They starred in nine movies together and were involved personally for over 25 years, but, according to some, the legendary relationship between Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy wasn’t a romantic one. Instead, various insiders have claimed over the years that either one or both of them were gay, and that they used their relationship to conceal that fact.
Of course, Hepburn and Tracy aren’t around to dispute these claims, most of which came to light after both actors had died—Tracy in 1967 and Hepburn in 2003. In fact, their relationship itself was somewhat hidden. Hepburn didn’t speak publicly about being with Tracy until after his death. So, if the insiders are correct, the Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner actors would have been conducting a secret relationship in order to keep other secrets.
Read on to find out more about this Hollywood couple, including the claims that their relationship was for show.
The two stars first worked together on the 1942 movie Woman of the Year, and their personal relationship began there. Tracy was still married to Louise Treadwill—they wed in 1923 and welcomed two children—but they were separated. The two never legally divorced, because of Tracy’s Catholic beliefs and because Louise reportedly never requested a divorce. They stayed married but lived their own lives apart from each other.
Even though they starred opposite each other in so many films, Hepburn and Tracy kept their love affair somewhat under wraps. Reportedly, this was because Tracy was still married and their affair could bring attention that would negatively impact their films. Also, Hepburn wasn’t concerned with getting married again—she had already been married to Ludlow Ogden Smith from 1928 to 1934.
Gene Kelly once said that Tracy and Hepburn’s relationship wasn’t secret within Hollywood, however. “At lunchtime they’d just meet and sit on a bench on the lot,” he said (via People). “They’d hold hands and talk—and everybody left them alone in their little private world.”
Hepburn waited until Tracy’s wife died until she spoke about her relationship with him publicly. She wrote about him in her 1991 memoir, Me: Stories of My Life, and she told Katie Couric in an interview, “He was a witty, amusing, entertaining man with a rather difficult nature. It was easy for me to please Spencer, because I loved him … He had a wonderful sense of humor, and a remarkable memory. And I mean, what attracted me to Spencer Tracy is… magic.”
Insiders have said that Hepburn and Tracy’s apparent romance was hiding the true secret: That they were engaging in other relationships, and that Hepburn was a lesbian and Tracy possibly gay or bisexual.
Scotty Bowers, a man who arranged same-sex relationships and hook-ups under the radar in Hollywood, spoke out about the stars he knew to be closeted in his 2012 book Full Service: My Adventures in Hollywood and the Secret Sex Lives of the Stars and in the 2017 documentary Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood. Bowers claims that Tracy and Hepburn were both gay, and that their relationship was a cover.
IndieWire asked Bowers how gay Tracy was and he said, “He got drunk and thanked the man beside him in the morning for taking care of him” before sharing a sexually explicit comment about the actor. Asked the same question about Hepburn, he said, “She loved one woman for 40 years who left her to marry a rich man.”
Screenwriter and playwright Larry Kramer told The Hollywood Reporter in 2015 that “Hepburn and Spencer Tracy were both gay,” and everyone knew it.
“They were publicly paired together by the studio,” Kramer said. “Everyone in Hollywood knows this is true, but of course I haven’t seen it printed anywhere.”
Gossip columnist and friend of Hepburn’s Liz Smith spoke about the four-time Oscar-winner in Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood and claimed that Hepburn had same-sex relationships, according to BuzzFeed News.
Additionally, the book Katharine Hepburn: The Untold Story by James Robert Parrish includes claims that Hepburn was bisexual or a lesbian and that her relationship with Tracy was actually just a friendship, according to The Bay Area Reporter. The book says that Hepburn purposely began promoting the story of their great love herself later in her life.
One of the names that often comes up in conjunction with the rumors about Hepburn and Tracy’s relationship is Phyllis Wilbourn. She was Hepburn’s longtime assistant, who is sometimes said to have been her “companion,” or the person she was actually in love with.
Biographer A. Scott Berg wrote in the 2003 book Kate Remembered (via the Los Angeles Times), “Although many people over the years have made certain assumptions about Miss Hepburn and her ‘companion,’ there was nothing even vaguely sexual about their alliance.” That said, he also recalled a possibly illuminating exchange between Hepburn, Wilbourn, and himself.
“You’ve met Phyllis Wilbourn,” Berg wrote that Hepburn said to him. He went on to claim that she called Wilbourn, “My Alice B. Toklas.” Toklas was the partner of writer Gertrude Stein. “I wish you wouldn’t say that,” Wilbourn responded, according to Berg. “It makes me sound like an old lesbian, and I’m not.”
When Wilbourn died, prior to Hepburn, she was buried alongside Hepburn’s family.