DESPITE HIS DEMONS, THE TWO HOLLYWOOD LEGENDS LOVED PASSIONATELY DURING THEIR 27-YEAR AFFAIR
Forty years after the hit sitcom’s debut, stars shares their top behind-the-scenes memories.
There’s a famous story about the first time Katharine Hepburn met Spencer Tracy. The Oscar-winning actors were set to star together in 1942’s Woman of the Year, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz tells Closer: “My great uncle, [producer] Joe Mankiewicz, introduced them. And Katharine says, ‘I’m afraid, Mr. Tracy, I’m a little too tall for you.’ And then Joe says, ‘Don’t worry Kat, he’ll cut you down to size!’ ”
That turned out to be true. At the time, Katharine was at the top of her game coming off of The Philadelphia Story. She was also known for having “pure determination and sheer force of will,” says her nephew Mundy Hepburn. But when Kate met Spence, as she called him, and embarked on a 27-year love affair with the married actor, it changed her. “I loved Spencer Tracy,” she wrote in her memoir, Me: Stories of My Life. “He and his interests and his demands came first.” Even though he refused to leave his wife, and despite his alcoholism, Katharine stood by her man. “The relationship between them was fascinating. They were kindred spirits,” Christopher Andersen, author of An Affair to Remember, tells Closer, marveling that they kept it secret for so long despite the fact that they were so famous.
Katharine had already dated famous men, including Howard Hughes, when at 33 she met Spencer, 41. “I found him irresistible,” she said. She called him “the perfect actor,” but he also made her laugh. “He had the most wonderful sense of humor,” she raved. Ben Mankiewicz credits her with broadening Spencer’s career. “She exposed his ability to do comedy,” he says, as can be seen in many of their nine films together.
“I could never have left him. He was there — I was his.”
Spencer, however, was an alcoholic. And he’d been married to actress Louise Treadwell, with whom he had two children, since 1923. He refused to divorce. “He felt guilty because he had a deaf son,” says Andersen. “He also didn’t want to put his wife through scandal.” So he and Kate “had to sneak around,” adds Andersen. He would spend weekends with his family and the weeknights with Katharine. “He would come back on a Sunday and Kate would have dinner ready for him.”
She was devoted to his happiness. “When they were around other people, she sat at his feet and worshipped him,” says Andersen. Still, “on the big issues,” such as her wanting to go film The African Queen in the Congo, Kate stood firm.
And they fought. “They had pitched battles,” Andersen notes. When Spencer drank, “he threw chairs through restaurant windows!” Katharine admitted that he even hit her “once” in a drunken stupor. She thought about AA, she said, but worried it would destroy his career if news got out. And she refused to leave him. “If I had,” she said, “we both would have been miserable.”
That belief kept her by Spencer’s side until his death from a heart attack 17 days after they finished filming 1967’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Even years later, Katharine, who died in 2003, insisted she had no regrets. “Love has nothing to do with what you are expecting to get — only what you are expecting to give,” she said, “which is everything.”
— Lisa Chambers, with reporting by Katie Bruno
Their life together, “was, to me, absolute bliss,” Katharine
once said. “It is called love.”