Details About Katharine Hepburn's Lengthy Affair With Spencer Tracy

The collaboration between the iconic screen actress Katharine Hepburn and similarly legendary Spencer Tracy began with 1942's "Woman of the Year," and it kick-started a working relationship that became central to the pair's continued success for the next 25 years. "Woman of the Year" came at an important juncture for both stars, cementing them in the minds of audiences as talented and charismatic comedy actors whose natural chemistry made them ideal for storylines that light-heartedly explored love, marriage, and gender issues. Hepburn and Tracy went on to star alongside each other in another eight movies over the next quarter of a century, forming one of Old Hollywood's most successful on-screen partnerships.

But what the audiences that flocked to see "Woman of the Year" didn't know was that the hit comedy was also the start of a lifelong romantic love affair between its two stars, which lasted until Tracy's death in 1967 at the age of 67.

A secret romance

Details of Katharine Hepburn's affair with her co-star Spencer Tracy only became public knowledge in the years after the death of both Tracy and his wife, Louise, who died in 1983. The few who did know were the pair's fellow movie stars and other friends in the industry who were willing to keep the story from the press.

Christopher P. Andersen's "An Affair to Remember" was first published in 1997, six years before Hepburn's death, and it's complimentary about the affair, opening with the assertation that "it was one of the great romances of our time." Meanwhile, Hepburn's own autobiography leaves the reader in no doubt that Spencer Tracy was the love of her life (via The New York Times). But while biographers writing in the immediate aftermath of Katharine Hepburn's death originally attempted to paint her affair with Spencer Tracy as a romance for the ages, other details of their relationship arguably make the idealization of their decades-long bond rather difficult.

The dark side of the Hepburn-Tracy affair

To begin with, though Katharine Hepburn was certainly besotted with her long-term co-star, some commentators have noted an Oedipal element to the affair, with Spencer Tracy bearing a striking resemblance to Hepburn's distant father, Thomas. Tracy was reportedly similarly guarded in praising or showing affection to the actress who had fallen for him, and some have interpreted Hepburn's infatuation as being ground in a deep-seated need for patriarchal approval. 

According to Christopher P. Andersen's "An Affair to Remember," Tracy was willing to belittle Hepburn when they were in company, which could increase her emotional attachment and need for approval. Director Henry King also called Tracy an "ugly drunk," and Hepburn — who tolerated moderate drinking but didn't quite believe in the existence of alcoholism — was reportedly often left to deal with her lover's drinking binges and violent tendencies (via The Washington Post).

Tracy never divorced his wife

Katharine Hepburn had been married and divorced before she met Spencer Tracy, whom she greatly admired and insisted on working with for "Woman of the Year." She didn't have any children. Tracy, on the other hand, had married Louise in 1923 and had two children with her. The eldest, a son named John, had been born deaf, which gave Tracy, a Catholic, an immense sense of guilt. Though the press suggested his religious belief also meant that he felt unable to divorce Louise, a friend, James Bacon, said this is untrue, saying the actor stayed with his wife for his son (via "An Affair to Remember").

Regardless, Tracy indulged in a series of affairs with his co-stars, including Ingrid Bergman, Joan Crawford, and Grace Kelly. Hepburn was by far the most long-lasting of these, although the Kelly affair took place long after his relationship with Hepburn had begun. When Hepburn finally contacted Louise after Tracy's death, Louise was shocked, having believed that the rumors of Hepburn's affair with Tracy were untrue (via "Hollywood Couples"). Though Louise and Tracy had lived separate lives for years, she had stayed in a loveless marriage.

Tracy supported Hepburn through the Hollywood blacklistings

The age in which Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were at the height of their fame was truly tumultuous, with repercussions for Hollywood and its stars. After first collaborating and beginning their affair on the set of "Woman of the Year," Hepburn and Tracy starred in "Keeper of the Flame," a piece of overt ​​propaganda. In particular, it was intent on reinforcing the American public's commitment to the war effort and optimism that the Allied forces would defeat the Nazis. But the pair found themselves in the crosshairs a few years later when Cold War paranoia saw the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) investigate Hollywood for signs of Soviet sympathy and attempt to identify and root out potential communists (via Vanity Fair). Hepburn was never a communist, though her liberal upbringing and progressive outlook were well known. But after she gave a speech in 1947 decrying what she perceived as the HUAC's attack on creative freedom, she came into the firing line herself.

Per the same source, Hepburn's FBI file says Tracy managed to convince Adolphe Menjou — who was working as an informant for the HUAC — to convince the investigators that Hepburn wanted to disown her speech, and a statement was read over the radio on her behalf. She avoided being subpoenaed. Years later, it emerged that the FBI had known about the Hepburn-Tracy affair all along (per "An Affair to Remember").

Was the Hepburn-Tracy affair a cover story?

In recent years, a new theory has developed concerning the affair between Katharine Hepburn and her longtime co-star Spencer Tracy: That the affair itself was a ruse to cover up the truth about their sexuality. 

Much of the renewed speculation about the exact nature of Hepburn and Tracy's relationship is based on the recollections of a man named Scotty Bowers, a Hollywood sex worker and procure. His memoir, "Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars," describes him procuring women for Hepburn — whom he claims was a lesbian — and having sex with a drunken Tracy, whom he describes as bisexual. Bower claims that rumors of an affair between the two stars were concocted to allow them to sit comfortably among the Hollywood firmament that was, at the time, uniformly heteronormative. Though wild, Bower's story reflects the assertions of previous Hepburn biographer Anne Edwards. Notably, Edwards told Publishers Weekly that the actress romanticized her close relationship with Tracy, turning it into a convincing, though fictional, tale of timeless romance (via Advocate).

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