Spencer Tracy, a biography By James Curtis, Knopf; 1,001 pages ($40). To say that James Curtis' 1,000-page biography of Spencer Tracy is "definitive" is, in fact, such a massive understatement that it's almost pointless. What this book does, in fact, is call into some question, on occasion, the worth of a "definitive" biography.
Curtis has previously given us two truly masterful Hollywood biographies -- of W.C. Fields and Preston Sturges. But Tracy was a much knottier subject -- much written about, to be sure, but so much a product of the standard concealments of his lifetime that information about him only went down to the second layer (where the frequent obstreperousness and drinking lay as well as his long quasi-marital relationship with Katharine Hepburn while still married to first wife, Louise).
What we have from Curtis is so full of detail -- not all of it germane -- that it's almost a great biographer's public exultation in getting unique cooperation with the remnants of Tracy's family.
It's fascinating to realize how much of Tracy could be glimpsed right from the first -- the outrageously charismatic acting presence he shared with other students of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in his era (Thelma Ritter and Sterling Holloway, two thespian eccentrics equally guaranteed to command your attention on-screen no matter what else was going on), the performances affected by booze (he playfully -- and brutally -- snatched the toupee of another actor onstage when in his cups as a young man and later drank himself into studio disappearances).
He was pure American virtue and granite on-screen. Offscreen, the married Tracy had liaisons with Ingrid Bergman and Loretta Young among many others, before Hepburn came along (when they met, he complained that she had dirty fingernails. So much for love at first sight).
The book ends -- most unusually -- with Curtis weighing all the long-rumored snarky tales of Tracy's bisexuality and finding no supporting evidence. Given the details of the rest of this massive biography, only fools, it seems to me, will argue.
-- Jeff Simon