Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Spencer Tracy by James Curtis

Spencer Tracy
by James Curtis
Knopf (Random House)
October 2011
1,024 pages
$39.95 Hardcover

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!


  1. This sounds really interesting. I appreciated your detailed review! Given how much time I have to spend reading for work, it will probably take me a loooong time to read it when I get it. (Grin) The author is going to be signing it at UCLA on January 7th, so depending on my schedule and the movies showing that night I might attend that and get the book then.

    Bit of Tracy-related trivia: my daughter's dorm was right down the street from the John Tracy Clinic her last couple years at USC. Of course, every time we drove by I thought of Spencer Tracy!

    Thanks again for the detailed review. Like you, I like bios that are truthful, "warts and all," but that also stick to the facts in as evenhanded a way as possible. Sounds like this book largely accomplishes that, although probably every writer can't help bringing a certain perspective to their work.

    Best wishes,

  2. Enjoyed reading your review and breakdown of this biography. I'm amazed it has taken so long for such a definitive biography to be written on Spencer Tracy, but I'm glad Curtis made it happen. I look forward to reading this. Maybe if I'm lucky it will be coming my way for Christmas :)

  3. It is an incredible book. The early sections are fascinating in their detail on the life of a repertory theater player while the later chapters make a stark case, whether Curtis meant it or not, that Hollywood virtually ruined Tracy as a person. The most surprising thing I got out of it was that Ernest Hemingway actually ended up liking The Old Man and the Sea, after earlier threatening to shoot Tracy. And the idea briefly floated of Tracy and Marilyn Monroe in The Blue Angel boggles the mind. The book's full of bits like that, and anyone who does find it tearing a hole in a stocking will be in for a treat.

  4. Excellent review as always, Raquelle. It is so good to hear that Curtis does Spencer Tracy's story justice. To be honest, I don't know a whole lot about his personal life, so I am really excited to dive into this one. I finally got a copy given to me by a non-classic movie fan friend (how awesome is that?!?) for my birthday. Of course I already have a fairly large stack of books staring me down as I type this, so it will be a while before I'm able to crack it open.

    One thing about this book: the cover photo is absolutely beautiful and haunting. It gave me chills the first time I saw it.

    Fantastic job.


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