On screen, Katharine Hepburn played the feisty woman who always walked off into the sunset with the man of her dreams. When it came to real-life romances, however, Hepburn rarely got her happy ending. It seems that chasing emotionally unavailable men was a pattern that haunted the actress until her death in 2003.
But of all the romances that have emerged from Hollywood, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn’s public love affair is the most complicated. From nightly binges and inner demons to those infamous rumors surrounding their relationship, we’re telling the story of one of Hollywood’s most twisted affairs. But to get the full picture, we must first take a look back at the events that took place before Tracy and Hepburn got together.
Born in 1907, Hepburn was the daughter of a women’s rights activist and a surgeon, who encouraged the future actress to be whomever she wanted—even if that meant cutting off all her hair and calling herself Jimmy. Her parents were often criticized for their progressive beliefs, but Hepburn didn’t care.
In fact, even as a child, Hepburn realized how “remarkable” her parents were, and she credited them for her independent attitude and her success in Hollywood. Sadly, her childhood came to a crashing end when she was only 13 years old. Her parents had sent Hepburn and her older brother Tom to New York City to stay with a family friend in Greenwich Village.
Hepburn returned to the apartment one day to find that Tom had taken his own life. He was 16 years old. This crushed Hepburn. She became a nervous wreck, secluded herself from other children, and eventually dropped out of school. For many years, Hepburn even used Tom’s birthday, November 8th, as her own.
It wasn’t until her 1991 autobiography that the actress revealed her real birth date. Luckily, everything changed for Hepburn when she discovered her love for acting while taking classes at Bryn Mawr, a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania. Before long, Hepburn became one of the most talked-about students on campus. That’s when she met her first husband, Ludlow Ogden Smith.
Smith was a tall, handsome, and extremely wealthy businessman from Philadelphia. He had been pursuing Hepburn for years, and it wasn’t until the actress was unhappy working as an understudy in NYC that she finally agreed to marry him. Eager to please, Smith did anything and everything that Hepburn asked of him.
He even took her last name because Hepburn thought that changing her name to “Katharine Smith” made her sound plain. But after the wedding, it was clear to everyone that the actress wasn’t happy in her marriage. As Hepburn’s career began to take off, Smith stayed at home to play with his miniature railroad set. In fact, most of Hepburn’s colleagues had no idea that she was even married.
Hepburn and Smith divorced in 1934 after the actress began an affair with a dazzling Hollywood agent named Leland Hayward. Hepburn never married again. Instead, she devoted the rest of her life to two of old Hollywood’s most self-destructive geniuses: director John Ford and actor Spencer Tracy. Both men knew each other way before Hepburn was even in the picture.
In fact, it was Ford who gave Tracy his big break in the 1930 comedy film, Up the River. While filming, Ford became a father-like figure to Tracy—who just so happened to be a drunk and an insomniac. But the director knew how to tame the actor, inspire him, and deal with his long list of insecurities.
Ford’s friends and colleagues referred to his wife Mary as the “lion tamer.” Short and argumentative, Mary knew how to bring her larger-than-life husband back down to earth. Some people say that Ford always seemed a little frightened of Mary, who often called her husband weak and unmanly and mocked his Irish background.
There was also another problem with Mary: She was a divorcee whose first husband was still alive. This made it impossible for them to wed in a Catholic church, so, as Ford (a devout Catholic) saw it, they weren’t really married at all.
Ford was the first out of the two men to meet Hepburn. It all began back in 1932 when Ford headed out to New York to shoot a screen test with the actress, who was still performing on Broadway and had yet to be discovered by Hollywood. Let’s just say it was love at first sight.
Well, for Ford, at least. He marveled at the way she acted sophisticated and elegant one minute and childish and playful the next. Apparently, nothing happened between the two as Hepburn was still married and just beginning her affair with Hayward.
For some reason or another, Ford did not hire Hepburn in 1932. But she seemed to have made an impression on the director. It wasn’t until 1936 that the two worked together for the first time on the film Mary of Scotland. By now, Hepburn was an Academy Award-winning actress with eight films to her name.
As soon as filming began, everyone knew that something was going on. Ford seemed to be a different person in the actress’s presence. Instead of using his lunch breaks for nap time, the cast and crew often saw the director and his star sitting at a table, laughing and insulting each other.
To Ford and the rest of the crew members, Hepburn was just one of the guys. “You’re a hell of a fine girl,” Ford told her. “If you’d just learn to shut up and knuckle under, you’d probably make somebody a nice wife.”
When filming came to an end, Ford usually traveled down to Mexico for a binge weekend with the boys—but not this time. Instead, Ford took Hepburn to visit their childhood homes on the East Coast. It was clear to everyone that the two were in love.
According to Ford’s niece, Cecile De Prita, Hepburn offered Mary a whopping $150,000 (around $2.8 million in today) to divorce her husband. Mary, however, turned her down. But this wasn’t her only problem. By now, audiences had a love-hate relationship with Hepburn’s performances, which made it hard for the studio to find her work.
It also didn’t help that her former lover, Leland Hayward was a Hollywood agent and furious about her affair with Ford. Hayward was jealous, to say the least. For three years, he tried to get Hepburn to marry him, but she turned him down every time.
But for Ford? She tried paying off his wife so they could get married. Even though Hepburn and Ford were madly in love, he refused to leave his wife. So Hepburn decided to take matters into her own hands.
While working on the East Coast, the actress decided to accept an invitation from 31-year-old Howard Hughes. The producer tried wooing her a while back, but she was not interested. It’s not that she was all that interested in Hughes now—she just wanted to put a little pressure on Ford to leave his marriage.
The millionaire producer and Hepburn began to date. He flew her around the country, took her to the Bahamas on his yacht, and moved her into his house. But even with a daredevil boyfriend and all the money in the world at her fingertips, she still wanted to be with Ford.
Hepburn’s plan didn’t work. Maybe it was pride, or maybe he just wasn’t interested in marrying the actress. Regardless, the famed director decided to stay and work on things with his wife. Hughes ended up proposing to Hepburn, but she turned him down, and the two went their separate ways.
Three years later, in 1941, Hepburn was still trying to resurrect her failing career. She stumbled upon a new project: Woman of the Year. After persuading George Stevens to direct the film, she had her eyes on another prize: actor Spencer Tracy.
There had been a lot of talk about Tracy in Ford’s inner circle. However, Hepburn had never actually met him. But things didn’t exactly go to plan when the two first met. To the actress, Tracy was the brilliant actor that Ford had mentored. To Tracy, she was the only woman Ford had ever loved.
“Mr. Tracy, I think you’re a little short for me,” Hepburn reportedly told the actor when she first laid eyes on him. Tracy gave her a disapproving look. Not only did she just insult him, but she was wearing trousers. That wasn’t his idea of how a woman should dress.
Tracy, who was married and had a deaf son at home, prided himself in his affairs with co-stars like Ingrid Bergman and Loretta Young. On the one hand, the intensity of Ford’s feelings would have made Hepburn seem all the more appealing to the actor.
But on the other, the actress’s affair with his father-like figure meant that Hepburn was forbidden fruit. So, at first, Tracy was very edgy and kind of rude to Hepburn. In fact, he refused to call her by name, referring to her as “the woman.” Tracy scowled around set with a bad attitude which was mainly directed towards the actress.
See, the actor was used to being fawned upon by his co-stars and crew members. But that wasn’t going to happen on the set of Woman of the Year. It was clear that Hepburn was running the show, and she wasn’t going to give into Tracy’s insecurities.
This infuriated Tracy. “I sure as hell walked into a fine situation,” Tracy once complained to the film’s director George Stevens. “Here I find myself doing a picture with a lady and her director.” According to Tracy’s friend George M. Cohan, the actor would “stare, glare, and finally scare the other actors, without batting an eyelash or making a peep.”
Well, that’s exactly what he tried to do with Hepburn with their first scene together. However, the headstrong actress didn’t let her fellow co-star use his intimidation tactics on her.
Hepburn said that she could feel Tracy staring at her dirty fingernails, then at her face, and then back at her fingernails. The actress then accidentally knocked over a water glass, completely ruining the shot. Tracy handed her a handkerchief to dry herself off, but as the water began to drip onto the floor, Hepburn got onto her hands and knees and began cleaning it up.
Tracy stared Hepburn down the entire time, but after a few minutes of watching Hepburn struggle, the actor was smiling from ear to ear. It didn’t take long before the two were tangled up in an affair.
Everyone at MGM started talking about it. This was hardly out of character for Tracy. They all knew that the actor was Catholic and ridden with guilt and that after a few months, he always crawled back to his wife.
It didn’t take long for Ford to find out that his mentee and the love of his life were sleeping together. While the director never publicly shared his feelings about the matter, we have a sense of how he felt. Five days after Tracy and Hepburn began working together, Ford decided to join the Navy as the head of the photographic unit.
A few months later, Mary’s husband passed away, and then came the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Ford seemed to take these events, along with Tracy and Hepburn’s love affair, as a sign. So he decided to formally wed Mary in a Catholic ceremony in Washington before heading out for war.
Ford’s decision to marry his wife in the church completely redefined Hepburn’s relationship with Tracy. During her relationship with Hughes, Ford hung back in the shadows, making it impossible to move on. But now, Ford was a married, Catholic man—and no longer an option.
Hepburn had two options: mourn what could have been with Ford or completely move on with Tracy. She chose the latter. The actress was now free to love anyone she wanted. As the actress’s brother Bob put it, Hepburn was drawn to Tracy because he desperately needed her.
In the early days of his marriage, his wife Louise tended to his every need. But her devoted attention was soon taken away by the birth of their deaf son, John. But Hepburn, on the other hand, was in need of a distraction. She was ready to focus on Tracy and his problems.
After Woman of the Year’s success, MGM wanted to cast Hepburn and Tracy in another film as soon as possible. They also hoped that Hepburn’s presence would put an end to (or at least tame) the heavy drinking that had begun to affect Tracy’s work.
No matter what film Tracy was making, he had a habit of convincing himself the project was a disaster and then disappearing for weeks. But with Hepburn by his side, that rarely happened. Well, at first. Seeing the two together often made people feel uneasy. It was as though they were in their own little world.
Hepburn would comb his hair, fix his collar, wipe his face, and massage his temples. She closely monitored every fluctuation of his chronic depression. She was warm and loving, and it was clear to everyone that she worshiped the man.
As a devout Catholic, Tracy believed that his son’s deafness was a punishment for his sins. The actor blamed himself for his frequent visits to the local brothels and the diseases he contracted there. According to Tracy’s close friend, Pat O’Brien, Tracy went on “the first big drunk of his life” after learning that 10-month-old John had been deaf since birth.
It was then that the actor began his habit of disappearing to the Hotel St. George in Brooklyn carrying nothing but a case of whisky. He locked himself in a room and laid in the bathtub for days, trying to forget what was going on back at home.
But even Hepburn couldn’t save Tracy from his demons. Guests at the Beverly Hills Hotel were often treated to a spectacle. Late at night, guests would spy Hepburn curled up in a ball outside Tracy’s door. Everyone knew this meant that the actor was on another bender.
He would lock himself in the hotel room, take off his clothes, and drink himself blind. He wouldn’t let anyone, not even Hepburn enter his room. Even so, the actress would lie in the hallway just in case Tracy needed her.
She had failed to sense the imminent danger when her older brother Tom locked himself alone in a room all those years ago. She vowed to never make that mistake again. When it sounded a bit too quiet in Tracy’s room, Hepburn would find an employee kind enough to unlock the door.
Sometimes Tracy would barricade himself in, stacking chairs and tables against the door. Other times, she found him passed out, laying in his own filth. Regardless, Hepburn would clean Tracy up and do whatever she could do to soothe him. But this began to take a toll on the actress.
The once-powerful and independent actress began constructing her life around Tracy. Hepburn drastically reduced her workload in order to make herself available whenever Tracy might need her. The only films she agreed to, were the ones with him.
While Hepburn did everything in her power to make Tracy feel loved, he rarely did the same. One time, Tracy was having a drink in his dressing room with his co-star Hume Cronyn when Hepburn walked in. She had just finished an exhausting day of filming Dragon Seed and wanted to see what Tracy was up to.
But according to Cronyn, the actor barely took notice of her. Cronyn, however, immediately stood up and introduced himself. “I hope I’m not interrupting anything. Please, sit down,” Hepburn said. As the actress shook hands with Cronyn, she looked at Tracy.
“How are you doing, old man?” she asked. Tracy muttered something to her under his breath. Cronyn then offered to get Hepburn a drink, but she insisted on getting it herself. Tracy went silent, clearly drifting off into his own thoughts.
He sat there, not saying a word until Cronyn went to light the actress’s cigarette. This threw Tracy into a rage. “Why don’t you two find a bed somewhere and get it over with?” he yelled. But despite Tracy’s strange and childish behavior, Hepburn kept a smile plastered on her face the entire time.
Hepburn accepted the actor’s treatment without a word of protest. In fact, she had become a master at pretending that nothing was wrong. But it was becoming clear to everyone that something was very wrong. Tracy’s years of insomnia were taking a toll. He was exhausted and relied on coffee and large amounts of amphetamines to keep himself awake.
The actor was always on edge, ready to snap at any moment. But their relationship took a turn for the worse in 1950. Director George Cukor had just built three houses on his property and Hepburn thought this would be the perfect place for Tracy to live.
This new living arrangement would have several advantages, Hepburn thought. In the event that Tracy fell of the wagon, Cukor would be just a hop, skip, and a jump away. The director could help Hepburn take care of the actor. Tracy agreed to move into the house. However, he warned that Cukor must respect his privacy.
No one could enter the property without permission—not even Hepburn. Tracy also never publicly expressed his feelings for Hepburn, which, of course, only fueled myths surrounding their relationship. But keeping their relationship out of the tabloids wasn’t the only thing on Tracy’s plate.
Tracy’s battle with his inner demons cast a shadow over much of his adult life. He felt burdened by Catholic guilt over his infidelity and his son’s circumstances. As a result, the actor suffered from bouts of depression, anxiety, and insomnia which he tried to cure with alcohol.
Hepburn, who once described her lover as “tortured,” wrote in her autobiography that all she ever wanted for Tracy was “to be happy, safe, comfortable. I liked to wait on him, listen to him, feed him, work for him,” the actress explained. “I tried not to disturb him… I was happy to do this.”
Still devoted to Tracy, Hepburn returned to acting. But this time, she took on roles that interested her, which weren’t always surefire hits. Filming on location helped Hepburn realize that the two were not actually a couple and that they lived completely separate lives.
But when the actor’s health began to deteriorate in the late ‘60s, Hepburn took a step back from her career so she could tend to his every need. “I virtually quit work just to be there so that he wouldn’t worry or be lonely,” she later said.
Hepburn was by Tracy’s side when he passed away while making himself a cup of coffee in June 1967. The actress, however, did not attend his funeral out of respect for his family. Hepburn didn’t even speak publicly about their relationship until Tracy’s wife Louise passed away in 1983.
When asked why she stayed with the actor for so long, knowing that Tracy would never leave his wife, she replied, “I honestly don’t know. I can only say that I could never have left him. [We] just passed 27 years together in what was to me absolute bliss.”
In 1986, while on TV, 79-year-old Hepburn read a letter she had written to Tracy 18 years after his death. “Are you happy finally? Is it a nice, long rest you’re having? Making up for all your tossing and turning in life,” the actress read aloud for everyone to hear.
This was an important moment for Hepburn, as she had been intensely private her entire life. “Living wasn’t easy for you, was it?” She spoke about how he preferred to concentrate on “all the bad and none of the good” and how fishing and acting provided him with an escape from reality.
“What a relief. You could be someone else for a while,” the actress continued. “You weren’t you; you were safe.” Despite her moving performance and the numerous books and documentaries about Hepburn and Tracy’s romance, many people believe there was another layer to their relationship.
Ex-Hollywood hustler Scottie Bowers and veteran screenwriter Larry Kramer have gone on record to claim that the longstanding affair was nothing but a cover-up. In other words, they claim that both Hepburn and Tracy were gay. “In the ’30s and ’40s, there were plenty of famous gay actors and directors who partied and socialized together,” Kramer said in 2015.
“It certainly was very, very discreet, but everyone knew what was what,” the screenwriter continued. It has also been said that Tracy and Hepburn were paired together by the studio, and while they were good friends, they were not intimate.
“They were merely friends,” Bowers said in 2018. “They were not in the bed department at all.” Bowers, who also worked as a male “madam” to the old Hollywood stars, also claimed to not only have slept with Tracy but to have also secured female partners for Hepburn on multiple occasions.
Several people have accused Bowers and Kramer of lying to get their 15 minutes of fame. Since neither Hepburn nor Tracy is alive today, it seems that we will never know the truth.
But whether their relationship was to cover what was then seen as improper, or it was one of the greatest romantic unions (both on and off-screen), one thing’s for certain. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn loved one another. That love and affection created a special bond between the two, and it still exists years after their deaths.