Spencer Tracy in 'Captains Courageous'

Milwaukee’s Spencer Tracy Crafted One of Hollywood’s Greatest Legacies

The nine-time Oscar nominee had a soft spot for his hometown.

According to a 1950 poll of his Hollywood peers, Milwaukee’s Spencer Tracy was the greatest movie star of the sound era. He was nominated for an Academy Award for this final film, 1967’s Look Who’s Coming to Dinner. It was his ninth nomination for Best Actor, an all-time record. He was also the first actor to ever win the award twice. He was among the most popular stars of his time and made plenty of news off-screen as well, mostly for his long-rumored extramarital romance with Katharine Hepburn.

Spencer Bonaventure Tracy (know most of his life as “Spence”) was born on April 5, 1900 in his family’s Prospect Avenue apartment. Shortly after, his parents moved Spencer and his older brother Carroll, to a home on West St. Paul Avenue, the first of many moves the Tracys would make in Milwaukee. His father, John, was a sale manager at the Sterling Motor Company. He earned a good living, but had a drinking habit that often caused him to disappear on days-long benders. Young Spencer found a respite at the movies, favoring South Kinnickinnic Avenue’s Theatre Comique when the family lived in Bay View and later Third Street’s opulent Princess Theater when the family moved to Grand Avenue (now W. Wisconsin Ave.). By the time he was 12, he was staging small magic shows and reenacting scenes from his favorite films.

At Marquette University High School, he became friends with a fellow Irish-American named Pat O’Brien. The two enrolled in the Navy together in the waning days of the First World War, but never saw combat. Both Tracy and O’Brien had an itch for the theater during their college years, Tracy at Ripon College and O’Brien at Marquette. O’Brien would later become a star actor in his own right and was a close friend of Tracy’s for the rest of his life.

In 1922, after two years in Ripon, Tracy left Wisconsin for good and moved to New York to find work as an actor. He spent seven years working in obscurity before a role in The Last Mile on Broadway helped to win him a movie contract with Fox. He made 25 pictures for Fox before jumping to MGM and breaking out as a leading man. He won back-to-back Academy Awards in 1937 and ’38 while becoming one of the most highly-regarded actors in Hollywood. In 1941, he made Woman of the Year with Katharine Hepburn and the two began an affair that would last until his death. Although he separated from his wife after meeting Hepburn, he was never divorced and he and Hepburn did not live together until the last years of his life.

Tracy made only a few public returns to Milwaukee after he moved away, but visited the city several times secretly to meet up with old drinking buddies. Like his father, Tracy had a long-term problem with alcohol. Milwaukee Sentinel columnist Buck Herzog recalled after Tracy’s death that Tracy often slipped into the city to spend long evenings at Sam Pick’s Club Madrid or the Milwaukee Athletic Club. Tracy’s last visit to the city might have come in 1944, when he met up with Herzog and company at the Hotel Pfister. Herzog recalled that Tracy was by then drinking scotch and milk to sooth the pain of his chronic ulcers.

Tracy worked regularly until the final years of his life. After 1961’s Judgment at Nuremburg, he made just a few appearances before appearing one last time with Hepburn in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. He died just 17 days after his work on film was completed.