The Remarkable Story of Spencer Tracy's Wife
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.
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.