Correction: An earlier version of this review confused the terms “on the wagon” and “off the wagon.” Tracy should have been described as being on the wagon for long spells before succumbing to the temptation to drink again. This version has been updated.

Long before there was Branjelina, there was Spencenkate. The 26-year love affair and nine-film collaboration of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn is probably the one thing most people remember about the man whom theater legend George M. Cohan called in 1926, at the outset of Tracy’s career, “the best goddamned actor I’ve ever seen.” The tribute was echoed by directors, colleagues and audiences for the next 41 years.

James Curtis’s new biography is designed to end the partial eclipse of Tracy by the more vivid and long-lived Hepburn, though the book’s enormous length may be a hindrance. Tracy deserves to be remembered for himself, as a master of acting technique whose essence Hepburn herself defined: “He never got in his own way. I still do.” John Ford, who directed Tracy’s first feature film, “Up the River,” and one of his last, “The Last Hurrah,” agreed: “When I say Spencer Tracy is the best actor we ever had, I’m giving you something of my philosophy of acting. The best is most natural. Scenery never gets chewed in my pictures. I prefer actors who can just be.”

Tracy’s ability to “just be” is apparent when you think of such contemporaries of his as Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, James Stewart and James Cagney. All of them are defined to some extent by mannerisms that lend themselves to caricature. But who has ever caricatured or imitated Spencer Tracy?

Only Hepburn could upstage him, and Curtis tries hard to keep her from doing that. He postpones her entrance into the narrative for 400-some pages and begins the book with a chapter on the other woman in Tracy’s life: Louise Treadwell, who became Mrs. Spencer Tracy in 1923 and held on to the title that she prized for the next 44 years, even though they began to lead separate lives off and on as early as 1933.

Tracy had affairs with Loretta Young, Joan Crawford, Ingrid Bergman and Gene Tierney, among many others, but he also had an advanced Irish-Catholic sense of guilt. And one source of that guilt was the congenital deafness of his son, John. Louise devoted her life (and much of Tracy’s money) to the clinic that she founded to deal with childhood deafness. Tracy, however, had an emotionally distant relationship with John, and writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz believed that he blamed himself in some way for his son’s deafness: “He didn’t leave Louise,” Mankiewicz said. “He left the scene of his guilt.” But they never divorced, partly because of his Catholicism and partly because Hepburn wasn’t interested in marrying him.

‘Spencer Tracy: A Biography’ by James Curtis (Knopf)

The other dominant fact about Tracy’s off-screen life was that he was, in the words of director Henry King, “an ugly drunk.”Actor David Wayne recalled the time Tracy laid waste to the taproom of the Lambs Club in New York: “The huge supply of liquor that was stacked behind the bar he swept off and hurled to the floor and about the room. It looked as if a hurricane had struck.” But he alternated his binges with long periods of sobriety, going on the wagon for months, even years, before finally succumbing once again. After he met Hepburn, the sober periods increased their length, but the binges never disappeared, partly because, as Curtis comments, Hepburn “considered the abuse of alcohol a failure of the will” and not a disease. She encouraged him to drink in moderation, always a risk when, as one acquaintance observed, “all he needed was ‘a dessert with rum in it’ to set him off.”

Curtis sees their relationship as very much to Hepburn’s benefit. Dina Merrill, who worked with Tracy and Hepburn on “Desk Set,” said, “She was a mother hen. . . . It was like he was her child.” Writer Phoebe Ephron said Hepburn told her, “I’m like a little fly that buzzes around him all the time, and every once in a while he gives me a good swat.” If that suggests either masochism on Hepburn’s part or a physically violent relationship, it hasn’t gone unnoticed. Curtis mentions the rumors of Tracy’s hitting Hepburn, some of them while he was drunk. Hepburn’s niece, Katharine Houghton, who starred with them in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” dismisses these reports perhaps a bit too casually: “If he gave her a good whack . . . it’s my suspicion that she asked for it. She was not a frail person.” She adds, “In the family we were all witnesses, from time to time, to her being maddeningly self-righteous and bossy, no doubt with good intentions, but still way out of line.”

Curtis has done Tracy a service in drawing attention to the power and finesse of his work both together with and apart from Hepburn. Ernest Hemingway dismissed the Tracy-Hepburn films as “those toad-and-grasshopper comedies,” meaning it partly as a slur on Tracy, whom he disliked as “a man who could not hold his liquor” and thought miscast in “The Old Man and the Sea” — though he finally changed his mind about that film. But if Tracy is the solid, down-to-earth toad, and Hepburn the flighty, busy grasshopper, Curtis has done a good job of making us appreciate the virtues of the toad.

Charles Matthews is a writer and editor in Northern California.


A Biography

By James Curtis

Knopf. 1,001 pp. $39.95