Film nostalgia columnist Paul Welsh looks back to a time when stars' private lives were not front page news

Paul Welsh chose the name Tracy Court to commemorate Spencer Tracy

Paul Welsh chose the name Tracy Court to commemorate Spencer Tracy

First published in Paul Welsh
Last updated
Borehamwood Times: Photograph of the Author by

One of the things I have enjoyed doing since the late 1970s is to suggest to Hertsmere Borough Council the names to be adopted for the roads and courts on the old MGM site or, as it is known today, the Studio Estate.

The film heritage trail boards at the bottom of Studio Way explain the origins of those names and why I suggested them.

This process continues today with the recently built Studio Plaza Estate at the bottom of Studio Way and today I look back at one of the stars of yesteryear we have remembered.

I suggested Tracy Court to honour a double Oscar winner and one time MGM star Spencer Tracy.

During the 1930s through to the 1950s, Spence was one of Hollywood’s most famous and troubled stars.

Throughout his career he had spells of alcoholism which made him a difficult character, and on more than one occasion MGM in Hollywood would have to send a private ambulance to some bar to forcibly restrain him.

In those days the studio system ruled Tinseltown, such matters would never be reported in the press and the police would turn a blind eye.

Some say he was tormented by the fact that his son was born deaf and he could never cope with the fact. He was also a devout Catholic and separated from his wife but could never divorce her. He certainly suffered from lifelong insomnia.

However, he was a great movie actor and much admired by fellow professionals and the public alike. He was once asked the secret of good screen acting and Spence replied: “There is no secret. You learn your lines, stand on your marks and deliver the dialogue as if every word was true. The camera and therefore the audience will see if you don’t believe what your character is saying.”

By the 1960s Spence was white-haired, prematurely aged and in failing health. For 20 years he had enjoyed an intimate relationship with fellow star Katie Hepburn but the media kept a discreet veil of silence.

When he came to MGM in Borehamwood to star in Edward My Son in the late 1940s, Katie followed but stayed in a different hotel.

By 1967 they were living in a house on the estate of the famous director George Cukor in Hollywood. Spence had not worked for years but was persuaded to star opposite Katie and a young Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner.

Nobody would insure Spence due to his failing health, so Katie and the director Stanley Kramer put up their salaries as security.

Somehow, with reduced filming hours and careful editing, Spence finished his last scene.

In fact I defy anyone with a heart watching the scene in which his character addresses the others about the importance of following true love and his glance to Katie without feeling a tear in your eye. The crew burst into applause and real tears flowed as everyone realised a movie great was never going to return.

A few weeks later, unable to sleep in the small hours of the night, Spence got up, went to the kitchen to make a cup of tea and collapsed with a fatal heart attack.

Katie summoned help and then packed up her belongings before the press and his wife arrived. On the day of his funeral she followed the hearse to the church but drove away to avoid a media scrum.

Today such a love affair would not raise an eyebrow but half a century ago marriage meant a bit more than today and society had a different set of moralities.

I wonder if anyone moving into Tracy Court will ever have heard of Spencer Tracy or even seen one of his films? Probably not, but I am glad to have been able to salute the wonderful career of a fine actor and I hope his family in California, 6,000 miles away, would be pleased.

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