The Books: “Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir” (Garson Kanin)

51QAlF1%2B2vL._SL500_AA240_.jpgDaily Book Excerpt: Entertainment Biography/Memoir:

Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir, by Garson Kanin

Garson Kanin, screenwriter, director, raconteur, husband of Ruth Gordon, author (did the man ever sleep?) was dear friends with both Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn – not only were they friends, but they worked together often. Kanin wrote this book in 1971 and apparently Hepburn was furious. Such a private person she was … to have her dear friend up-end her life like that, and write in such an intimate gossipy way about her life .. She considered it a betrayal, and reading the book I certainly don’t blame her.

There are moments of the book that make me cringe if I imagine that I am Hepburn, reading it… and, of course, some of the anecdotes are worth their weight in gold. Kanin is a brilliant anecdotalist. His style is casual, not belabored. He knew he was living in amazing times, and he needed to write about it. Spencer Tracy was such a close-lipped gentleman about all aspects of his life so some of the glimpses we get of him here are riveting. Especially the glimpses of him as an actor. He’s the man who famously said, in response to the question, “What advice would you give young actors?” – “Learn your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.” This was not a man who talked about his craft, or who intellectualized it. He just did it and he was one of the most brilliantly natural actors we have ever had in this country. Marlon Brando said he was either bored by most acting, or he felt envious – like when he watched Montgomery Clift – his direct rival. But he only watched two actors so that he could learn from them – he watched only two actors so that he could study them – and they were Cary Grant and Spencer Tracy. Tracy (very much like Brando) didn’t talk a lot about what he did or how he did it. A genius really can’t describe his process. Kanin also gets quotes from his peers – other actors, like Cagney and Bogart – to talk about what it was that made “Spence” so good. Spencer Tracy could also be the biggest son-of-a-bitch who ever walked the earth, and all of his friends say that, too. Kanin doesn’t go into the bedroom with Tracy and Hepburn, thank God – I don’t know if I want to know THAT much, but he does give an “intimate memoir” look, not just at their dynamic off-screen (which is fascinating) – but who they were as actors. This, to me, is why the book is invaluable (as pissed off as Hepburn was by it).


I struggled to choose which excerpt, there are so many good sections. One of my favorites has to do with the shoot of Suddenly Last Summer (speaking of Montgomery Clift) – and Hepburn was appalled at how Clift was treated. Clift was still in recovery from the accident that ruined his face and nearly killed him, and he was struggling, in every way. Joe Mankiewicz (the director) and Sam Spiegel (the producer) were openly impatient with him, and there were rumors that Clift would be replaced. He wasn’t, but the whole thing created a tense atmosphere on the set. Hepburn could be selfish, she could be annoying, she could be egotistical, but she could never be cruel, and she thought Mankiewicz and Spiegel were cruel – to an actor who was in pain and maybe needed a little lovingkindess to get through the shoot. Here’s what happened next:

On her last day of shooting, Mankiewicz came to her and said, “That’s it.”

She asked, “Are you sure?”

“Quite sure.”

“There’s nothing more you’re going to need me for?” she asked. “No looping, no pick-up shots, no retakes?”

“I’ve got it all, Kate,” said Mankiewicz, “and it’s great. You’re great.”

“You’re sure,” she persisted, “that I’m absolutely finished in the picture?”

Mankiewicz grinned his characteristic grin, and said, “Absolutely, Kate. What is all this?”

“I just want to leave you,” said Kate, “with this.” Whereupon, she spat.

(Precisely where she spat and how she spat, depends on the version one hears. Hers or Joe’s, or one of the assorted onlookers’. There is no disagreement, however, as to the fact that she spat.)

She turned, picked up her belongings, and left the set. As she was packing in her dressing room, the phone rang. Sam Spiegel.

“May I see you for a few minutes, Katharine, please?” he asked.

“Certainly,” said Kate. “I was coming over, anyway.”


In his office, she found a grim judge sitting behind the desk.

Spiegel looked at her gravely, and said, “I have heard that you behaved very badly on the set to Joe.”

“I behaved very well,” said Kate, “while we were making the picture. This was later. If I behaved badly, it was on my own time. Not yours.”

“Just the same, “said Spiegel, “I’m shocked. I always thought you were a lady.”

“You’re going to be more shocked in a minute,” she said. “I think you behaved very badly toward Monty. He’s a tremendous young actor and he’s in a jam and instead of helping him, you tortured him. He’s been tortured enough. And this is what I think of you.” And she spat again.

I believe it. You know why I believe it? Because of that bit about her making absolutely sure that the shoot was over before she spat at everyone involved. Her professional considerations never totally went out the window.

But I have to say, my favorite anecdote in the entire book has to do with Katharine Hepburn playing Coco Chanel on Broadway. It was a musical, for God’s sake. Hepburn was not a young actress, it was in the 1960s – so here she was, taking this enormous risk, at her age … I just love her for it. I’m not surprised – because she was all about that, but still: I love it. Here she was, taking singing classes and dance classes – knowing that she needed to develop a whole new skill set in order to get through the run of that show.


But the following anecdote just shows, to my mind, her sense of will, her fearlessness, her potential obnoxiousness – and yet how she made it all all right … she made it seem like those guys would be doing her a favor, and she would SO appreciate it …. It’s a great story.

EXCERPT FROM Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir, by Garson Kanin

Kate arrived in New York to prepare for the commencement of Coco rehearsals. She took part, almost immediately, in every department of the production: casting, scenery, costumes, choreography, lighting, make-up, wigs, sound, and, of course, the theater itself.

Experienced professionals know how important the latter element can be, and insist that plays have failed because they were in the wrong theater; too large or too small, or simply not right.

In her long experience, Kate has played virtually every size and shape of theater, but was anxious to become acquainted with the one that had been booked for Coco: the Mark Hellinger on West Fifty-first Street.

Alan Lerner’s attachment to it was understandable. His My Fair Lady had occupied it for the longest run in the history of the American musical theater up to that time.

His and Freddie Brisson, Michael Benthall, and Michael Bennett took Kate over to see it a few days after she reached New York.

After walking about on the stage studying the auditorium and walking about the auditorium studying the stage, Kate announced, “It’s a fine theater. Perfectly fine, but we can’t use it. What else is available?”

The management was speechless. Theaters, especially sizable ones suited for musicals, are not easy to come by in the shrinking world of Broadway. Moreover, the deal for the theater, with its complex terms, had taken months to arrange. The idea of changing theaters was out of the question, but, clearly, the matter would have to be talked out.

Finally Brisson said, “What are you talking about?”

“What’s the matter with you people?” Kate responded. “Can’t you see anything?”

“Like what?” asked Alan.

“Across the street,” said Kate, patiently. “They’re beginning the construction of a skyscraper.”

“You mean where the Capitol Theater used to be?” asked Alan.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Right there, across the road – they’re excavating now. It means two things – that this theater is going to be very hard to get to, and what’s more, it’s going to be impossible to play the Wednesday matinee – I don’t care how good we are, we can’t compete with riveting.”

Michael Benthall tried a joke. “Well, we’ll just have to be pretty riveting ourselves, won’t we?”

Kate said, “Do you mean to tell me there’s no other theater in New York? One that isn’t right next door to a construction site?”

The discussion continued. Everyone (probably including Kate) knew that they were committed to the Mark Hellinger Theatre, but Kate wanted to make her point.

As it happened, she was correct on both counts, and had, indeed, been the only one to foresee the difficulties ahead.

The Mark Hellinger turned out to be extremely difficult to get to, and the Wednesday matinees were nightmares, or perhaps it is more correct to say daymares.

The company did its best to work against the noise of the neighboring enterprise, but large sections of the audience, particularly those on the left side of the house and toward the rear, had a tough time.

Kate, as Coco, had several numbers in the first act: “The World Belongs to the Young,” “Mademoiselle Cliche de Paris”, “On the Corner of the Rue Cambon,” and “The Money Rings Out Like Freedom,” that she was able to belt out successfully, even against the racket. But toward the end of Act One, came a delicate scene with the memory of Coco’s father (projected on a screen behind her) during which she sang the moving title song, “Coco”.

At the first matinee, Kate found it impossible to perform the number properly in the overwhelming presence of the noise from across the street.

The following Wednesday, she rearranged her schedule, and left for the theatre an hour early. She went directly to the Uris construction site, found the supervisor’s trailer, and asked to see him. He was out on the structure somewhere, but Kate made the matter seem so urgent that an assistant led her out onto the job.

Wearing the mandatory hard hat, she found herself facing the supervisor.

“Look here,” she shouted, “My name is Katharine Hepburn, and I work across the street.”

The astonished supervisor gaped at her. “Holy Smoke!” he said. “What the hell are you doing up here?”

“I have to talk to you,” said Kate.


“I have to talk to you,” she shouted.

“Okay. Come on down. Watch your step. How the hell did you get up here, anyway?”

In the supervisor’s trailer, he smoothed his hair and asked, “Can I give you a cup of coffee, Miss Hepburn?”

“Sure,” she said, “but I want more than that out of you.”

“Go ahead.”

“Well, look,” she said. “I know you’ve got to build this building but – on the other hand – we’ve got to give a show over there – I know we can’t ask you to stop – but at least you can help us out – if you want to.”


“There’s one main spot,” Kate explained carefully. “It’s my ‘Coco’ number. You know. With papa.”

“Oh, sure,” he said, mesmerized. (Hepburnized?)

“Well, on Wednesdays,” Kate continued, “that number starts at three-oh-five and goes on until about three fourteen – so just for that little piece of time – couldn’t you possibly hold the hammers?”

“Well, Jeez, I don’t know, Miss Hepburn,” said the supervisor.

“Sure you could,” urged Kate. “Give them a coffee break or something. I’ll pay for the coffee.”

“Yeah,” he said, “but who’ll pay for the time? You know what these guys get, don’t you?”

Kate gave him The Hepburn Look, and said softly, “You can do it if you want to.”

He took a deep breath, and said, “I don’t know, but lemme see what I can figure out here.”

“You’re sweet,” said Kate, and went across the street to make up.

At 3:05 that afternoon, as the introduction to her soft number began, the world outside fell suddenly silent. The audience may not have been aware of the abrupt change, but everyone connected with the Coco company was. The dancers, the singers, the orchestra, and the crew. Some of those who were momentarily free stepped out into the street to see what had happened.

Up and down the structure they saw the workers signaling for silence and looking at their watches. At 3:14 P.M. the applause for the number was all at once augmented by all hell breaking loose across the street.

In the darkness of the scene change, Kate was able to allow the radiant smile, which she had kept hidden in her rib cage, to burst forth on her face.

She went over to thank the men after the matinee, but their day’s work had ended, so she made a special trip over the following day to clamber all over the job, thanking her new friends. So it went for week after week. Every Wednesday afternoon at the specified time, the construction gang gave Kate a gift of silence.

Then came the afternoon when a Consolidated Edison crew, not connected with the Uris construction, turned up on the corner to make a cable repair. At 3:05, when the building work stopped, the uninformed Con Edison crew continued.

Whereupon, from every part of the structure, the shouts came raining down.

“Hey, hold the noise, you guys!”

“Shut up down there! Katie’s on!”

“Hey, what’s a matter with you bastards? Don’t you know Katie’s doing her number?”


In addition to the hollering and yelling, an ad hoc committee went dashing over to enforce the admonition.

At the end of the matinee, Kate was handed a note from the supervisor, explaining that the short burst of noise at the beginning of her number was ” … not us, but that crazy Con Edison which we have now straightened out.”

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4 Responses to The Books: “Tracy and Hepburn: An Intimate Memoir” (Garson Kanin)

  1. Kelly says:

    Brilliant story! I never heard it before. It seems like something your friend Alex could pull off.

  2. Nicola says:

    I found this book in a used book store a good many years ago and went a little bit insane. I loved it!!! There’s one anecdote which I find totally hilarious. She’s seen a new movie with Cary Grant and Carole Lombard (hates it – says it gives her the “melancholia”) then a couple of nights later they meet him at a party. I just loved how Garson Kanin describes that encounter. Cary Grant leans in close and winks at her. It was ‘tantamount to a kiss’ he put it. Then when Cary asks her how she liked his new picture she refused to admit she had seen it! He gives her dates, times all the details and yet she REFUSES to admit she’s seen it. Tells him to stop insisting as it is “enervating”. Picturing that encounter cracks me up. And she just makes up her own words!!! Love it.

  3. Angela Burton says:

    Because Garson Kanin wrote the book SMASH in 1980, upon which the new TV show at NBC is based, I became interested in his memoir of Spencer and Kate. Knowing how private Kate was, how she treasured her personal moments, I can really understand why she stopped speaking to Garson and Ruth. After a friendship of so many years, starting in the 1940’s, I think it was very ungentlemanly of him to publish these words. Even though the book is riveting, it’s a shame that he found it necessary to give up a good friend to do it. I believe he and his wife must have been well aware of the outcome of this endeavor and went ahead anyway. Friendship is a sacred trust, one that he broke. Very sad.

  4. Dexter B Knox says:

    i wasn’t sure if the love between Hepburn and Tracy was real or a publicity stunt used by the studio, i have heard of such a thing. i know it is a trivial question, but one that bothers me. all of the things about the two-were they real or were they used to gain publicity for the studio. i really enjoy the talents of both, but that has always bothered me. thank you for any insight you may offer. i don’t need details just the overall understanding of the relationship between them.

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