Monday, June 12, 2017

Books: Tracy and Hepburn

The 2017 Summer Reading Classic Film Book Challenge is an event in which the goal is to read and write about a variety of books related to classic film, hosted by Out of the Past. For a complete list of the rules, visit the website.

The unique professional and personal relationship of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn lasted a quarter century. Though they never married, they were a couple in almost every way that counts; a true meeting of the minds who brought out the best in each other, as actors and as people. One who knew them intimately was writer Garson Kanin. In 1970, he shared his memories of the celebrated duo of Hollywood and Broadway in his book Tracy and Hepburn.

I bought this at a used book sale at Symphony Space in Manhattan last fall, when I went there to see For the Love of Spock. This was my first Kanin book. You'll recall I also wrote about his novel Moviola months ago, in which I said I wasn't impressed with his writing style, though I liked the story. Style is less of an issue here. Kanin takes a non-linear approach, sharing anecdotes about his friends as they come. I found this an easier read by comparison. Changing tenses and shifting points-of-view were non-issues here.

Kanin and his wife, actress-screenwriter Ruth Gordon, were the Fred & Ethel to Tracy & Hepburn's Lucy & Ricky. We know the former as writers for the Tracy & Hepburn movie Adam's Rib, as well as for a number of films and plays. Off screen and off stage, the four of them were close companions, intellectual and cultural aesthetes who split time between the east coast, the west coast and Europe when they weren't working. T&H is as much about their friendship as it is about the actors' lives and careers.

With Hepburn, we discover her cultivated eccentricities, her exceeding generosity and her formidable sense of will. We also learn the extent of her influence behind the camera. If she had wanted to, and if she had been given the opportunity, she could have been a director, as well as a producer and even a writer. As for Tracy, his health issues are discussed, as well as his rep among others in Hollywood, his theater experiences, and his own peculiarities.

Kanin drops a ton of names in T&H, a number of which are from the early 20th century theater and film worlds. He writes as if you're already familiar with them. I have a tendency to take my audience for granted too, so I probably shouldn't complain, but a little context here and there wouldn't have hurt. Kanin comes across as a rugged individualist intolerant of ignorance, not unlike his subjects, and his wife. By his admission, there have been moments where he took a joke too far with his friends and paid the price for it. We see this aspect of their relationship in T&H also.

L-R: Tracy, Gordon, Kanin, Hepburn
Tracy & Hepburn were far from perfect. Hepburn's strident nature occasionally comes across as bullying, and Tracy rarely discusses his other life with his children and his wife Louise Treadwell, whom he never divorced.

T&H is a totally subjective book; we see the duo through Kanin's eyes. A more objective biography might be more rounded, but Kanin makes it clear at the outset this is not that book. That's okay. For what it is, it's a rare and valuable portrait of two of Hollywood's finest.

Also by Garson Kanin:

Ann Blyth: Actress Singer Star


  1. I get what you are saying about context for some of the players. I've re-read some biographies where I now can picture the folks mentioned when years before names went right over my head.

    One other thing that adds to that bother is that when this was published in the 70s, the 40s and their celebs weren't as long ago as it is today. Ten or twenty years used to seem like ages to me. Now? Nope.

  2. I think I get what you mean. I still have a hard time picturing the 80s as being THAT long ago. It's like I can't accept that period of time is practically ancient history for some!


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