What did you say? I can't hear you…
18 years after the death of Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn writes him a letter
On this day in 1967, Spencer Tracy, a Hollywood star nominated for nine ‘Best Actor’ Oscars during his illustrious career, two of which he won, died after suffering a heart attack at the home he shared with his partner, fellow multi-Oscar-winning actor Katharine Hepburn. Their 26-year romance was a complicated one, not least due to Tracy’s being married to another woman for the duration—a fact that resulted in the situation remaining private for much of their lives. Approximately 18 years after Tracy’s death, Hepburn wrote him a letter.
Hepburn can be seen reading that letter in the 1986 documentary, The Spencer Tracy Legacy, footage of which can be viewed on YouTube here. The text below, which differs very slightly, is exactly as printed in Hepburn’s 1991 autobiography, Me: Stories of My Life. That version can also be found in the first Letters of Note book.
Who ever thought that I’d be writing you a letter. You died on the 10th of June in 1967. My golly, Spence, that’s eighteen years ago. That's a long time. Are you happy finally? Is it a nice long rest you’re having? Making up for all your tossing and turning in life. You know, I never believed you when you said that you just couldn’t get to sleep. I thought, Oh—come on—you sleep—if you didn't sleep you’d be dead. You'd be so worn out. Then remember that night when—oh, I don't know, you felt so disturbed. And I said, Well, go on in—go to bed. And I'll lie on the floor and talk you to sleep. I'll just talk and talk and you'll be so bored, you're bound to drift off.
Well, I went in and got an old pillow and Lobo the dog. I lay there watching you and stroking Old Dog. I was talking about you and the movie we’d just finished—Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—and my studio and your new tweed coat and the garden and all the nice sleep-making topics and cooking and dull gossip, but you never stopped tossing—to the right, to the left—shove the pillows—pull the covers—on and on and on. Finally—really finally—not just then—you quieted down. I waited a while—and then I crept out.
You told me the truth, didn’t you? You really could not sleep.
And I used to wonder then—why? I still wonder. You took the pills. They were quite strong. I suppose you have to say that otherwise you would never have slept at all. Living wasn’t easy for you, was it?
What did you like to do? You loved sailing, especially in stormy weather. You loved polo. But then Will Rogers was killed in that airplane accident. And you never played polo again—never again. Tennis, golf, no, not really. You’d bat a few balls. Fair you were. I don’t think that you ever swang a golf club. Is “swang” a word? Swimming? Well, you didn’t like cold water. And walking? No, that 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 Johnny being deaf, or being a Catholic and you felt a bad Catholic? No comfort, no comfort. I remember Father Ciklic telling you that you concentrated on all the bad and none of the good which your religion offered. It must have been something very fundamental and very ever-present.
And the incredible fact. There you were—really the greatest movie actor. I say this because I believe it and also I have heard many people of standing in your business say it. From Olivier to Lee Strasberg to David Lean. You name it. You could do it. And you could do it with that glorious simplicity and directness: you could just do it. You couldn’t enter your own life, but you could become someone else. You were a killer, a priest, a fisherman, a sportswriter, a judge, a newspaperman. You were it in an instant.
You hardly had to study. You learned the lines in no time. What a relief! You could be someone else for a while. You weren’t you—you were safe. You loved to laugh, didn’t you? You never missed those individual comics: Jimmy Durante, Phil Silvers, Fanny Brice, Frank McHugh, Mickey Rooney, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Smith and Dale, and your favorite, Bert Williams. Funny stories: you could tell them—and brilliantly. You could laugh at yourself. You enjoyed very much the friendship and admiration of people like the Kanins, Frank Sinatra, Bogie and Betty, George Cukor, Vic Flemming, Stanley Kramer, the Kennedys, Harry Truman, Lew Douglas. You were fun with them, you had fun with them, you felt safe with them.
But then back to life’s trials. Oh hell, take a drink—no-yes-maybe. Then stop taking the drink. You were great at that, Spence. You could just stop. How I respected you for that. Very unusual.
Well, you said on this subject: never safe until you’re seven feet underground. But why the escape hatch? Why was it always opened—to get away from the remarkable you?
What was it, Spence? I meant to ask you. Did you know what it was?
What did you say? I can’t hear you…