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Spencer Tracy: A Biography

Spencer Tracy: A Biography

3.9 21
by James Curtis

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“The best goddamned actor I’ve ever seen!”—George M. Cohan

His full name was Spencer Bonaventure Tracy. He was called “The Gray Fox” by Frank Sinatra; other actors called him the “The Pope.”

Spencer Tracy’s image on-screen was that of a self-reliant man whose sense of rectitude toward others was matched


“The best goddamned actor I’ve ever seen!”—George M. Cohan

His full name was Spencer Bonaventure Tracy. He was called “The Gray Fox” by Frank Sinatra; other actors called him the “The Pope.”

Spencer Tracy’s image on-screen was that of a self-reliant man whose sense of rectitude toward others was matched by his sense of humor toward himself. Whether he was Father Flanagan of Boys Town, Clarence Darrow of Inherit the Wind, or the crippled war veteran in Bad Day at Black Rock, Tracy was forever seen as a pillar of strength.

In his several comedy roles opposite Katharine Hepburn (Woman of the Year and Adam’s Rib among them) or in Father of the Bride with Elizabeth Taylor, Tracy was the sort of regular American guy one could depend on.

Now James Curtis, acclaimed biographer of Preston Sturges (“Definitive” —Variety), James Whale, and W. C. Fields (“By far the fullest, fairest, and most touching account . . . we have yet had. Or are likely to have” —Richard Schickel, The New York Times Book Review, cover review), gives us the life of one of the most revered screen actors of his generation.

Curtis writes of Tracy’s distinguished career, his deep Catholicism, his devoted relationship to his wife, his drinking that got him into so much trouble, and his twenty-six-year-long bond with his partner on-screen and off, Katharine Hepburn. Drawing on Tracy’s personal papers and writing with the full cooperation of Tracy’s daughter, Curtis tells the rich story of the brilliant but haunted man at the heart of the legend.

We see him from his boyhood in Milwaukee; given over to Dominican nuns (“They drill that religion in you”); his years struggling in regional shows and stock (Tracy had a photographic memory and an instinct for inhabiting a character from within); acting opposite his future wife, Louise Treadwell; marrying and having two children, their son, John, born deaf.

We see Tracy’s success on Broadway, his turning out mostly forgettable programmers with the Fox Film Corporation, and going to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and getting the kinds of roles that had eluded him in the past—a streetwise priest opposite Clark Gable in San Francisco; a screwball comedy, Libeled Lady; Kipling’s classic of the sea, Captains Courageous. Three years after arriving at MGM, Tracy became America’s top male star.

We see how Tracy embarked on a series of affairs with his costars . . . making Northwest Passage and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which brought Ingrid Bergman into his life. By the time the unhappy shoot was over, Tracy, looking to do a comedy, made Woman of the Year. Its unlikely costar: Katharine Hepburn.

We see Hepburn making Tracy her life’s project—protecting and sustaining him in the difficult job of being a top-tier movie star.

And we see Tracy’s wife, Louise, devoting herself to studying how deaf children could be taught to communicate orally with the hearing and speaking world.

Curtis writes that Tracy was ready to retire when producer-director Stanley Kramer recruited him for Inherit the Wind—a collaboration that led to Judgment at Nuremberg, It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and Tracy’s final picture, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner . . .

A rich, vibrant portrait—the most intimate and telling yet of this complex man considered by many to be the actor’s actor.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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: the epic drinking that halted productions and landed Tracy in jail and detox; the careful modulation of mood with Nembutal and Dexedrine; the bedding of starlets from Ingrid Bergman to Gene Tierney; the humiliating struggle with weight; the affectations (like an English toff, Tracy played polo). Curtis fingers Tracy's Catholic self-loathing and irrational guilt over his son's deafness and gives his relationship with Katharine Hepburn—he hit and perhaps choked her during drunken rages—a nuanced treatment. Still, this thoroughly researched, at times over-stuffed biography, gives us a rich and definitive portrait of the actor in all his baffling contradictions. Photos. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

“Definitive . . . [James Curtis] charts the life, loves and struggles of the Milwaukee-born, Oscar-winning screen legend in expert detail, leaving no source or story unchecked. . . Curtis taps deeply mined remembrances and fresh anecdotes collected in years of interviews with just about everyone in Tracy’s life.”
 —Chris Foran, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel 
“Definitive . . . well written. . . I marvel at the research.”
—David Thomson, The New York Review of Books  
“A great story about a great actor. . . [James Curtis] is an excellent researcher and writer . . . definitive . . . belongs in the classic movie fan’s library.”
 —Douglass K. Daniel, Associated Press
“Exhaustively researched. . . ”
—Jeff Dawson, The Sunday Times

“A balanced and intriguing look at one of the screen’s greatest actors . . . Curtis has obtained access to everything from Tracy’s datebooks to his health records . . . all of this research makes possible an incredibly detailed account of Tracy’s life . . . those who remember him will be fascinated; younger readers will be spurred to rent his film and revel in his talent.”
 —Booklist (starred)
“Impeccably researched . . . a monumental, definitive biography of one of the finest film actors in the history of the medium.”

Library Journal
Among his peers, Spencer Tracy (1900–67) was hailed as an actor's actor. Though he usually projected an outward air of confidence, he was plagued by periods of self-doubt, shyness, and insecurity; Catholic guilt; and drinking binges that affected his health and personal relationships. 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). Curtis (W.C. Fields) also covers Tracy's difficult, often long-distance marriage to Louise Treadwell; his role in parenting his deaf son, John; flings with Loretta Young and Gene Tierney; and, of course, his sometimes difficult but fruitful personal and professional relationship with Hepburn. VERDICT 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. Recommended for all film historians. [Three-city tour; see Prepub Alert, 4/4/11.]—Stephen Rees, formerly with Levittown Lib., PA
Kirkus Reviews

Spencer Tracy (1900–1967), warts and all.

Acclaimed biographer Curtis (W.C. Fields, 2003, etc.) presents an exhaustive and exhausting biography of the legendary Hollywood star, famed for his uncanny naturalism and authority on camera and best remembered for the series of films he made with longtime companion Katharine Hepburn.Impeccably researched, Curtis' doorstopper chronicles Tracy's steady rise from stock company star to Broadway sensation to silver screen icon in copious and sometimes plodding detail, recording salary negotiations, scheduling conflicts and press notices with laser-like focus. Happily, the author is equally expansive on the production details of Tracy's many classic films, his friendships and affairs with fellow glitterati and the culture of working actors in a variety of milieus. The heart of the book concerns Tracy's turbulent relationship with Hepburn; in Curtis' telling, it was a miraculous meeting of two diametrically opposed and difficult temperaments in which the neuroses and rough edges of each party found succor and understanding in the other. Truthfully, they both come across as monumentally annoying, and Tracy's lugubrious personality—guilt-ridden, painfully sensitive, diffident, gloomy—casts a bit of a pall over the narrative. Curtis is scrupulous but not salacious in documenting Tracy's catastrophic alcoholism and philandering. His long-suffering wife Louise (they never divorced, despite the open secret of his decades-long affair with Hepburn) emerges as an unlikely hero, an intelligent and proud woman who devoted her life to the establishment and expansion of The John Tracy Clinic, named for the couple's deaf son and tasked with improving the lot of deaf children and their parents through education and progressive treatments. Tracy regularly supplied funding for the clinic and seemed to regard its existence as the noblest aspect of his legacy—unsurprising for a self-loathing man who always reckoned he should have become a doctor or a priest and regarded his chosen profession as an embarrassment.

A monumental, definitive biography of one the finest film actors in the history of the medium.

Charles Matthews
Curtis has done Tracy a service in drawing attention to the power and finesse of his work both together with and apart from Hepburn.
—The Washington Post
Stephanie Zacharek
…[a] magical thing happens midway through Spencer Tracy, around the time Hepburn enters the picture. Gradually, Curtis's book becomes a much better biography, maybe even a great one, and I'm sorry to tell you that you won't get the full effect if you skip ahead. Because the second half of the book not only covers the years we all want to hear about, it puts everything in Tracy's earlier life into rich context. From the mist of all the details, the dimensions of a real human being, and not just a revered actor and movie star, emerge.
—The New York Times Book Review

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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9.50(w) x 6.58(h) x 2.04(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1: The Last Mile
In the years prior to 1924, Texas counties with inmates convicted of capital crimes conducted their own executions, generally by hanging. Then the legislature consolidated all such business at the State Penitentiary in Huntsville, establishing a death row at the birthplace of Sam Houston. Its centerpiece, at the end of a brief corridor adjacent to nine holding cells, was a handsome new electric chair, built of solid oak by prison craftsmen. They did their work well; over the next forty years, “Old Sparky” would become the final unpadded resting stop for 361 men and women on their way to court-mandated eternity. One such prisoner, a condemned killer called Robert Blake, was dispatched on April 19, 1929—but not before having set down on paper a taste of life in the Texas death house called “The Law Takes Its Toll.”

When the American Mercury posthumously published the sketch in July of that year, it attracted a lot of attention, including that of a twenty-two-year-old actor and playwright named Ely John Wexley. Blake’s account, in the form of a one-act play, covered the eighteen hours leading up to the execution of Number Six, one of a handful of condemned men—five white, one Mexican—at Huntsville. Number Seven breaks into verse more often than not, Number Nine has gone mad, howling “Jo-------nes!” at all hours. The talk among the others centers on clemency, then the banter turns grim as the details of the condemned man’s ritual play themselves out—the last meal, the slitting of the trouser legs, the shaving of the head, and the ceremonial reading of the death warrant.

“Wonder how it will feel,” Six muses. “I hope it won’t take long. Wonder if a fellow knows anything after the first shot hits him . . . You know, it’s funny. I was worse at my trial than I am here. I almost broke down there at the trial. I lost 15 pounds when my trial was going on.” The guard, having some difficulty opening the door to the death chamber, yanks at the lock and rattles it. Number Seven tells Six to take the keys and open the door himself. “I’d stay here until next Christmas before I’d open that door for ’em,” Six declares. “Well, the door is open. I’ll say goodbye to everybody again.”

These lines, Blake notes, were written while Six was being strapped into the chair. “I hope I am the last one that ever sits in this chair,” Six calls out. “Tell my mother that my last words were of her.” The lights go dim as they hear the whine of a motor. The others cry out, and then the lights go dim again and yet again. “They’re giving him the juice again!” shouts Number Five. “Wonder what they’re trying to do, cook him?”

Wexley saw the basis of a full-length play in “The Law Takes Its Toll,” struggled with the problem of expanding it to three acts until the events of October 3, 1929. The attempted escape of two prisoners at the Colorado State Penitentiary in Cañon City went awry when a guard was killed while grappling over a set of keys. Knowing they’d hang for his death and, consequently, had nothing to lose, the convicts began taking hostages. In the bloody standoff that followed, eight guards and five inmates were killed and another ten were wounded. Wexley plumbed the New York dailies for details of the riot, and his play took shape within a couple of weeks.

The first act was Blake’s sketch almost verbatim, Wexley’s chief liberty being to change Blake’s Mexican prisoner to a black man. The second and third acts portrayed an opportunistic escape attempt patterned on the events at Cañon City. In the end, the matter of a title was more vexing than the structure; Wexley had inserted bits of Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” amid the machine gun bursts of his play’s final moments (“Oh, the wild charge they made! All the world wondered!”) and so he decided to call it All the World Wondered. Inexplicably, his agent sent the play to producer Herman E. Shumlin, a onetime reporter and press agent whose track record was 0–4, his last play having tanked just two days prior to the onset of Black Tuesday. Shumlin, who was used to seeing only “the bottom of the barrel,” was astonished at the raw power of Wexley’s play and managed to scare up the money to produce it at a time when “all the backers anybody could think of were jumping out of high windows.”

“It was one o’clock when I finished reading it,” Shumlin recalled, “and I went all the way out to Brooklyn and woke up Sam Golden, the printer, and read it to him.* He gave me a check for $500 to buy an option on the play, I think maybe because he wanted to go back to bed. After that, my troubles began, raising the money to put the show on. I borrowed from a bank. I squeezed my relatives dry.” The title was the first thing to go, but it would be nearly a month before the play had the title under which it would see its Broadway debut: The Last Mile.

To direct, Shumlin selected Chester Erskine, who had earlier had a hand in staging The Criminal Code, a similarly themed prison drama that was one of the season’s few genuine hits. Briefly an actor but too tall and pale for anything but character work, Erskine knew the success of Wexley’s play would depend on its casting and the ability of its actors to inhabit their characters to the point of morbidity. Skeptical of Spencer Tracy from the outset, Erskine regarded their meeting as a courtesy at first, not the urgent mating dance that comes with the ideal match of actor and role. “I had seen a few of his performances,” Shumlin said, “and was not overly impressed by him as a candidate for the lead in The Last Mile. I was just about to dismiss him when something about our too-brief casting interview stayed with me. Since it was getting on to dinnertime, I invited him to join me at a theatrical haunt. There, in a less strained atmosphere, I was suddenly made aware as we were talking that, beneath the surface, here was a man of passion, violence, sensitivity, and desperation: no ordinary man, and just the man for the part.”

Wexley’s play was intense, grim, uncompromising; hard to take over the course of three acts. And there were no women in the cast, an anomaly on Broadway, where the ticket-buying decisions were often made by wives and girlfriends and where the matinee trade was crucial to the success of a show. Louise, as was her habit, read the script and told Spence she thought it “pretty bad.” There was little that jumped off the page, other than the unusually coarse language tossed between the prisoners. “It was so violent, she said, grimacing. “That was the kind of part I never liked him in.”

Tracy’s contract for All the World Wondered, signed on January 14, 1930, called for his now standard price of $400 a week, payable Saturdays, and weekly bonuses of $50 and $100 if the gross hit $8,000 and $10,000, respectively. Rehearsals began the following day, Tracy meeting his fellow prisoners for the first time: James Bell, who would play the gutsy Richard Walters, Cell 7, whose execution is imminent as the curtain rises; Howard Phillips, whose hot-tempered Fred Mayor, Cell 3, would be next in rotation; Hale Norcross, who, as “Red” Kirby, Cell 9, would be the graybeard, the senior member of the group; Ernest Whitman, the muscular black man engaged to play the superstitious Vincent Jackson, Cell 13; George Leach, chosen by Erskine to play Eddie Werner, Cell 11, Wexley’s crazy man, a poet of sorts; and Joseph Spurin-Calleia, the Maltese actor and singer who would by playing the dapper Tom D’Amoro, Cell No. 1. All took their places alongside the men who would be their captors: Don Costello, Herbert Heywood, Orville Harris, Ralph Theadore, Richard Abbott, Henry O’Neill, Clarence Chase, Allen Jenkins, Albert West.

“The sixteen were seated in a straight line across the stage,” Herman Shumlin recalled, “and when they read their parts for the first time, it was clear they meant business . . . Maybe (in part, at least) the absence of women in the cast had something to do with it too. With no good-looking actress to make them feel self-conscious, they seemed to forget they were actors of long experience, with all kinds of past performances and position to live up to. Instead, they gave themselves up completely to the emotional fury of the play and into the guiding hands of the director.”

“Tracy was perfect. Tracy made the show. But then Tracy got worried and he said he wouldn’t do it. He had to shoot a priest in the play and he said he’d rather not.” Henry O’Neill, the actor playing Father O’Connors and a fellow Catholic, could see that Tracy’s torment was deep and genuine and not simply a dodge, and he took him downtown to see a priest. As Shumlin remembered it, “The father told Tracy he need have no scruples,” but then Wexley fixed the problem by writing the priest’s death out of the script altogether, finding the mere threat of his shooting more effective in sustaining the tension than the act itself.

Erskine quickly got the show on its feet, marking out the individual cells—each just two and a half steps wide—on the floor with a piece of chalk. Tracy spent a lot of time miming the window in the back of his cell, looking out to such an exaggerated degree that Erskine, three years his junior, made a memorable comment: “Spence, I didn’t tell you to break the window, I told you to look through it.” His point, which Tracy took to heart, was that a good actor didn’t look out the window—he let the audience look out the window.

“He was,” said Erskine, “cooperative and disciplined, and set an attitude for the other performers who followed his lead. He was the kind of actor whom a director leans on for just such behavior.” They spent such long hours at it that Tracy took a room at the Lambs Club, three blocks from the theater, to avoid traveling all the way home to Ninety-eighth Street. Tensions ran high, rehearsal being a thoroughly emotional process, and there were more than the usual flashes of temper.

“I cannot remember,” wrote Tracy, “when I have spent so much time with other members of the cast outside of the theater, discussing the story of the play back and forth. And I don’t think any of us can ever forget the first dress rehearsal inside the completed prison set. It had been all very well to pretend to be clutching at bars on bare and dingy stages—but now, confined within a four-by-nine cell, chafing at real cold steel—well, it was a sensation! The end of the first act found us rushing out into the wings, desperate for cigarettes. Nobody had any intention of staying in the cell longer than necessary.”

Never before had Tracy immersed himself so deeply in a part, and never had he felt so completely drained by one. “As Killer Mears he had to expose a less-winning phase of his personality,” Erskine said, “one which might unlock secrets of his inner self and which he would have preferred to remain hidden. It is a choice many actors have to make but which only the artists can survive.”
Tempting fate, Shumlin set the New York opening of the play, still titled All the World Wondered, for February 13, pointing out that the numerals in “1930” added up to thirteen. Tryouts took place at Parsons’ Theatre in Hartford beginning on the sixth, and the cast, to a man, was dubious. “They all felt that the play was a good one, an unusual one,” Shumlin said, “but they were almost all a little doubtful of its chances for success. This was hardly astonishing since it departed to such a great extent from the traditional rules of what a successful play should be.”

That first performance was a ragged affair, the set being insubstantial compared to what they would have in New York, but Tracy as Mears was letter perfect. “Tracy fought the role through rehearsal—not the doing of it, but the surrendering to it,” Erskine said. “When, however, he finally did surrender to it, it was total, absolute, and frightening. He did not simulate anger and violence, he was anger and violence. In one night—at the out-of town opening—he changed from a presentable juvenile and a hopeful leading man to an artist, a true artist. He had crossed the threshold into that area where he could submerge himself in a role to the point of eliminating himself completely, to the point where he could no longer tell which was which himself.”

Meet the Author

James Curtis is the author of W. C. Fields: A Biography; James Whale: A New World of Gods and Monsters; and Between Flops: A Biography of Preston Sturges. Curtis is married and lives in Brea, California.

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Spencer Tracy 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
SagebrushCA More than 1 year ago
This is the long awaited biography of Spencer Tracy by James Curtis and it is certainly worth the wait. James Curtis has written, by far, the best biography ever written about Tracy. Tracy has had a dismal history with the genre of the celebrity biography. There are only two full length Tracy biographies written prior to this book; one the fine but too brief and occasionally inaccurate book by Larry Swindell (1969), and the really poor, extremely fictionalized account of Tracy's life by Bill Davidson (1988). However, there have been more than 30 biographies of Katharine Hepburn published over the years. Most of those are highly inaccurate with regard to Hepburn and even more so on the subject of Spencer Tracy. In the Hepburn books, the facts of Tracy's life have consistently been misstated, including a huge variety of inaccurate and often malicious stories about his alcoholism, family life and relationship with Hepburn. Curtis spent more than five years researching and writing this book and has drawn on the considerable research of another writer, Selden West, who originally was going to write the book but eventually withdrew from the project. Most importantly Curtis had the complete cooperation of Tracy's daughter, Susie, and access to the journals Tracy maintained for much of his adult life as well as correspondence, medical and business records and the recollections of close family members in Freeport, IL and elsewhere. Curtis also, had access to interviews done with Katharine Hepburn by Selden West, an extensive narrative written by Louise Tracy about her life, as well as many interviews with people who worked with Tracy and others who knew him well including Katharine Houghton and the late TV executive William Self. Curtis creates a vivid portrait of Spencer Tracy setting forth all the various influences on Tracy's life; the demands on him, personally, financially and emotionally. In the process Curtis debunks many of the myths that have built up around Tracy and brings clarity and vast amounts of new information to the life of Spencer Tracy and those were close to him. This is the definitive biography of Tracy and one of the best actor biographies I've ever read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A slow but interesting read, a bit too heavy on the resume.
OperaLuvrIA More than 1 year ago
This excellent biography weighs in at 700+ pages but every one of the pages is worth reading. The author has done an outstanding job researching his subject and those people Tracy held close to his heart. Spencer Tracy was an enigma to most but in reading this book I discovered he was first and foremost a true Catholic and all that label carries with it. When I finished, I actually missed Tracy and Hepburn and those "Movie people".
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Spencer Tracy made most of his films before I was born or shortly thereafter, and I grew up watching them on TV. I loved them all and the book explains why: he became the characters he protrayed, threw himself totally into each role and listened intently to his fellow actors as they spoke their lines as if he were hearing them for the first time. This is a detailed biography, right down to the discussions that took place around each film, even those which Tracy eventually didn't appear in. His notes and remarks on each role that he did play will add to my enjoyment of his movies when I watch them again. As for Tracy the person, it was a surprise to learn of his problems with alcohol, and he is to be credited for performing as well as he did through the years of abstinence and binges that poisoned him. I also appreciated the perspective on his relationship with Katharine Hepburn, because it's not the usual dreamy all-was-well perfection that I've read before. This makes me even more of a fan, because he made the most of his talent and triumphed despite his limitations.
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Come back babe
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I wanted to read a definitive biography of Spencer Tracy and this book was certainly long enough. It was slow reading for me until about page 200 or so when things started to pick up with details about Tracy's more familiar film roles.
Montrealreader More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this smart, well documented biography. Couldn't put the thing down...
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Dear Angel, <br> <br> U know how u have feeling for someone but dont know if they're feelings or deeper. Well, it happened to me. It was a couple of months ago when i was dating Caylee and Tracy told me she liked me. At first i thought she liked Nate but when she told me, i realized that deep down i had some love for her too. Then she got to know me more and when Caylee disappeared she was like my back bone, my pillow. And thn sh let me stay at her house and all those times i wanted to kiss her. I wanted to feel our lips together and know it will all wayz be like this. And then Caddie jumped into the picture. I wont lie, there were fights that left me angry at my self,left me feling like my only Angel has gone away. All those times i wanted her to kiss me awake and tell me it was a nightmare and nothing will ever break us. After a while things sortaish died down and then i found out Will had a crush on Tracy. I felt like i was stab<_>bed in the back by my own friend. Tracy then told me she never had feelings for Will and it made me soo happy to know i wasnt going to lose her just yet. As the dayz followed i grew to want Tracy or more than gf and bf. I wanted to marry her. And we are today, so Tracy i love u more than anything. <br> Urs Truely, <br> <br> Kyle MacGrath
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's 1,300 pages of tedious detail so if you are a big fan then this is the book for you. It gets into every play, movie, friend, drink, woman, train ride, hotel room, argument etc. It also offers excerpts from scripts. For me the book was more than twice the length it needed to be but to be fair I am not a die hard fan. I purchased this book wanting to know what kind of man he was and some of the more interesting points of his life, including family and of course Hepburn. If I had paid attention to the # of pages before purchasing the Nook version that would have told me that I was going to learn more than I wanted to.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I gtg ttyl