04/25/2012 01:30 pm ET Updated Jun 25, 2012

The Greatest (Saddest?) Love Story Ever Told

Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn were intimate for 26 years, after meeting on the set of their first film together, Woman of the Year. They starred together in nine films, including Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, the last film Tracy made shortly before his death. Hepburn won an Academy Award for Dinner, which portrayed an interracial marriage in 1967 when the Supreme Court outlawed "anti-miscegenation" laws. Tracy and Hepburn's films together are critical in the distinguished careers of both of them, among the handful of leading twentieth-century film stars.

Tracy died in a small outlying house on the large Hollywood estate of director George Cukor. He and Hepburn lived together there for the last years of Tracy's life, for the first time in their quarter of a century together. Before that, as well as Tracy's periodic affairs with other actresses (Ingrid Bergman, Gene Tierney), and Hepburn's own peripatetic career, including long forays in Canada and Australia performing Shakespeare, as well as various stints filming on location in Europe, Tracy never divorced his wife, Louise, with whom he maintained regular contact. Tracy often cited his contributions to the foundation Louise started and administered for educating deaf children (their son, John, was deaf) as his greatest source of pride.

Moreover, Hepburn only fully committed her life to Tracy after her own father -- with whom she had an intensely close relationship -- died a few years before Tracy did. As Hepburn's niece, Katharine Houghton, put it: "I've no doubt she focused more completely on Spencer after Hep's [her grandfather's] death because now he was her only lifeline to herself. . . ."

Although the Tracy-Hepburn affair was well-known in Hollywood, it was not publicly acknowledged. News coverage of Tracy's death did not include the information that Hepburn -- and only she -- was present when he died. Hepburn never herself married nor had children of her own; Tracy and Louise had a daughter Susie, in addition to son John. Hepburn had no official role the family. A few days after Tracy's death, Hepburn called Louise and asked to maintain contact with her and the children, which Louise ignored, just as Hepburn was ignored at the memorial service and interment of Tracy. A few small trinkets she asked to be put in Tracy's casket were not included and the tags were removed from the flowers she sent to the service. According to biographer James Curtis:

On the morning of the funeral, Kate arrived at the mortuary a little after eight, intent, she later admitted, on following the hearse to the church and then slipping inside.... As the church came into view, they could see the crowds.... "Goodbye, friend -- here's where we leave you...."

And with that, she tapped the brake and watched as the hearse and its precious cargo eased away.

Hepburn was not an easy woman. Indeed, the worst evidence against Hepburn is presented in the Curtis biography by her niece, Katharine Houghton, who played her and Tracy's daughter and Sidney Poitier's bride in Dinner. Houghton admired and liked Tracy, and felt Hepburn kept the two of them apart during the filming.

Kate lit into me later: "Spencer thinks you're the most ungrateful person in the world. Here I have done all of this for you [getting Houghton her role in the movie] and you're so ungrateful." Her way of talking to me me was one of the reasons I left Hollywood soon after the film was over. It did not impress me as the right way to behave. If she was doing that to me [her sister's daughter], I have to assume that she did it to other people, and maybe, to a certain extent, she was manipulative with him too.

What most struck people about Hepburn's dealings with Tracy at this late point in their lives together was how completely she subjugated herself to him -- so much at odds with her image as a powerful, self-determining woman, particularly in the political and commercial hothouse of Hollywood. Maureen Dowd, for instance, was shocked by this passage from Hepburn's own 1991 memoir, Me:

We did what he liked. We lived a life which he liked. I struggled to change all the qualities I felt he didn't like. Some of them which I thought were my best I thought he found irksome. I removed them, squelched them as far as I was able....

And, of course, Tracy's poor health was created by his smoking, drinking, poor diet and lack of exercise -- all areas in which Hepburn was a role model. Yet she could do nothing to improve Tracy's lifestyle, even though this might have improved his health and prolonged his life.

People remarked on how Hepburn raced around fetching things for Tracy, who was -- after all -- somewhat older, in poor health and often irksome himself. It seemed, as Hepburn noted, that as a woman of "a certain age," whose film career at the time was stalled, she was grateful to have any place in the universe at all, even it it was as Tracy's factotum.

Was this love?