“The kids keep telling me I should try this new ‘Method Acting’ but I’m too old, I’m too tired, and I’m too talented to care.” –Spencer Tracy
Spencer Bonaventure Tracy was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on April 5, 1900. As a child, Tracy was considered difficult and overactive, with sporadic school attendance. His mother came from a wealthy Presbyterian family, while his father was Irish Catholic and worked as a truck salesman. Tracy also had a brother named Carroll, who was four years older.
Tracy was raised Catholic and educated by Dominican nuns. He conceded to learning because he wanted to be able to read movie subtitles and movies fascinated him immensely. Tracy would view certain films frequently so that he could reenact scenes with his friends.
Over the years, Tracy attended several schools in the Milwaukee area, which included Trowbridge Elementary School, among several others. As a teenager, Tracy attended various Jesuit academies and his grades improved. He later attended Marquette Academy, where he met future actor Pat O’Brien. The two started attending plays together, causing Tracy to develop an interest in theater.
Tracy enlisted in the Navy when he turned 18 and was stationed at Naval Station Great Lakes. He was still a student when World War I ended and was discharged when he achieved the rank of seaman second class.
After service, Tracy returned to high school to finish his degree. In 1921, Tracy enrolled at Ripon College intending to study medicine.
At Ripon, Tracy was active in various school organizations and served as president of his hall. He was part of Theta Alpha Phi (theater), Alpha Phi Omega, Eastern Debate Team, Phi Kappa Delta (Debate Honor Society), and the All-College Prom Committee. Moreover, he was voted cleverest and most talented, while also tied with a peer for most popular.
Tracy made his stage debut as the male lead in The Truth and was well received in the role. He organized an acting company with his friends, called “The Campus Players” and went on tour. Tracy also performed in The Valiant (1921) as the prisoner; The Great Divide (1921) as Phillip; and in Sintram of Skaserack (1922) as Sintram. While touring with the debate team, Tracy auditioned for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City (AADA), for which he was offered a scholarship after performing a scene from one of his previous roles.
Tracy began classes at AADA in 1922, and made his New York debut in The Wedding Guests. Three months later, he made his Broadway debut in R.U.R. and graduated from AADA in 1923.
In the following years, Tracy struggled as part of different stock companies. His career eventually took a positive turn when he partnered with actress Selena Royle. In 1926, Tracy was cast in the George M. Cohan play Yellow. Cohan lauded Tracy’s acting skills and wrote a part just for Tracy in his hit play The Baby Cyclone.
When the stock market crashed, Tracy considered abandoning the theater in pursuit of a job with more stability in Milwaukee, as many plays were closing. However, Tracy was offered a dramatic role in The Last Mile, which proved to be a hit. At the same time, actors from Broadway were being scouted for Vitaphone shorts. Tracy was scouted by director John Ford, who saw The Last Mile. Though Tracy was content with working on stage, he was married at this point and had a son who was deaf and recovering from polio. His financial woes led him to sign with Fox and ultimately make the move to California.
At Fox, Tracy was typecast in comedies and appeared in mostly unpopular films. Though Tracy received some attention for his role in The Power and the Glory (1933), his next few films were unremarkable to critics. He began to struggle with alcoholism and his contract with Fox was terminated by mutual consent. His 25 films for Fox mostly lost money at the box office.
Nonetheless, MGM’s Irving Thalberg expressed interest in Tracy. His first film under the new contract was the rapidly-produced The Murder Man (1935). Thalberg began to strategically feature Tracy with MGM’s key actresses to build up his name, though Tracy did not receive top billing for these.
Rather, Fury (1936) was the first film that demonstrated Tracy’s success as a lead actor. His next film, San Francisco (1936), was the highest-grossing film of 1936. His public reputation grew with Libeled Lady (1936), starring him alongside William Powell, Myrna Loy, and Jean Harlow.
Tracy soon became an established film actor, carrying out memorable roles in Boys Town (1938), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), and Father of the Bride (1950). He also appeared in nine films with Katharine Hepburn, which included Woman of the Year (1942), Keeper of the Flame (1943), Without Love (1945), The Sea of Grass (1947), State of the Union (1948), Adam’s Rib (1949), Pat and Mike (1952), Desk Set (1957), and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967).
As fate would have it, Tracy and Hepburn began a relationship while working on their first film, though Tracy never divorced his wife. Tracy’s wife, Louise, stated that she would be Mrs. Spencer Tracy until the day she died. Tracy claimed that he could get a divorce whenever he wanted to, but he and Hepburn were content with their arrangement. Hepburn never fought for marriage.
Over the years, Tracy was nominated for nine Academy Awards for Best Actor, winning twice. When Tracy was working on Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), he informed the press that this would be his last film. Tracy was in poor health and could only film for a few hours each day. Seventeen days after filming his final scene, Tracy died of a heart attack.
Tracy passed away on June 10, 1967, at age 67. He was interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.
Today, Milwaukee possesses a few tributes and locations that were of relevance to Tracy. Spencer’s childhood home address was 3003 St. Paul Ave., in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Here is the property today:
Trowbridge Street Elementary School is located at 1943 E. Trowbridge St., Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Tracy was asked to leave Trowbridge due to issues with behavior, as was the case for Tracy at several other schools. In fact, when asked about his education, Tracy often joked that he had one of the best schooling experiences since he attended “all of them!” Today, the school displays a plaque that documents Tracy as a notable alumnus.
Marquette Academy is now Marquette University High School, located at 3401 W. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Ripon College continues to exist as a university today, located at 300 Seward St., Ripon, Wisconsin. Tracy received an honorary degree from Ripon in 1940, in front of the college library.
Naval Station Great Lakes is located at 530 Farragut Ave., Ste. B, Great Lakes, Illinois.
Tracy has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in motion pictures at 6814 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles, California.
Forest Lawn—Glendale is located at 1712 Glendale Ave., Glendale, California.
This post is part of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood’s Blogathon, entitled, “The Spencer Tracy & Katharine Hepburn Blogathon.” To access more information and read accompanying posts, please click on the following picture:
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Really enjoyed reading this. Thanks for sharing the fab photos too.
What a great post! I just now realized I knew very little of Spencer’s childhood and youth. And it’s very interesting that the school that expelled him now has a plaque in his honor!
Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
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The Tracy Family also lived very close to Trowbridge St. Elementary School, which is very close to Lake Michigan. He would not have lived at the St. Paul address when attending Trowbridge as 33rd and St. Paul is miles away from Trowbridge. More info is needed. Milwaukee is very proud of him.
Right–I mention in the article that the family also lived kitty-corner to Trowbridge.
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