The story of the husband is well known - Spencer Tracy was a major Hollywood star, a magnificent Oscar winning actor and a towering, charismatic screen presence. The story of his wife and her magnificent life's work, championing the cause of education of deaf children is not so well known. Her name was Louise Treadwell. She was an exceptional woman and this is her story.
On the surface Spencer Tracy's marriage was idyllic. He met Louise Treadwell, also an actress, at the start of his career, when she was actually better known than him. They married in 1923 and had two children, John and Susan. In 1935 as Tracy began his meteoric rise through Hollywood, they moved to a ranch in Encino, California, where they lived for 19 years.
The photographs of the time show a happy united family and a devoted husband and wife team. The reality was different.
Spencer Tracy was an alcoholic and a serial adulterer. He was renowned in Hollywood circles for dating his leading ladies and his name was linked with Loretta Young, Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Myrna Loy, Gene Tierney and many others.
For the last 25 years of his life he conducted an affair with actress Katharine Hepburn. The couple lived together but kept separate residences for the sake of appearances. Tracy never divorced his wife, partly for religious reasons, and partly for the sake of his children. For the entire length of the marriage, although dealing with great personal misfortune, Louise Treadwell-Tracy pursued her own ambitions and kept a dignified silence about her husband's self-indugence and disloyalty.
She was born Louise Ten Broeck Treadwell on July 31, 1896 into a comfortable middle class home. Her parents divorced when she was a teenager. After graduating from Lake Erie College, she embarked on a theatrical career and she spent several years gaining experience touring with stock companies around America. By early 1923 Louise was the leading actress at the Leonard Wood Players in White Plains, New York.
It was whilst travelling by train in New York that she first met Spencer Tracy who, at that time, was a junior actor with a Grand Rapids stock company. She was 27 and he, 23 and they married in September, 1923. Their first child, John, was born nine months later in June 1924.
A Deaf Son
When John was 10 months old, Louise noticed that he did not react when a door loudly slammed and shook the house. She was given the diagnosis by doctors that he was nerve deaf. At that time deafness and dumbness went together automatically. It was a traumatic event for Louise and changed her life irrevocably. From that time on she devoted her life to improving the future life choices and life chances of her damaged son.
Doctors advised Louise and Spencer to send John, when he was old enough, to a special education state school to help him learn to cope with his deafness but Louise developed other ideas. In 1926 she met a deaf woman who had learned to lip read so well that it was difficult to tell that she was deaf. It gave Louise the germ of an idea. Maybe she could teach her son, not only to lip read, but to talk as well and lead a normal life. It is difficult nowadays to realise what a revolutionary concept this was in the 1920s.
Louise made it her goal in life to learn everything she could about the rearing and education of deaf children. She and Spencer spoke to John, read and sang to him every day and in 1927 she enrolled John into the Wright Oral School for the deaf. He was just three years old and the youngest child they had ever taken. In the same year he said his first word out loud. It was "Mama."
In 1929 as John approached fist school age, Louise retired from acting in order to devote herself full time to his education. It was a difficult step to take as Spencer was still a minor stock company actor on small wages, but she was determined to give John every advantage she could.
The following year Spencer Tracy hit the big time. He had a major Broadway hit with 'The Last Mile' and received an offer from director John Ford to film in Hollywood for Fox Film Corporation. Later in the year Tracy made 'Up the River' with Humphrey Bogart and his prolific film career was underway. Being the sole provider for his wife and son was certainly a great motivator in Tracy's career. Over the next five years alone he made 25 films and for the rest of his life he was a generous provider for his family. By 1932 he had two children In July 1932, the Tracys' daughter, Susie, was born.
But Tracy could not shake off his physical addictions - to chocolates, sweets, alcohol - and beautiful actresses. Whilst Louise was travelling back and forth between the East and West coast of America, consulting specialists and signing their son up with specialist schools in Boston and New York, Tracy continued to romance his costars. It began with rumours about the relatively unknown actresses working for touring stock companies, Selena Royle and Betty Hanna, then in 1933 he began a passionate affair with his co-star in 'Mans Castle', fellow Catholic, Loretta Young, even discussing marriage with her.
The Tracy's marriage was beginning to unravel but Spencer was unwilling to divorce Louise. He was a staunch Catholic, unlike Louise who came from an Episopalian family. Tracy was racked with guilt all his life for his treatment of his wife and he refused to end the marriage. It was a this time that his drinking became uncontrolled. He had the alcoholic's gift of not appearing to be drunk and he was perfectly able to act after a few drinks but he was rarely seen on set without a drink in his hand.
Nevertheless Tracy's career went into overdrive and within a few years he achieved superstar status with brilliant performances for MGM in movies such as 'Captains Courageous' in 1937 and 'Boys Town' in 1938 (for which he won back to back Oscars for Best Actor). He was later nominated for 'San Francisco', 'Father of the Bride', 'Bad Day at Black Rock', 'The Old Man and the Sea', 'Inherit the Wind' and 'Judgment at Nuremberg'. He became, along with Humphrey Bogart, Clarke Gable, Cary Grant, and James Stewart, one of the pre-eminent actors in the Hollywood firmament.
The John Tracy Clinic
In the meantime Louise continued to devote her life to her son's education, consulting specialists, teaching him to talk and lip read and do anything a hearing person can do. She gradually became an expert, in her own right, in the education of deaf children.
In 1942 she made a speech, the first of many, at the University of Southern California at a dinner to raise money for the National Workshop of Social Workers and teachers and Parents of the Hard of Hearing. She spoke passionately about her experience of raising and educating a deaf child. She began to tour the country, making speeches and raising awareness of the need for an improvement in educational facilities and support for deaf children and, crucially, their parents. She was asked by other parents to start a school that would educate and offer emotional support to families such as theirs. The University of Southern California (USC) allowed the group to use a cottage on campus for its meetings. Initially, no children were part of the program, only weekly classes for parents were offered, taught by a teacher of the deaf but soon full scale education for chidren was brought into the program. Louise insisted that the school's facilities and services should be free of charge.
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The Institution was named The John Tracy Clinic, after her son.
Spencer Tracy gave Louise his full financial, if not emotional support, and it was his money which got the Clinic off the ground initially. He turned the world premiere of one of his films, 'Father's Little Dividend', in 1951, into a fundraiser for the clinic and, as a wealthy man, he continued to support it all his life, donating more than a half a million dollars to the Clinic's work.
John Tracy Clinic, The Beginning
The affair between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn was an open secret in Hollywood. They were lovers for more than 26 years, and co-stars in nine Hollywood romances to which they brought an onscreen chemistry believed by many to be the most convincing in movie history.
They met in 1941 on the set of their first movie together, 'Woman of the Year'. Their acting styles complemented each other perfectly and the gossip columns were soon in full cry speculating about their relationship off-camera. It became generally accepted that the two were an item, although they could never marry due to Tracy’s Catholic determination never to divorce.
Tracy was as unfaithful to to Katharine as he had been to Louise, having relationships with other actresses, such as Gene Tierney and Ingrid Bergman, while Hepburn was filming elsewhere. He continued to drink excessively and obsessively.
Nevertheless they remained together for over a quarter of a century, being parted only by Tracy's death in 1967, just weeks after he and Hepburn had finished making 'Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner'.
Her Legacy, The John Tracy Clinic Today
Louise encouraged parents to build a foundation of communication with their young children during the critical language development stage from birth through age five and the John Tracy Clinic has enabled thousands of children to master the difficult challenges of oral communication.
Although Louise had to resign as Director of the Clinic in October 1974 due to ill health, the clinic has continued to expand, from that time to the present day. It is still a private, non profit center which receives no tax-based funding. Its services are provided free of charge through gifts from individuals, private foundations, and corporations.
Eighty-two percent of every dollar it receives is spent directly on programs and services, and no management staff performs a purely executive function.
Gifts of used hearing aids and other inkind donations are also welcome, as are volunteers who wish to give of their time to their Family Educational Services.
The John Tracy Clinic Website
Recognition and Fame for Louise
Whilst Spencer was establishing his reputation as both a magnificent actor and a decadent, louche, Louise Tracy continued with her work for the clinic. She became recognised worldwide as an expert in the field of education of deaf children, and her influence grew in academic, political and social circles. She became famous in her own right, and for quite different reasons than the fame of her husband.
During the 1950s and 1960s her groundbreaking work was recognised and she received honor after honor including the Hearing Advancement Award from the Hearing Foundation, in 1951, and the Woman of the Year award from La Sertoma International in 1953 and she was granted honorary degrees from numerous academic institutions such as the University of Southern California, Lake Erie College, and MacMurray College. In 1956 she was appointed as a member of the National Advisory Council on Vocational Rehabilitation.
In 1963 Louise was appointed a member of the Neurological and Sensory Disease Advisory Committee and 2 years later became a member of the National Advisory Board of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. In 1969 she was appointed a member of the President's Task Force on the Physically Handicapped.
Louise was respected and honored for the rest of her life. She received the 1974 Award of Honor Otolaryngology and in 1977 she was awarded the Humanitarian Award by the National Auxiliary of AMVETS. Finally, after a long illness, Louise Treadwell Tracy died on November 13, 1983, aged 87 years.
John Tracy had a full and happy life. After learning to talk he fought another successful childhood battle against infantile paralysis. He became a talented polo and tennis player. He was gifted creatively and after attending Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles he worked as an artist in the Art Props Department of WaltDisney Studios. John Tracy married Nadine in 1953 and they had one child, Joseph Spencer Tracy and then three grandchildren. John Tracy died in Acton, California on June 15, 2007, aged 84 years.
Spencer Tracy never divorced Louise. His health deteriorated badly over the last few years of his life and he was nursed devotedly by Katharine Hepburn. He died from a heart attack in 1967, aged 66 years. Katharine Hepburn did not attend his funeral out of respect for his family.
Miranda Brooks on July 10, 2020:
Lots of people ragging on Ms. Hepburn for coveting another woman's husband. Let me remind you nobody forced him to bang all those women. Hepburn wasn't responsible. Tracy had a choice to climb into those beds or not. His wife doesn't get points for hanging on all those years while he banged other women; he was good for keeping her supplied with money and opening the clinic and opening doors she couldn't hope to get through without his name. She was not Catholic she was able to get a divorce. She didn't want one it wouldn't have been financially beneficial to her career in the hearing paired world.
Belleve55.firstname.lastname@example.org on September 18, 2019:
What a tale,she mrs,tracy,was a devoted Christian, she could have easily divorced him, she was remarkable.she understood acting and therefor let her husband go to rise as his abilities allowed. She became a hero to deaf children, but little is spoken of susie. He spencer did not have close relationship yo his children,just sent money, best thing he could have done. Had he got a divorce money would have been taxed heavy, as for women, Hollywood is open cesspool, not surprised. I believe they all ended up where they wanted to be. I still love his acting,her acting but applaud the misses for she truly was a star!
Camille on July 21, 2019:
Out of respect for his family she didn’t attend the funeral.....how about out of respect for his family you don’t covet another woman’s husband...
mrssholmes on June 06, 2019:
Quite a few of the folks who've already commented said what I was going to say. Without going through ALL the comments to see if this has already been stated, I'd like to add: it was THEIR money, not HIS money, btw, and, being as this article is entitled "The Remarkable Story of Spencer Tracy's Wife," we could've gone without any mention of his dalliances and general BS. Mrs. Tracy is truly the remarkable one.
Bernadette on May 21, 2019:
So he wouldn't divorce his wife because he was Catholic but committing adultery was okay? Adultery is a bigger sin than divorce.
ir on May 17, 2019:
Book has been written about Spencer and Hepburn. Their romance was a cover for they were both gay. Man who wrote book was a lover to Spencer and he also provided Kate with over one hundred and fifty women.
JG on March 31, 2019:
I admire Mrs. Tracy for her dedication to helping others. Did not know Spencer was such a pig.
Spencer Shannon on January 23, 2019:
She was a remarkable lady, not only the clinic, but what she had to puit up wuith with his mammoth bingedrinking for decades & 26yrs of HIS KATE!
spelling geek on January 19, 2019:
please spell check this document, and correct the punctuation.
i.e. Episopalian and the comma before "louche" are two that caught my eye.
Arleen on August 07, 2018:
The idea that Catholics cannot divorce is FALSE. They can and they do. What they cannot do is remarry without annulment. They can divorce...
Easy on July 31, 2018:
All three were caught up in a difficult situation. I wonder who suffered the most. I've read extensively on Kate, believe me she did not have it easy. However I think Mrs.Tracy is the unsung hero in this triangle.
Kaye on June 27, 2018:
Alcoholism is a disease and there are the unfortunates. Some recover and some don't. He actually did his spouse a favor. Kate as sick as him. I say this because my husband is an alcoholic. Not a womanizer. It causes me a lot of pain. Living with an alcoholic makes me crazy. So difficult for me to let go. It's all about acceptance. Working on that.
Kiara on June 18, 2018:
I express my thanks for creating this article in remembrance of Ms. Louise. I prefer if people were to be more aware of her than her husband, as to me her actions and her accomplishments for what Louise has done for her son and other children deserve more praise than Mr. Tracy.
. on April 04, 2018:
His name brought greater awareness to her cause and opened doors for her I am sure. He supported the family and her work financially. There were many other reasons to stay married. As his wife she brought in more donations. An alcoholic has one true love, alcohol. He could not conquer that demon.
Mrs. B on April 04, 2018:
Wow. Never knew the real story. But because you didn’t it really did show what kind of a great woman she really was. You won’t see that nowadays.
I’m sure she has a place in heaven and Spencer a place in ...well we wonder.
Realistic on February 28, 2018:
Louise was the real self-sacrificing hero in this story. Hepburn a weak woman who wouldn't walk away from this married serial womanizer.
No Name on January 05, 2018:
Louise Treadwell Tracy was truly the actual & real "woman of the year". What an interesting story of an amazing woman. Since they (Spencer, Louise & Hepburn) have now all past on, I'll just leave the judgement(s) with our Lord, who has already taken up the issue. Her children were so blessed to have Louise as their mom, and this woman has left behind a priceless legacy, born out of devotion & love.
Megan Murphy on November 14, 2017:
My mom personally corresponded with her. My brother is deaf. And with her help, my mom was able to teach my brother to read lips and speak. My mom told me she would send questions, or progress notes and always get a response, or helpful tip. My mother went on to fight the church to teach my brother religion and the board of education to bus him to school so he could come home daily and not miss out on family. My brother now has two hearing sons and people comment on his ability to read lips and his vocabulary. Our family will forever be grateful.
Kathleen Snyder Harshman on June 13, 2017:
To say that you're a devout Catholic is the reason you cannot divorce, but continue to have relations outside of marriage is pure hypocrisy. Hepburn wondered why Tracy couldn't sleep. I don't.
Carol Lukas on April 25, 2017:
Louise was a wonderful/amazing woman and deserved better from her husband. I have the greatest respect for her and her accomplishments to help the deaf. She was one of God's many blessings to all of us. There are so many unsung heroes, I'm glad to know her story.
Fran on March 04, 2017:
Thank you for an inspiring story. I always felt sorry for her, but now I realize she had a successful life on her own!
Thanks for sharing
len goodman on February 26, 2017:
I admired Tracey's acting talent. I knew nothing else about him. Like us all, he had other life involvements. His wife was an extraordinary person.
A fine article.
Suzie from Carson City on February 22, 2017:
Excellent tale of the power of maternal love and the tenacity of a dedicated woman. I admire and respect Louise Tracy for the obvious reasons. She left an amazing legacy.
Ahhh yes, the "devout Catholic~~cheating phony!" "We dare not divorce but I'll just be an adulterer forever and make a mockery of my wife & mother of my children, as well as our one-sided marriage." Who do these hypocritical (alleged) devout Catholics think they're fooling? Certainly not GOD!
Great writing, gunsoc.
Ida.....please come out of your semi-coma!
Anthony Adverse on January 10, 2017:
Some errors, but all in all a nice tribute to Mrs. Tracy. ' 82% of every dollar spent on program.' No. When 9-10 of the "department heads and Pres. of JTC" together earn $1 million in salaries and donations and grants totaled almost $3 million per their 2015 990, then expenses to run the place; lawn maintenance, tax preparation, cell phones, lights, salaries to employees not involved with the children, like building maintenance, operator, video department, repairs from outside venders to name a few, it's more like a 50/50 split. Every year they loose money, around a million dollars. Some years more, few years less. This should never be. Mrs. Tracy would be devastated. She worked all those years with no salary.
Ida Mae Kelsey on December 08, 2016:
It IS true that a woman will not divorce because she is a devout Catholic member of the church. I have personally known women that live that. And Spencer lived that, also. NOT because he wanted to "have his cake and eat it too."
Joanie Gruber on November 06, 2016:
I wonder if any priests or bishops confronted Spencer with his ongoing sin? His absurd reasoning in staying married while living as an adulterer was shameful hypocrisy. And I am shocked that the supposedly conservative, religious and family-oriented public is constantly willing to support these behaviors of so many Hollywood people from the 1930's-60's. Bad enough among those who boast being totally secular and irreligious. But terrible among those who claim to be Christians.
Kari on January 26, 2016:
What a wonderful tribute to a woman whose depth of character shone through out her life. A beacon of integrity & hope.
McKenna Meyers on June 03, 2015:
Very inspiring story! She really made a difference in the world. I don't buy Spencer's reason for not divorcing his wife (he's Catholic). He just found a way to have his cake and eat it, too.
Colin Garrow from Inverbervie, Scotland on May 21, 2015:
I always thought Tracey was married to Hepburn - show how much I know! Well-researched, fascinating hub, voted up.
amjadbhatti on May 24, 2014:
Very nice, love it
Angela Blair from Central Texas on July 02, 2012:
What an in-depth and marvelous history of both Spencer Tracy and his amazing wife (of whom most of us know little). Thank you so much for your research and absolutely stunning article. Voted up! Best/Sis