by James Oliver; Knopf, 2011; 1001 pages; $39.95
Spencer Tracy was an anomaly among his peers. He was one of those admirable actors who never really looked like he was working. His technique never showed. In fact, he always seemed to be listening. His great admirers — many of them fellow actors — were known to say that Tracy never acted; he reacted. That’s the prime trait of Tracy that this new biography embraces.
Aside from being an expert researcher, James Oliver had the full cooperation of Tracy’s daughter, Susie, who, he tells us, missed much of her father’s life and really only got to know Katherine Hepburn after his death. About Susie, Oliver recounts, “There was much she wanted — needed — to understand and the only way she could do so was to see his life documented as thoroughly and as truthfully as possible. To that end, Susie Tracy refused to influence her father’s biographer in any way, gave him full access to her father’s papers and remaining friends and spent countless hours talking about her memories of her father.” Also included are invaluable stage and film chronologies, extensive notes and public and personal photographs.
In his youth, Spencer Tracy was referred to as “that one.” After a term in the Navy, Tracy eventually accompanied friends to New York and enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Art. He met and married actress Louise Treadaway, and they had two children, the profoundly deaf John and their daughter Susie.
Spencer Tracy is not an easy subject. To be sure, he certainly became an actor’s actor. He seemed devoted to family, and yet he wasn’t because of his open relationship with Katherine Hepburn. While Louise devoted herself to the John Tracy Clinic, Spencer became a recalcitrant alcoholic. He loved Hepburn, but never divorced. He was an unrepentant womanizer who had serious affairs with Loretta Young, Joan Crawford, Ingrid Bergman and Gene Tierney, while Joan Fontaine rejected his ongoing advances.
All of this is told straightforwardly. But what makes the book so remarkable is not only Tracy’s life, but his career. Oliver meticulously follows that career, relying primarily on critical assessments from the time, Tracy’s personal comments in his papers and observations from those who worked with him. Tracy is followed from Broadway to Hollywood, as he eventually ends up at MGM for 20 years of remarkable films: Captains Courageous, Woman of the Year, Adam’s Rib, Father of the Bride, Bad Day at Black Rock.
With much admiration Oliver then recounts producer/director Stanley Kramer’s devotion to Tracy in such late films as Inherit the Wind, Judgment at Nuremberg and especially Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the film on which Kramer used his salary to guarantee the uninsurable Tracy.
The quiet, restrained power that was Tracy on film is certainly the strength of his new biographer, James Oliver. Spencer Tracy is an exhaustive look at the life and career of one of our great film actors. Never once does Oliver descend to the level of grandstanding or gossip. Never once having met his subject, Oliver has instead listened to those who did know Tracy, and he has respectfully chronicled their stories. In so doing, James Oliver has produced a book that is surely to become the definitive Tracy biography.
Steven Whitton is professor of English at Jacksonville State University.