James Curtis

What I'm reading...

Recently I made the acquaintance (via e-mail) of novelist Joseph Monninger, who had some very kind and perceptive things to say about my book on Spencer Tracy. Early in our exchange I was inspired to sample Joe's works, and began with "Home Waters," his memoir of life with a golden retriever and their final road trip together, a fly fishing excursion through Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. I suppose books about dogs have become their own genre, but this fine book completely transcends any boundaries. Beautifully expressed and without a hint of cheap sentiment, it's as close to a modern classic as anything I've encountered in a long time. Even if you've never owned a dog in your life, you'll love this book. Guaranteed.

Also on my nightstand: "A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers" by Will Friedwald, "Two Ton" by Joseph Monninger, and Michael Palin's "Hemingway Adventure."

Now On Sale!

"What is a good actor?" Humphrey Bogart once asked. "To me, Spencer Tracy is a good actor, almost the best. Because you don't see the mechanism working, the wheels turning. He covers up. He never overacts or is hammy. He makes you believe what he is playing."

From the time of his screen debut, Spencer Tracy was considered one of the finest actors in motion pictures. And although he disapproved of honoring one single performance each year with the Academy Award, he won two Oscars back-to-back and was nominated for Best Actor nine times--a record equaled only by Laurence Olivier. In 1999, a survey by the American Film Institute ranked Tracy among the ten greatest male stars of all time.

But since his death in 1967, Tracy has also been one of the cinema's most maligned figures, the subject of lurid stories and unsubstantiated claims, many centering on the nature of his 26-year relationship with actress Katharine Hepburn.

Now comes this major new biography--the first in more than 40 years--to set the record straight. Written with access to Tracy's own papers and datebooks--and with the cooperation of his daughter, Susie Tracy--it brings unprecedented clarity and detail to the story of the brilliant but tortured man at the core of the popular legend.

Drawn from interviews with more than 100 friends and co-workers, and Illustrated with 124 photographs--many published here for the first time--SPENCER TRACY is certain to stand as the definitive biography of the man George M. Cohan called "the best goddamned actor I’ve ever seen."

Alfred A. Knopf, Publishers
1,001 pages with 124 photographs in text
A Book of the Month Club and Literary Guild alternate selection
Also available as an eBook

November 1, 2012: "Spencer Tracy: A Biography" in paperback is a Daily Mail (UK) Must Read. "Curtis' in-depth research and intimate knowledge of his family makes this a rewarding and revealing addition to Hollywood biography."

October 28, 2012: "Spencer Tracy: A Biography" is the Sunday Times (UK) Paperback Pick of the Week.

"Spencer Tracy: A Biography" was selected as one of the "Best Books of 2011" by the librarians of the Los Angeles Public Library System.

"I'm not sure I have sufficient superlatives to express my feelings about James Curtis' latest biography, which consumed six years of his life (and about a month of mine--time well spent in both cases). It represents a high water mark in this field: a scrupulously researched life story that is also well-written and completely absorbing, through 878 pages of text and the endnotes that follow... This is the book Spencer Tracy deserves. It explores his great gifts as well as his tortured soul. I loved reading it, and didn't mind the commitment of time it required. (In fact, after every chapter, I felt I simply had to share a story I'd just read with my wife.) I know I will refer to it for many years to come."
-- Leonard Maltin

"While dozens of books have been written on [Katharine] Hepburn in the past four decades, there hasn't been a new full-length biography of Tracy in over 40 years. Thus it's not only appropriate but even necessary that a fresh look be taken at Tracy's important film career. In 'Spencer Tracy,' James Curtis has more than done the job. Mr. Curtis, the author of books on W.C. Fields and Preston Sturges, brings to the task a thorough knowledge of film history, a sensitive appreciation for Tracy's abilities, and a zealous attitude toward research... Susie Tracy told Mr. Curtis that one of her father's most often-made remarks in any situation was, 'Is this on the level?' It's a question from a suspicious and wary man who was chased by demons of doubt all his life, but it's also the question of a serious actor who wants his performances to be believable. If one imagines Tracy asking it about this new biography, the answer would have to be a resounding 'yes.' It's on the level. James Curtis has given us everything we're ever going to know--or would want to know--about Spencer Tracy. His book will stand as the definitive biography for decades to come."
-- Jeanine Basinger, The Wall Street Journal

"From his troubles with the bottle to his troubles with women--not to mention detailed coverage of his nearly 75 feature films--Curtis presents a magnificently fair and balanced portrait of an actor far more enigmatic than many of the characters he portrayed on screen... All of which makes this fascinating biography worth the long wait. Putting a twist on Tracy's famous quote from 'Pat and Mike,' his delicious 1952 pairing with [Katharine] Hepburn, there's much meat here, and it's all 'cherce.'"
-- Daniel Bubbeo, New York Newsday

"Writing with the cooperation of Susie Tracy, Spencer's daughter, Curtis has obtained access to everything from Tracy's datebooks to his health records. He also interviewed remaining family members, coworkers, and friends. All of this research makes possible an incredibly detailed account of Tracy's life, with stage work and films and their effect on him all noted... Those who remember him will be fascinated; younger readers will be spurred to rent his films and revel in his talent."
-- Booklist (starred review)

"An amazing accomplishment... I think James Curtis has really nailed the relationship between Kate and Spence in a way that no one else has ever done. People either sentimentalize them or blast them for one sin or another. He has presented a balanced picture and has revealed brilliantly many aspects of their lives and personalities totally unfamiliar to those who didn't know them well."
-- Katharine Houghton

"Despite being one of the most gifted and versatile actors from Hollywood's Golden Age, Tracy has been hard to fathom. But not anymore: Curtis (who previously chronicled the lives of actor W.C. Fields, director James Whale, and writer/​director Preston Sturges) brilliantly connects the dots so we can better understand the actor's complexity both on- and off-screen. That's because Curtis had unprecedented access to Tracy's personal papers and journals, thanks to the cooperation of the actor's daughter, Susie Tracy. As a result, Curtis weaves the most complete narrative yet about the Milwaukee native turned celebrity, who made 73 films in more than 30 years yet managed to retain his small-town roots in Hollywood."
-- Bill Desowitz, USA Today

"Curtis adores and respects his subject but doesn’t tiptoe timidly around the more sensationalistic aspects of Tracy’s life; he’s forthright about them, which may be his way of urging us to think of them less as juicy chunks of gossip than as the bits and pieces that make up any mosaic of heavy-duty living... And though you’d think no one should have to worry about Kate Hepburn, Curtis feels a great deal for her, and makes us feel it too. So overbearing in other aspects of her life and career, Hepburn catered and deferred to Tracy, who, as Curtis portrays him, easily qualified as a troubled soul. She believed him to be the greatest actor in the world, and it gave her a sense of purpose to be a handmaiden to genius... Still, in his last days, Tracy would devour mystery novels, which he’d then send to Louise — the two shared a life, even when they weren’t overtly sharing it. And Hepburn, out of deference to Tracy’s family and the delicacy of the situation, didn’t attend Tracy’s funeral, though as Curtis recounts, with heartbreaking spareness, she did follow the hearse from the mortuary to the church in her car. It can’t have been easy to be either of the two most significant women in Spencer Tracy’s life. But the hardest thing, Curtis shows, was being Spencer Tracy."
-- Stephanie Zacharek, New York Times Book Review

"Spencer Tracy was a Hollywood heavyweight, and author James Curtis has written a biography to match. At more than 1,000 pages, including chronologies of Tracy's stage performances and 70-plus movies, the book takes an exhaustive look at the life of a man some call America's greatest actor... Tracy's life had more drama and action than any movie script, and this biography offers an epic amount of detail."
-- Margie Romero, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"A monumental, definitive biography of one of the finest film actors in the history of the medium."
-- Kirkus Reviews

"James Curtis' definitive, doorstopper (at 1,001 pages) of a biography, 'Spencer Tracy: A Biography,' charts the life, loves, and struggles of the Milwaukee-born, Oscar-winning screen legend in expert detail, leaving no source or story unchecked. What emerges is a straightforward portrait of a complicated man... Curtis taps deeply mined rememberences and fresh anecdotes collected in years of interviews with just about everyone in Tracy's life. And, while the character that emerges isn't always admirable, you gain an appreciation of how Tracy's life shaped his work, and how the movies are richer for it."
-- Chris Foran, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

"Curtis provides a compelling account of Hollywood history, of its directors and producers, and of Tracy's affair with Katharine Hepburn and his marriage to Louise Treadwell (which he never ended, in part because of his devout Catholicism). Like many great stars, Tracy began with a studio that did not know how to capitalize on his strengths; he did not come into his own until MGM discovered his genius. Drawing on Tracy's papers and profiting from the cooperation of Tracy's daughter, Curtis has produced the go-to biography that no film collection can afford to do without."
--Carl Rollyson, Choice

"So is Tracy simply part of cultural history, or is he still a force in our imagination? The very size of James Curtis' definitive new biography is resolute about the answer--1,001 pages on a man who was only sixty-seven when he died, and who made seventy-three pictures. It's not just that the book is tireless and diligent in its span. No one doubts the author's fondness for Tracy, or the circle of family and friends who tried to please or humor him. It's also well-written. Beyond that, Curtis has a mission: to rescue Tracy, and even Hepburn, from some of the suggestions that have been passed along, in print and gossip, about them."
-- David Thomson, New York Review of Books

"In 'Spencer Tracy' James Curtis delivers a remarkably balanced and comprehensive view of the great actor, whose work clearly speaks for itself, but whose life has been distorted, Curtis argues, in a series of books that portray him inaccurately in a variety of different ways... Curtis also illuminates Louise Tracy's role at the John Tracy Clinic, named for her deaf son, pointing out her substantial role as a pioneer in the education of the deaf, for which she was widely recognized and honored. And the writer, who had access to the actor's datebooks, points out that his storied drinking bouts were punctuated by long periods of sobriety--which, of course, makes perfect sense--because, otherwise, how could he have had the career he had?"
--Lorna Koski, Women's Wear Daily

"At nearly 900 pages, Curtis’s biography weaves a fascinating, not to say definitive portrait of an individual both naively simple and immensely complex."
--Michael Simkins, Daily Mail (UK)

"This doorstop of a biography has it all: the women (Ingrid Bergman, Gene Tierney, Katharine Hepburn), the movies ('Desk Set,' 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner,' 'Boys Town,' 'Woman of the Year,' 'Inherit the Wind'), and the run-ins (with directors, of course, and with Ernest Hemingway during the filming of 'Old Man and the Sea'). Hollywood's greatest actor is brought to life in anecdotes and compelling detail, foibles and all."
-- Tom Prince, Reader's Digest

"A fully-formed look at the stage and screen career of one of America's acting legends."
-- Los Angeles Times

"I don’t anticipate another major Tracy biography in the next millennium. The job has been done. We may not have penetrated entirely the mystery of Tracy’s personality, but this book is as far as we should expect to go."
-- Philip Marchand, National Post (Canada)

"An epic read... Curtis, the author of excellent books on Preston Sturges, W.C. Fields, and James Whale, has done an exemplary job creating the definitive work on Tracy."
-- John Gallagher, National Board of Review

"Curtis has done Tracy a service in drawing attention to the power and finesse of his work both together with and apart from Hepburn. Ernest Hemingway dismissed the Tracy-Hepburn films as 'those toad-and-grasshopper comedies,' meaning it partly as a slur on Tracy, whom he disliked as 'a man who could not hold his liquor' and thought miscast in 'The Old Man and the Sea'--though he finally changed his mind about the film. But if Tracy is the solid, down-to-earth toad, and Hepburn the flighty, busy grasshopper, Curtis has done a good job of making us appreciate the virtues of the toad."
-- Charles Matthews, The Washington Post

"If you want to get inside the mind of Spencer Tracy, this is your book."
-- Kevin Winter, Portland Book Review

"This exhaustive biography covers the full range of Tracy's life and career, from his Broadway triumph in the prison drama "The Last Mile" to his moving performance opposite his longtime love Katharine Hepburn in the 1967 drama "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (he died two weeks after completing it)... Written with the cooperation of Tracy's daughter and Katharine Hepburn's niece, this massive book is likely to be the definitive portrait of a deeply flawed person but a consummate actor whose ability to master multiple film genres made him one of the most popular stars of his time."
-- Library Journal

"Spencer Tracy has had to wait a long time for a biography worthy of his great gifts as an actor and complexity as an individual."
--Christopher Silvester, Daily Express (UK)

"Hollywood craziness claims the least 'Hollywood' of stars in this massive, eye-opening biography. Onscreen, in 'Boys Town' to 'Judgment at Nuremberg', Tracy (1900-1967) was the unflashy everyman imbued with stolid rectitude, all embodied in the understated, naturalistic style that made Tracy Hollywood's greatest actor. Offscreen, in Curtis's unflinching but unsensationalized account, it's the full neurotic, out-of-control movie star turn... a rich and definitive portrait of the actor in all his baffling contradictions."
-- Publishers Weekly

"A titanic human story that the reader--certainly this reader--feels very deeply."
-- Eugene Kennedy

"The best actor's biography I have ever read."
-- Scott Eyman

Selected Works

Now available as eBooks!
"The definitive book about America's most profound comedian." - John Cleese
"One of the most entertaining and engrossing film biographies I've encountered." - Judith Crist
New edition!
"Essential for all who care about the cinema." - Kevin Brownlow
Now on DVD!
With commentaries by Gloria Stuart and James Curtis.