studio feared that this any blatant infidelity would anger audiences and diminish the popularity of the two actors. Of course, this secrecy would also protect Tracy’s wife.SPENCER TRACY, KATHARINE HEPBURN in formal wearUnited Archives, Getty Images

26. They Were The Perfect Duo

Following the success of Woman of the Year, MGM looked at Tracy and Hepburn and saw gold. They wanted to cast the two lovebirds in another film, and also likely hoped that Hepburn might keep Tracy in line when it came to his drinking. The two actors starred in Keeper of the Flame. And according to Barbara Leaming’s biography on Hepburn, their dynamic made some feel “uneasy”.

Tracy and Hepburn in Keeper of the Flame at home in formal wearMGM, Keeper of the Flame (1942)

27. He Soaked Up All Her Attention

While making Keeper of the Flame, Tracy and Hepburn existed in their own private bubble. Hepburn attended to Tracy’s every need—brushing his hair, wiping his face, rubbing his head. She doted on him constantly. When Tracy regaled the crew with his personal stories, Hepburn could be found huddled by his feet.

Tracy, however, wasn’t exactly as enraptured as Hepburn.

Katharine Hepburn & Spencer Tracy in Adam's Rib StillMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Wikimedia Commons

28. She Loved Him More

Though Hepburn fawned over Tracy, it seemed as though Tracy didn’t always return the favor. According to biographer Barbara Leaming, Tracy might not have put Hepburn on the same pedestal she put him on. At least, on the surface, Tracy didn't put the same effort into the relationship. But this wasn’t the only red flag.Tracy and Hepburn in Keeper of the FlameMGM, Keeper of the Flame (1942)

29. He Drank Himself Into A Corner

Alongside the messy nature of his love life, Spencer Tracy continued his nasty affair with the bottle. His drinking problem got him into countless sticky situations—and on many occasions, his MGM keepers had to rescue him from the drunk tanks he landed himself in. However, his bad habit also inconvenienced Hepburn in a jaw-dropping way.

Spencer Tracy & Alice Faye looking at each other in formal wearFox Film Corporation, Wikimedia Commons

30. He Locked Her Out

Spencer Tracy often went on disturbing benders. Reportedly, at the Beverly Hills Hotel, employees would know the actor had lost control of his drinking if they saw Katharine Hepburn sleeping outside of his room. This meant that the sloshed actor had locked himself in, and wouldn’t even allow her past the threshold.

Clearly, Tracy’s health was in peril—and, in 1945, he finally ended up in the hospital, ready to get sober.Spencer Tracy sitting at a desk having a mealTrailer screenshot, Wikimedia Commons

31. He Returned To The Stage

Coming out of the hospital, Spencer Tracy decided to return to the stage. It had been 15 years since he’d done theater, but Hepburn believed that this work might help orient her troubled lover. Tracy informed a journalist, “I’m coming back to Broadway to see if I can still act”. But if Tracy’s ego was in need of a little bolstering, this new project may have been one of the rudest awakenings yet.Spencer Tracy Tortilla Flat Photo in jacket and white shirt looking at the cameraClarence Bull, Wikimedia Commons

32. He Was Difficult To Work With

The play was Robert E Sherwood’s The Rugged Path—and it was a downright disaster. According to the director, the entire production seemed to crumble right before his eyes, just 10 days before the play opened in New York. He admitted, “Spencer was tense and unbending, could not, or would not, take direction”. It ended badly.Spencer Tracy speaking at City Hall, Toronto, Ontario, Canada in suitGordon W. Powley, Wikimedia Commons

33. He Wanted To Quit The Show

Spencer Tracy’s nerves must have been terrible as he contemplated dropping out of the production altogether. The play hadn’t even opened on Broadway, yet he was already ready to throw in the towel. Upon first preview, the audience’s response was discouraging and “tepid”. Tracy’s return to the stage seemed like one big mistake.Spencer Tracy as Col. James Doolittle in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo in uniformMGM, Wikimedia Commons

34. He Didn’t Last Long

Tracy only lasted six weeks before the show closed. He later confessed, “I couldn’t say those goddamn lines over and over and over and over again every night… At least every days is new day for me in films… But this thing—every day, every day, over and over again”.

This little experiment only led Tracy right back to Hollywood—but sadly, even Hollywood would begin to lose its luster.

Jean Harlow And Spencer Tracy in  Riffraff wearing uniformsUnknown author, Wikimedia Commons

35. He Was A Nightmare

As Spencer Tracy aged, he became more and more difficult to work with, and by 1955 his relationship with MGM had soured. He became an independent player, but his interest in his craft waned as the years wore on. Of course, that wasn’t the only aspect of his life that saw a sad decline.

Spencer Tracy and Katy Jurado in a screenshot from the trailer for the film Broken LanceTrailer screenshot, Wikimedia Commons37. His Demons Haunted Him

Spencer Tracy was a tortured man his entire life. In addition to his drinking, he suffered with anxiety, depression, and insomnia. His wife said that he had “the most volatile disposition” she’d ever seen. Even Katharine Hepburn, who took care of him in his final years, struggled to understand the depths of Tracy’s despair.

In her autobiography, she wondered, “What was it? … Never at peace… Tortured by some sort of guilt. Some terrible misery”.

Spencer Tracy FactsMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Wikimedia Commons

38. He Became An Addict

Spencer Tracy’s inability to sleep led him down an even darker road of addiction. He eventually relied on barbiturates just to get any sleep. Even worse? He’d also take uppers so that he could work during the day. His many vices and bad habits led him to a very scary event in the summer of 1963.Spencer Tracy in Broken Lance wearing a suit sitting on a chairTrailer screenshot, Wikimedia Commons

39. He Couldn’t Breathe

Due to a terrifying episode where Tracy couldn’t catch his breath, the actor ended up in the hospital. The outlook did not look good. Doctors told him that he had pulmonary edema, meaning that his heart wasn’t functioning properly, causing his lungs to fill with fluid. He became a weak echo of the strong leading man he’d once been.

It was a sad reality—but there was one woman Tracy could always count on in times of need.

Spencer Tracy FactsUnited Artists, Wikimedia Commons

40. He Finally Moved In With Her

After this health scare, Katharine Hepburn rushed to Spencer Tracy’s aid. She moved in with him and began caring for him 24/7. Unfortunately, his problems only mounted. In 1965, he had two more physical problems to worry about: heart disease and diabetes. In fact, he almost died that very same year.

Tracy Hepburn Adams Rib driving in a carMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Wikimedia Commons

41. He Barely Survived

After a necessary surgery, Tracy’s kidneys failed and he ended up in a coma. Against all odds, the actor pulled through, and his doctors called his recovery “a kind of miracle”. For the next two years, Tracy and Hepburn lived the life of a quiet married couple—something they could never do during the peak of their careers.

However, as a duo, these two veterans had one last picture to make together.

Spencer Tracy FactsWarner Bros., Wikimedia Commons

42. He Made One Last Film

In 1967, Tracy made his very last movie—his ninth with Hepburn—Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

Luckily, Spencer Tracy seemed content about his role in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, but he also knew that his career was coming to a close. He told the press that, because of his poor health, he planned to retire after the film wrapped. In fact, he was a downright liability and had to be insured just in case he didn’t make it to the end of filming.

Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn in his last movieColumbia Pictures, Wikimedia Commons

43. Fate Had A Twist In Store For Him

Only 17 days after filming, Spencer Tracy met with a sudden tragedy. He woke up in the middle of the night at 3 am. It seemed like any other night, and the actor wanted a nice cup of tea, so he got out of bed and headed for the kitchen. According to Hepburn’s autobiography, she followed in Tracy’s footsteps. 

However, right before she pushed opened the kitchen door, she heard an awful smashing noise.

Screenshot of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy in the trailer for the film Guess Who's Coming to DinnerStanley Kramer, Wikimedia Commons

44. He Passed Suddenly

She later wrote, “…there was a sound of a cup smashing to the floor—then clump—a loud clump”. When she stepped through those doors, she made the most heartbreaking discovery. She found Spencer Tracy slumped on the floor. He had passed from a sudden heart attack. Hepburn, however, made one last chilling observation of the man she’d loved her entire life.Actress Katharine Hepburn standing in front of a poster size photo  of actor Spencer Tracy in black turtleneck looking at the cameraJohn Bryson, Getty Images

45. Life Burdened Him

According to Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy “looked so happy to be done with living, which for all his accomplishment had been a frightful burden for him”. However, after his passing, the grieving actress had a heartbreaking choice to make. Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn in front of an elevatorUnited Archives, Getty Images

46. She Didn’t Attend His Funeral

Hepburn abstained from attending her life partner’s funeral. Spencer Tracy had been a devout Catholic, and as such, had never divorced his wife, although they had been separated for years. Hepburn kept her distance from the funeral out of respect for Tracy’s legal widow and children.

But when it came to the world’s fascination with Tracy and Hepburn’s love story, this was only the beginning.Katharine Hepburn Woman Of The YearMetro-Goldwyn-Mayer ,Wikimedia Commons

47. He Sparked Rumors

Due to the dysfunctional nature of Tracy’s marriage, as well as his longstanding affair with Katharine Hepburn, it’s no wonder wild rumors began to swirl. Some believed that the entire relationship was all a sham—a way to cover up their true sexualities.

Of course, these were all baseless whispers, until one shocking tell-all hit the bookshelves.Tracy and Hepburn in Keeper of the Flame at home in blackMGM, Keeper of the Flame (1942)

48. He Was The Subject Of Shocking Allegations

In 2012, Scotty Bowers’ autobiography Full Service came out. He claimed to have arranged liaisons between many closeted gay stars in Hollywood, between the years of 1945 and 1980. Then, five years later, a documentary followed: Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood. 

Many cast a critical eye over both the book and the film, as many of the cited stars had already passed—but others found a lot to believe in.Scotty Bowers in blue shirt looking at the cameraAltimeter Films, Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood (2017)

49. He May Have Been Gay

Perhaps most shockingly, Bowers went into depth about the beloved Hollywood duo, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. He claimed, “They were merely friends… They were not in the bed department together at all”. But that wasn’t the most shocking part. Bowers himself said that he slept with Tracy himself and that he’d helped Hepburn find as many as 150 female partners to be intimate with.Tracy and Hepburn in Keeper of the Flame at home in front of a portraitMGM, Keeper of the Flame (1942)

50. He Inspired An Adorable Animation

Spencer Tracy was the inspiration for the character of Carl in the 2009 Pixar film, Up. According to the director, Pete Docter, there was “something sweet about these grumpy old guys”.

Carl in Up  cartoon in suitPixar Animation Studios, Up (2009)


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