by James Curtis
Knopf (Random House)
Spencer Tracy by James Curtis is the most definitive biography on the legendary actor. There will never be another book as informative as this one and there will never be another biographer who has had as much access to information about Spencer Tracy as James Curtis had. It took Curtis 10 years to research and write this book and the wealth of information found within the covers of this biography demonstrates his hard work and attention to detail.
Physically this book is a brick. It's just over 1,000 pages and if you discount the front and back matter, the meat of it clocks in at 878 pages. It's a heavy book and because of that it's a tad bit difficult to read. I experimented with various positions including propping the book up on a firm pillow, which seemed to work the best. One time I had it propped on my chest, I accidentally let the book go, it slid and hit me right in the mouth. Ouch! If you are an eBook person, this book is available on various eReaders. I'd rather suffer and have the physical book myself.
Spencer Tracy is known for many things. He was one half of the famous Hepburn-Tracy coupling (both on screen and off), he was a familiar face in films from the 1930s to the 1960s, and by some accounts he was also known as an adulterous drunken Catholic. However, people are always infinitely more complex than the labels we chose to place on them. What I love about reading biographies is that you get an opportunity to discover some of that complexity and move beyond the stereotype, the rumors, and the labels.
The front matter consists of a table of contents and an Acknowledgements section and the back matter has a section on the various biographies of Katherine Hepburn (some of which make claims that the Curtis refutes), a stage and film chronology, notes with sources and an index. If you are going to read any of the extra matter, make sure you read the Acknowledgements because this is the most enlightening. Spencer Tracy's daughter Susie Tracy adamantly felt that a "thorough and balanced biography of her father needed to be written, and the time to talk to the people who knew him was running out." Curtis took on the task of writing this biography and Susie gave him access to photos (some I'm sure have never before been published), Tracy's datebook, letters, telegrams, etc. She also gave Curtis access to people who knew Tracy but wouldn't have been allowed to have been interviewed without Susie's connection. There are two important things to note about this. Although Susie gave Curtis access to a lot, she didn't have final say in how the book would be written or what was to be included or left out. However, I do think that Susie's assistance and blessing helped mold the book into what it is now.
It is clear in reading this book that Curtis was being very respectful of Spencer Tracy as well as Louise Tracy (his wife) and their children (Susie and John). While I do love salacious reads, I do also enjoy reading books that are matter-of-fact and don't rely on juicy gossip to interest readers. Curtis sticks to the facts and while we read about the good and the bad, he doesn't try to share more than is necessary. At times I felt that Curtis may have been a little too adoring of Louise and too critical of her major rival for Tracy's heart, Katherine Hepburn. And I wonder if this is because of Susie's influence. However, he does state that Susie and Katherine became friends and does defend Katherine on several points. Basically, Curtis sticks to facts but there is a bit of a bias in favor of Tracy's family.
This book is very thorough. Every year, every play, every movie, every major event in Spencer Tracy's life is covered with incredible detail. There is a lot of information too about the John Tracy Clinic for deaf children. Relevant photographs, with sources named, are sprinkled through the text. I like this better than the photo insert you find in the middle of most biographies. I always find myself flipping back to that section to look at photos and I didn't have to do that with this book. This is a challenging read. The writing is can be a bit dry but because of the sheer volume of information that Curtis shares, there wasn't much room for fancy language. He does employ use of cliff hangers at the end of certain chapters which makes you want to keep reading. However, I highly suggest reading this book chapter by chapter. It will take you a while to finish but at least it'll give you some time to soak in the information.
What I enjoyed the most about this book were the stories of Spencer Tracy in relation to other actors or with directors/producers/other industry people. Tracy was good friends with a lot of his fellow actors and as the years passed it saddened him to see so many of them die. He was a great actor, adored by many and a lot of actors and actresses felt it a privilege to work with him. He had some close friendships with actors including his BFF Pat O'Brien and Clark Gable. There is one really funny anecdote from the book. Gable and Tracy would pull pranks on each other on set. When Clark Gable was crowned the King of Hollywood, Tracy took the opportunity to embarrass Gable. The book says
"Gable sought his revenge... when he had the hot fudge sundae that always appeared at the finish of Tracy's lunch made with a perfectly formed scoop of mashed potatoes. Tracy dug into the thing and devoured it down to the last spoonful without ever changing expression."
I know a lot of you will be put off by the page count but you shouldn't be. Not everything can be condensed into one page of trivia facts on IMDB or a few paragraphs on Wikipedia. It's an accomplishment to tackle a book this long and to learn as much as I did while reading it. So while it's not the most fun read out there, I do hope Spencer Tracy fans and classic movie enthusiasts alike will give this book a shot.
Full Disclosure: My boss got this book, took one look at it's length and handed it over to me. I immediately hugged it in my arms and thanked her. Thanks Susan!
Here is the author talking about how he came to write the biography and clears up some misconceptions about Tracy. I love that he took the opportunity to spotlight Spencer Tracy in such a definitive biography like this one! Also below is a free preview of the book. Enjoy!