< Return to Adherents.com's Guide to Movies
    < Return to Religion of the AFI's Top 50 Screen Legends
< Return to Famous Catholics

The Religious Affiliation of
Spencer Tracy
great American actor

Movie producer Walter Seltzer wrote about Spencer Tracy (Source: Bill Davidson, Spencer Tracy: Tragic Idol, E.P. Dutton: New York, NY (1987), pages 2-3):
Another irony: there was one of the most beautiful Hollywood love stories in the relationship between Tracy and Katharine Hepburn -- and yet, look at the tremendous ideological differences between them. He was a hidebound arch-conservative and she was a liberal much before her time. She probably was the foremost Henry Wallace Progressive Party supporter in 1948, and she was very visible in the forefront of the Wallace presidential campaign. Politically, Tracy would have been a Thomas Dewey supporter.

Tracy's whole life seems a paradox somehow... the conservative stance and the love for Hepburn; the 44-year marriage to Louise Treadwell, and the staunch Catholicism that kept him from divorcing her; his 25-year affair with Hepburn which flaunted the rules of the Church.

Davidson, pages 11-12:
Tracy was born in Milwaukee on 5 April 1900... His father, John, was a devout, hard-driving Irish Catholic businessman... Spencer's mother, on the other hand, was the gentle, well-born Carrie, a descendant of the colonial-period Browns of New England, one of whom founded the Ivy League Brown University... A Protestant (later a Christian Scientist), Carrie called in the hospital chaplain and gave quiet thanks to God while her husband was out making the rounds of the saloons.

One cannot presume that these religious differences had any effect on Spencer's early childhood because, as his older brother Carroll once told me,

'Dad was a tough, decisive, no-nonsense man, and there was never any doubt that we'd be raised as Catholics. When we were old enough, Spence and I both became altar boys. Later, in the Catholic schools, Spence got very interested in the theology of the Church. One of dad's greatest hopes was that one of us would become a priest. We both disappointed him. His second hope was that, if neither of us went into the Church, he'd be able to form a trucking company with us whcih he'd call Tracy and Sons. Again, we disappointed him...'
Tracy regularly attended church as a boy. Davidson, page 13:
And how about the fire in his home? It is passed off as a typical childish accident, resulting from mischievous experimentation with cigarettes in the basement... The Fire Department had to be called and it took them a good twenty minutes to put it out. It was a Sunday morning, after church...
Davidson, page 15:
There was some improvement in Spence as grew older. He joined the Boy Scouts, became an altar boy...
Davidson, pages 18-21:
...he transferred to yet another school--his fifteenth or sixteenth. This was St Rose's, a Catholic parochial school...

[page 19] He was sixteen at the time and entered St Mary's High School, another Catholic institution... the family returned to Milwaukee just six months after they left it... Once again, there was a Catholic school for Spencer, this time a very good one, in fact one of the best in the country. It was Marquette Academy, a Jesuit-run high school associated with Mrquette University in Milwaukee...

[page 20] To the surprise and delight of John Tracy [Spencer's father], Spence became heavily involved in the Catholic theology courses at Marquette Academy, and brought home the highest grades in the subject that his father had ever seen his young son attain. Not only that, but Spencer began talking seriously for the first time about becoming a priest. John Tracy was ecstatic.

But, once again, a major disruption in Spence's life interrupted what now seemed to be a clear path into a career in the Church. The disruption was the sinking of the Lusitania and America's entry into World War I... Spencer, Carroll and O'Brien [his friends] all trooped off to war...

[page 21] Yet, when he was discharged from the Navy, soon after the Armistice in November 1918, he proceeded to disappoint his father again by returning to Marquette Academy with his interest in becoming a priest now wholly dissipated.

Davidson, page 26:
His father, not too enthralled with his son's acting, liked the idea of his son's skill at debating, attributing it to his Jesuitical training at Mrquette Academy. He still had not given up on the idea of his son eventually becoming a priest.
While still relatively young, Tracy met and married stage actress Louise Treadwell, who had been "born into a highly respectable Episcopalian family in New Castle, Pennsylvania..." (Davidson, page 33). From Davidson, pages 34-35:
Tracy... wrote... 'We talked about her being a Protestant and me being a Catholic, but I said that's the way it was with Mom and Dad...'

...They were married on 12 September 1923, probably by a court clerk, since the record does not specify that any clergyman was involved...

[page 35] Since Spencer's marriage, John Tracy no longer mentioned the priesthood.

In 1954, Spencer Tracy said (Davidson, page 45):
"My father always wanted me to be a priest, but I disappointed him. Then, at the end, he said he was proud that I was a good actor, but he never lived long enough to see me in anything decent... Maybe I got the guilt. Maybe that's why I do my best when I play priests in my pictures, like Father Mullin in San Francisco and Father Flanagan in Boys Town."
From: Anne Edwards, A Remarkable Woman: A Biography of Katharine Hepburn, William Morrow and Company: New York (1985), pages 168-169:
...1938... Kate had never met Spencer Tracy, but she had seen all his films and claimed, by her count, to have sat through Captains Courageous fifty-two times... Spencer Tracy's problems were not likely to disappear. A Catholic who did not believe in divorce, a husband who was no longer in love with the wife he respected more than any other woman... Spencer Tracy felt desperately alone. So did Kate. But when such feelings overhwelmed her, she headed home to her father's house.
Edwards, page 190:
Spencer Bonaventure Tracy had been born with the twentieth century in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to fairly prosperous middle-class parents. A staunch Catholic with an unquenchable thirst for hard liquor, John Tracy was general sales manager of the Sterling Motor Truck Company. Young Spencer admired his father's virile personality, but his mother--Caroline Brown Tracy, whose ancestors could be traced back to settlers in the colonies before the Revolution--drew his greatest love and respect... At sixteen, while attending a Jesuit school--Marquette Academy--he felt called to the priesthood.

"You know how it is in a place like that," he later told a close friend. "The influence is strong, very strong, intoxicating. The priests are all such superior men--heroes. You want to be like them--we alll did. Every guy in the school probably thought some--more or less--about trying for the cloth. You lie in the dark and see yourself as Monsignor Tracy, Cardinal Tracy, Bishop Tracy, Archbishop--I"m getting gooseflesh! Everytime I play a priest--and I've done my share . . . everytime I put on the clothes and the collar I feel right, right away. Like they were mine, like I belonged in them, and that feeling of being--what's the world?--an intermediary--is always very appealing. Those were always my most comfortable parts. . . ."

...Tracy was to play a priest in four films: San Francisco (1936), Boy's Town (1938), Men of Boy's Town (1941) and The Devil at Four O'Clock (1961).

Edwards, page 215:
From the moment that Kate [Katharine Hepburn] and Tracy [Spencer Tracy] faced each other before the cameras, their sexual awareness of one another transferred itself onto the screen. On the surface, they upheld the theory that opposites attract . . . the hard-drinking Irishman and the Yankee lady from hartford who was stronger and more outspoken than a woman was supposed to be... how much alike they really were--both being private people, intellectuals with large and educated appetites for almost everything from food to sports to politics. Both had wit and humor, loved nothing more than a good fight, stood for no nonsense, could not abide sycophants and flatterers. Both were Democrats, admireed President Roosevelt with almost religious awe, had outrageous egos, loved their work...
Edwards, page 221:
In some ways, the relationship [between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy] bore a strong likeness to Kate's marriage to Luddy... There were positive aspects of the relationship for Kate, who feared marriage, wanted no children, and felt of superior mind, will and stamina to most of the men in her world. Tracy's outpokenness, his intelligence, his quick wit and deliberate nature--the pure maleness of his personality--attracted Kate. She respected his talent, thought him wise and uniquely fair, a man a woman could trust. His staunch loyalty to Louise [his wife] overshadowed his chauvinistic attitude toward all women, Kate included. She admired his dedication to the principles of his religion in the same way she did her father's dedication to the principles of his oath to medicine.
Edwards, page 348:
The public reacted in a manner that might have surprised Tracy. Yes, of course, a Mrs. Spencer Tracy existed, but she and her husband had not lived together for nearly thirty years. And--hadn't it been admirable, noble really, of the two stars to so respect the covenants of Tracy's Catholic faith? In fact, only two days after the funeral [of Spencer Tracy], Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times called their liaison " remarkable legacy..."
Davidson, page 61:
In 1933, Tracy [starred in] A Man's Castle... His co-star was Loretta Young... During the filming... gossip columnists had a field day, reporting 'an exciting new romance between Spencer Tracy and Loretta Young'. As the barrage of column items continued, Trcy denied it all to an Associated Press reporter, saying, 'One night, I asked Loretta to have dinner with me... It was just one of those things, offhand, unpremeditated. We did dine together, and the next day it cracked in the papers.'

But the rumours would not go away, so Miss Young, who refuses to discuss the matter to this day, issued a flat statement: 'Since Spencer Tracy and I are both Catholic and can never be married, we have agreed not to see each other again.' They did, however -- many times. Tracy told a reporter, 'Aw, it was all platonic, anyway.' To which movie star Helen Twelvetrees remarked, 'When was Spence sober enough to say a thing like that?'

It was not surprising that Tracy's first separation from Louise [his wife] was announced soon after, on 29 April 1933.

Davidson, pages 66-67:
San Francisco, of course, was the first time [Spencer Tracy] worked with Clark Gable... There was a secondary character, a priest named Father Mullin... and [director W. S.] Van Dyke wanted the role of the priest built up to give the story 'more power and humanity'... Van Dyke requested Tracy. He got him, although Tracy later said, 'I had a tough time deciding whether or not to get myself out of the part. I thought of how my father wanted me to be a priest, and I wonderd if it would be sacrilegious for me to play a priest. All of my Catholic training and background rolled around in my head, but then I figured Dad would have liked it, and I threw myself into the role.'
Davidson, pages 74-75:
Tracy's last picture in 1938 was Boys Town. Again, he was to play a priest, the real-life Father Edward J. Flanagan, and again he went through the turmoil of guilt about not having become a priest himself. He resolved his doubts when he met the quiet, dignified, forceful Rev Flanagan who had founded the famous institution for wayward youths in Nebraska, on his theory that 'there are no bad boys'.

Tracy spent some time with Father Flanagan in Omaha, and later wrote, 'He's a great man -- the greatest man I ever met.' As this was to be the first living person he ever played, he resolved to play him exactly as he was, with no actor's tricks. For his part, the priest couldn't have been more delighted. Earlier, when MGM had asked him what actor he would want to play him, he had said, 'Spencer Tracy, without any question.' [More about this Tracy's critically acclaimed, Oscar-winning portrayal of Father Flanagan]

Davidson, pages 110-111:
And so, once again, we have two conflicting views of Tracy. There was the Tracy who animatedly discussed art and literature with Cukor, Noel Coward, Laurence Olivier and Hepburn. And then there was the Tracy who sat quietly with Gene Kelly, Oscar Levant, Fredric March and Hepburn, and veered away from politics and word games.

Also, there was the once staunchly Irish Catholic Tracy who spnt every Thursday night in the 1930s with the Cagneys, O'Briens and McHughs, but who now was uninterested in any overt show of Hibernianism [i.e., Irish culture]...

Davidson, page 112:
The early 1950s were both good and bad times for Tracy. He exulted when his wife, Louise, won her own Woman of the Year award; and when their son, John, having totally overcome his hearing impairment and now lip-reading and speaking perfectly, graduated from school and got a job as an artist at the Disney Studios, and married. Tracy became a grandfather for real in 1955 when Joseph Spencer Tracy was born.

In his strange double life (he said he could not contemplate divorce because of his staunch Catholicism), Tracy spent many months touring Europe with Kate Hepburn, as incognito as possible.

Davidson, page 165:
[Edward] Dmytryk [who directed Tracy in The Mountain]... comes up with some other observations which do not agree with what previously has been stated about Tracy by nearly all friends, acquaintances, and by Tracy himself. There is the subject of why Tracy and Hepburn never married, for example. Dmytryk's wife is Jean Porter, a former MGM actress, and, sayd Dmytruk, 'Jean just up and asked Spence one day, "Is it really because you're Catholic?"'

'"Hell, no," he said. "When we first started going together, Katie wanted to get married. But my son, John, still was living at home and I felt that until he grew up and could take care of himself, I couldn't do it. Later, when all that cleared up, I wantd to marry Katie, but by that time she didn't want to marry me."

Davidson, page 194:
As his frailty increased after Judgment at Nuremberg, Tracy apparently had more and more intimations of his own mortality, and he returned to the obsessions of his youth. His interest in the Catholic Church revived, and, said George Cukor, 'Spence was reading a lot of books on Catholic theology in his littlehouse. I remember I heard him playing a recording of Brahms' Shicksalslied one day and I went down to chat. He and Kate were listening to the music. Both were reading. Kate's book was a collection of Eugene O'Neill's plays. Spence's book was a well-worn copy of what he said was All Things in Christ, about a Pope Pius X, who had died in 1914 and later was made a saint, I think. Kate just looked up and said, "Snappy reading."

In this period, too, Tracy renewed his acquaintanceship with Monsignor John O'Donnell, who, as a young priest, had been the technical adviser on Tracy's film Boys Town.

One can't say for certain whether these factors had influenced Tracy to do a truly bad film, The Devil at Four O'Clock, in the short interval between Inherit the Wind and Judgment at Nuremberg, but Pat O'Brien speculated that 'maybe Spence wanted to play a priest one last time'. In this case, interestingly enough, his role of Father Doonon was that of a drunken priest. [More]

Davidson, page 213:
[1967] The funeral [of Spencer Tracy] was held at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Hollywood. The low requiem mass was said by Monsignor O'Donnell, Tracy's priest friend dating back to the Boys Town days... The funeral, like so much of Tracy's life, had several ironies to it. Louise Tracy was accompanied by Howard Strickling, Tracy's old public relations keeper at MGM... Another irony: Kate Hepburn did not attend the funeral. George Cukor said, 'Such a lady. She didn't want to infringe on Louise Tracy at such a time. Believe me, Kate was devastated, really devastated. She had lost the one human being who had been the cornerstone of her life for twenty-five years.'
In 1986, Katharine Hepburn wrote an open, public lever to her Spencer Tracy, who had by then been dead for two decades. Below is an excerpt from her letter (Davidson, page 216):
You told the truth, didn't you, Spence? You really could not sleep. And I used to wonder then, 'Why?' Why, Spence? I still wonder... What did you like to do? You loved sailing, especially in stormy weather... Walking? No, it didn't suit you. That was one of those things where you could think at the same time -- of this, of that.

Of what, Spence? What was it? Was it some specific life-thing, like being a Catholic -- and you felt a bad Catholic? No comfort, no comfort. I remember Father Sikwik telling you that you concentrated on all the bad, none of the good which your religion offered. Must have been something very fundamental, very ever-present.
From: Claudia Roth Pierpont. "Born for the Part: Roles that Katharine Hepburn played" in The New Yorker, issue of 2003-07-14 and 21 (URL: http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?030714fa_fact2):
There seemed little reason to keep things quiet, since Hepburn was divorced and Tracy's affairs with his co-stars were notorious; by the time they met, he was known to be living more at the Beverly Hills Hotel than with his wife and children. Later legend often portrays Louise Tracy as a Catholic who would not hear of divorce. In fact, Louise was Episcopalian--it was Spencer who was Catholic, if limited in observance to playing priests and racking up guilt. Louise was, however, something of a saint.
From: MovieTreasures.com Spencer Tracy biography (http://www.movietreasures.com/main/Spencer_Tracy/spencer_tracy.html):
[Spencer Tracy] had a brief romantic relationship with Loretta Young [an openly devout Catholic] in the 1930s and a life-long one with Katharine Hepburn beginning in 1942. As a Catholic he never divorced Louise, though they lived apart.
Edwards, pages 319-320:
According to Larry Swindell, [Spencer Tracy's] biographer, he had a deep dislike of homosexuals and any form of perversion. Yet, in a McCall's article, Garson Kanin claimed that Kate refused to acknowledge the existence of homosexuality at all, and that in a Paris hotel suite in 1961, he and Tracy described homosexual acts in laborious detail to Kate, "who maintainted her firm disbelief in the existence of such ridiculous practices." (Curiously, the magazine article is represented as an excerpt from Kanin's subsequent memoir, Tracy and Hepburn [Viking Press, 1971], but it does not appear in the text of the book.) How Tracy could describe acts so supposedly offensive to him is as difficult to comprehend as Kate's presumed refusal to believe homoexuality existed in the face of her many friendships (Noel Coward, to name just one) with self-proclaimed practicing homosexuals and the open manner in which all sexual matters were discussed in the Hepburn home during her youth...

Swindell says he "refrained from including these facts in this his book, Spencer Tracy, A Biography, out of respect to Louise Tracy, who was still alive at the time of publication."

Edwards, pages 332-333:
A kind of deification clung to Louise. Those close to her are ready to vow that there had een no man in her life except [Spencer] Tracy and that she accepted Kate [Katharine Hepburn's] presence in his life with "continuing good grace." Until 1962, on occasion, she and Tracy were still photographed together for the purposes of publicizing the John Tracy Clinic, and his name remained on the letterhead, although he had nothing more to do with the organization than to encourage and finance Louis in her work--in which her absorption was total. The only social affairs she attended were those connected with raising funds for the clinic or in celebration of an award she might have been given.

Tracy had been deified in another way. Fellow actor David Niven called him "the Pope" and the name stuck. More and more, his whims had become law. ON the set, no one dared eat or play cards while a scene was being shot.

Search Adherents.com

Custom Search
comments powered by Disqus

Webpage created 24 June 2005. Last modified 20 September 2005.
We are always striving to increase the accuracy and usefulness of our website. We are happy to hear from you. Please submit questions, suggestions, comments, corrections, etc. to: webmaster@adherents.com.