James Stewart

James Stewart was born on May 20, 1908, in Indiana, Pennsylvania. He was the son of a hardware store owner, a business he was supposed to take over. The store had been in the family for three generations.[1]

Stewart was a good student. He achieved reasonably good grades while also participating in the football and track teams. The young man also held the title of art editor of the school yearbook and belonged to the choir club, glee club, and John Marshall Literary Club. During his summers, he would perform a variety of jobs, one of which included being a magician’s assistant.[2]

Young James was a shy child that spent a lot of time building model airplanes. He dreamed of going into aviation and closely followed the career of Charles Lindbergh. In 1927, when Stewart was nineteen and sick with scarlet fever, Lindbergh made his infamous flight from Roosevelt Field Island, New York, to Paris, France. The world watched history unfold that day, and the door to the future was opened. Some would say that Stewart paying such close attention to this flight was foreshadowing since, thirty years later, in 1957, Stewart would play Lindbergh in the film Spirit of St. Lewis.[3]

In 1928 Stewart planned to attend the United States Naval Academy to become a pilot. His father talked him out of this plan, and he enrolled at Princeton University instead.[4] Here, he excelled at architecture, and his thesis on airport design was so good that his professors awarded him a full scholarship for graduate studies, a scholarship he never second guessed turning down.[5]

At this point, Stewart decided he would be an actor. He moved into an apartment with a young Henry Fonda, both of whom quickly found success.[6] One of his first roles would be in the play Goodbye Again. He had a two-line role that was dubbed absolutely marvelous by critics.[7]

Stewart quickly attracted MGM scouts’ attention, and he and Fonda were soon on their way to Hollywood.[8] Of course, Fonda had more original success. The pair continued to live together in Fonda’s studio-supplied apartment next door to Greta Garbo.[9]

It would be Margaret Sullavan, Fonda’s ex-wife, who would help finally launch Stewart’s successful career. In 1936 she insisted that Stewart play her leading man in Next Time We Love. She would also help him find an agent and land various other roles.[10]

War would interrupt Stewart’s life, much like it interrupted everyone else’s. In late 1940, Stewart enlisted in the military.[11] While he had been starting in movies, he had also fulfilled his lifelong goal of becoming a pilot. In 1935 he attained his private pilot certificate, and in 1938 his commercial pilot license. He already had over four hundred hours of air time when he enlisted.[12] Getting into the military was not that easy though.

When he attempted to enlist, he was turned away by more than one branch because he was five pounds underweight. On March 22, 1941, he was finally allowed to enlist and became the first major American movie star to wear a military uniform in World War II.[13]

After the war ended, James Stewart returned to Hollywood. His first movie in five years would one day become one of the most famous movies of all time. Of course, It’s a Wonderful Life did not do so well at the time. Nevertheless, it would be this movie that went on to define the life and career of James Stewart. He was a brilliant man who inspired millions, probably billions of people.

For the rest of his career, Stewart would have to contest with a new wave of young actors, the James Dean and Marlon Brando’s of the world. Stewart would almost always win. He would go on to work with Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock, John Wayne, and many other stars we still remember today.

Later in life, Stewart had an interesting political-themed life. In 1988 he spoke to Congress, along with Burt Lancaster, Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, and Martin Scorsese, against Ted Turner’s decision to colorize Hollywood classics. From 1987 to 1993, he worked with President Ronald Reagan, Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger, George Deukmejian, Bob Hope, and Charlton Heston to teach the public about the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.[14]

James Stewart was hospitalized in February 1997 because of an irregular heartbeat. He had previously needed a new pacemaker battery but opted not to get one. He said that he wanted to pass on naturally. On June 25, a blood clot formed in his right leg, and it burst a week later. He passed away on July 2, 1997, at eighty-nine.[15] Jimmy Stewart was a kind and influential man, one of the most wholesome men in Hollywood. He taught the world many things. Most importantly, Stewart taught us that it is indeed a wonderful life.

[1] Gary Fishgall, Pieces of Time: The Life of James Stewart (New York, NY: Scribner, 1997), 19 – 24.
[2] Mark Eliot, Jimmy Stewart: A Biography (New York, NY: Random House, 2006), 27.
[3] Lawrence J. Quirk, James Stewart: Behind the Scenes of a Wonderful Life (New York, NY: Applause, 1997), 14.
[4] Lawrence J. Quirk, James Stewart: Behind the Scenes of a Wonderful Life, 14.
[5] Scott Eyman, Hank and Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2017), 42.
[6] Mark Eliot, Jimmy Stewart: A Biography, 50–54.
[7] Donald Dewey, James Stewart: A Biography (Atlanta, GA: Turner Publishing, 1996), 109.
[8] Gary Fishgall, Pieces of Time: The Life of James Stewart, 68–69.
[9] Henry Fonda and Howard Teichmann, Fonda: My Life (New York, NY: A Signet Book, New American Library, 1981), 106.
[10]Gary Fishgall, Pieces of Time: The Life of James Stewart, 82–83.
[11] Ibid, 149–152.
[12] Starr Smith, Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot (St. Paul, Minnesota: Zenith Press, 2005), 25-26.
[13] Donald Dewey, James Stewart: A Biography, 213.
[14] Mark Eliot, Jimmy Stewart: A Biography, 384.
[15] Ibid, 409.

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