Jimmy Stewart: A Biography

( 16 )

Overview

Jimmy Stewart’s all-American good looks, boyish charm, and deceptively easygoing style of acting made him one of Hollywood’s greatest and most enduring stars. Despite the indelible image he projected of innocence and quiet self-assurance, Stewart’s life was more complex and sophisticated than most of the characters he played. With fresh insight and unprecedented access, bestselling biographer Marc Eliot finally tells the previously untold story of one of our greatest screen and ...
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Overview

Jimmy Stewart’s all-American good looks, boyish charm, and deceptively easygoing style of acting made him one of Hollywood’s greatest and most enduring stars. Despite the indelible image he projected of innocence and quiet self-assurance, Stewart’s life was more complex and sophisticated than most of the characters he played. With fresh insight and unprecedented access, bestselling biographer Marc Eliot finally tells the previously untold story of one of our greatest screen and real-life heroes.

Born into a family of high military honor and economic success dominated by a powerful father, Stewart developed an interest in theater while attending Princeton University. Upon graduation, he roomed with the then-unknown Henry Fonda, and the two began a friendship that lasted a lifetime. While he harbored a secret unrequited love for Margaret Sullavan, Stewart was paired with many of Hollywood’s most famous, most beautiful, and most alluring leading ladies during his extended bachelorhood, among them Ginger Rogers, Olivia de Havilland, Loretta Young, and the notorious Marlene Dietrich.

After becoming a star playing a hero in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939 and winning an Academy Award the following year for his performance in George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, Stewart was drafted into the Armed Forces and became a hero in real life. When he returned to Hollywood, he discovered that not only the town had changed, but so had he. Stewart’s combat experiences left him emotionally scarred, and his deepening darkness perfectly positioned him for the ’50s, in which he made his greatest films, for Anthony Mann (Winchester ’73 and Bend of the River) and, most spectacularly, Alfred Hitchcock, in his triple meditation on marriage, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and Vertigo, which many film critics regard as the best American movie ever made.

While Stewart's career thrived, so did his personal life. A marriage in his forties, the adoption of his wife’s two sons from a previous marriage, and the birth of his twin daughters laid the foundation for a happy life, until an unexpected tragedy had a shocking effect on his final years.

Intimate and richly detailed, Jimmy Stewart is a fascinating portrait of a multi-faceted and much-admired actor as well as an extraordinary slice of Hollywood history.

“Probably the best actor who’s ever hit the screen.” —Frank Capra

“He taught me that it was possible to remain who you are and not be tainted by your environment. He was not an actor . . . he was the real thing.” —Kim Novak

“He was uniquely talented and a good friend.” —Frank Sinatra

“He was a shy, modest man who belonged to cinema nobility.” —Jack Valenti

“There is nobody like him today.” —June Allyson

“He was one of the nicest, most unassuming persons I have known in my life. His career speaks for itself.” —Johnny Carson

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
James Stewart told fellow actors to "never treat your audience as customers, always as partners." That sense of intimacy translated into viewer loyalty. Even today, his fans think of him as "Jimmy," a nickname that never appeared in his movie credits. Marc Eliot's comprehensive biography tracks the long (1908-97) and eventful (92 films, television programs, and shorts) life of this Hollywood and American icon. Eliot explores the two-time Oscar winner's friendships, romances, and politics, and his often surprising choice of movie roles.
From the Publisher
"It was a wonderful- and long- life, and Eliot...covers it all."
-USA Today

From the Hardcover edition.

Publishers Weekly
Eliot, a seasoned leading-man biographer (Cary Grant), turns in an exhaustive report on Stewart, throwing open new windows on America's boy-next-door with archival research, new photographs and anecdotes from Stewart's daughter, Kelly. Born to reserved parents in Pennsylvania, Stewart dipped his feet into theater at Princeton, joining the University Players troupe and cementing a fateful friendship with Henry Fonda. In the lean years of the Depression, Stewart won acclaim for Broadway roles, striking out West in 1935 to star in Capra films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Stewart, whose grandfather was a Civil War hero, obligingly joined the air force to lead bombing raids in Europe during World War II. Upon a safe return, he took on diverse genre roles from westerns to thrillers, shading his characters with depth and dimension. Alfred Hitchcock played deftly on Stewart's Boy Scout likability by giving him vaguely sinister roles in Rear Window and Vertigo. Stewart's heyday came in 1955, when the media anointed him king of Hollywood, knocking John Wayne to second banana. As Eliot chronicles Stewart's films and friendships, he entertains the usual speculation of illicit starlet affairs and brooding disillusionment, but he can't find much to tarnish this Golden Age icon. Photos. (Oct.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Jimmy Stewart, perhaps America's most beloved film actor, is the subject of two biographies this year-this one by Eliot (Cary Grant: A Biography) and Michael Munn's Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend. The broad facts of Stewart's life are well known: he worked in his father's Pennsylvania hardware store; he rose to fame in Hollywood and developed several high-profile friendships, collaborations, and romances; he served honorably as an aviator in World War II; and at age 41, he married former model Gloria Hatrick McLean. Eliot fleshes out those events via access to personal papers and correspondences, as well as anecdotes from one of Stewart's twin daughters (it is important to note, however, that this biography is not "authorized"). The result is a thorough and intimate examination of Stewart's life and career that, while marred by occasionally awkward prose, makes a worthwhile addition to any public or academic library. (Index not seen.)-Peter Thornell, Hingham P.L., MA Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An actor's life, presented admiringly-after all, the subject is a plain-spoken American beau ideal. Jimmy Stewart (1908-97), firmly lodged in the motion-picture pantheon throughout the studio-contract days and beyond, was a Princetonian, a modest war hero, sincerely Presbyterian, hardworking, happily married, politically conservative and a preternaturally gifted actor. As depicted by veteran Hollywood biographer Eliot (Cary Grant, 2004, etc.) in a full and fulsome portrait, he truly had a wonderful life. Discounting sojourns in theatre and later in TV, the Hollywood artist enjoyed one of the great film careers, starring in some of the classic Capra and Hitchcock films. Supporting players in his life story include Henry Fonda (as best friend), dazzling Margaret Sullavan, flawless Grace Kelly (for female leads) and an all-star cast of performers, producers, directors and agents. This is the story of how Stewart got the work he wanted and about the making and the makers of movies. There's the obligatory backlot gossip concerning libidinous actors in heat (apparently their natural state) and some emblematic tittle-tattle. (Stewart, for example, was obliged to allay suspicions of homosexuality by visiting MGM's in-house bordello.) Eliot succumbs to Variety-style jargon ("helmer" or "body-mover" for "director") and hyperbolic press-agent syntax ("Jimmy was about to be reborn into the stratosphere of cinematic starlight") and purple prose (he "was busy diving into the deep waters of Dietrich's ocean of sexual delights"). The biographer provides major film-plot synopses with sexual and theological implications most readers surely never considered. In a shot at scholarship, he provides footnotes(frequently listing annual Oscars) as well as endnotes (with insufficient citations for many assertions). Nonetheless, Eliot makes abundant errors in minor details. But this casual treatment of extraneous facts hardly interferes with a good story about the movies and one of its stars. Stout, readable story about how a nice guy got his acting chops and became one of Hollywood's greats.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781400052226
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/25/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 224,096
  • Product dimensions: 9.04 (w) x 10.90 (h) x 1.09 (d)

Meet the Author

Marc Eliot is the New York Times bestselling author of more than a dozen books on popular culture, among them the highly acclaimed biography Cary Grant, the award-winning Walt Disney: Hollywood’s Dark Prince, Down 42nd Street, Take It from Me (with Erin Brockovich), Down Thunder Road: The Making of Bruce Springsteen, To the Limit: The Untold Story of the Eagles, and Death of a Rebel. He has been featured in many documentaries about film and music and has written on the media and popular culture for numerous publications, including Penthouse, L.A. Weekly, and California magazine. He divides his time among New York City; Woodstock, New York; and Los Angeles. Visit him at marceliot.net.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

PART ONE

— • —

Jimsy and Genesis

“My earliest memories are of hardware smells. The dry aroma of coiled rope. The sweet smell of linseed oil and baseball gloves. The acid tang of open nail kegs. When I open my nose, they all come back to me.”—Jimmy Stewart

His mother, Elizabeth Ruth Jackson Stewart, whom everyone knew as Bessie, called her only son Jimsy. It was a rare sign of warmth and affection to the boy in the otherwise rigid, turn-of-the-century middle-class American Presbyterian household in which James Maitland Stewart grew up, a household with a proud lineage tinted with vivid reds, whites, and blues. Elizabeth was descended from a long line of Jacksons, the first having arrived in the Colonies in 1773. From their homes in Pennsylvania, every male first-generation Jackson eagerly signed on to fight in the Revolution. This call to arms soon became a family tradition as generation after generation of Jacksons unhesitatingly fought whenever freedom demanded it, including the War of 1812 and then the American Civil War.

In June 1863, Bessie’s father, Colonel Samuel Jackson, heroically led the charge of his troops onto the infamous battlefield at Gettysburg, survived the bloody carnage, and was duly rewarded for his valor. His proud family in attendance, Jackson was promoted personally by General Grant to the northern army’s elite rank of brigadier general.

After the war, Jackson moved his family farther west, to the burgeoning industrial town of Apollo, just outside of Indiana, Pennsylvania, and about fifty-five miles east of Pittsburgh, in the foothills of the Appalachian plateau. Once settled, Jackson agreed to allow investors to capitalize on his military fame as a way to help raise money to form the Apollo Trust Company. In return, he was made president of the Trust and given a permanent seat on its corporate board. Using Apollo money, Jackson supervised the financial reorganization and massive physical reconstruction of P.H. Kaufman Steel, which helped rejuvenate Pittsburgh’s then war-weary industry and gave the entire state a much-needed economic boost. Not long after, the appreciative citizens of Pennsylvania elected him to several state and federal offices.

Along with social prominence and political power, Jackson accumulated a significant personal fortune, and at the ripe old age of thirty- four, decided it was time to start a family of his own. He met and married Mary E. Wilson, eleven years his junior, who, everyone agreed, was the most attractive unmarried woman in town.

Their union produced five children, the third of which was Elizabeth Ruth—Bessie—a popular child despite the fact that her looks were far from what the rakish Jackson had imagined a daughter of his and Mary’s would be like. In truth, Bessie was rather plain, with a circular face accented by drooping eyebrows and a down-curved mouth, nothing at all like the long line of tall, lean aristocratic Jacksons. What she lacked in traditional beauty, however, she made up for in social skills.

For one thing, Bessie was an expert musician with a special affinity for the piano, good enough as a teenager to be asked to play the organ every Sunday at the Apollo Presbyterian Church services, which she did for nearly fifteen years. Her playing charmed everyone, but no one more than the thirty-four-year-old war veteran and prominent Apollo businessman Alexander M. Stewart.

His father was James Maitland Stewart the first, or J.M. as he was universally referred to, the tenth child of John Kerr Stewart, who had come to America from County Antrim, Ireland, in 1784, eager to make his mark in the New World.

J.M. Stewart was born in 1839, attended Dayton Academy and Westminster College, after which, in 1864, just shy of his twenty- fifth birthday, he enlisted in the Signal Corps to fight for the North in the Civil War. He saw action at Winchester, Cedar Creek, Fisher’s Hill, and in several other battles near and about Richmond, Virginia. When the war ended, J.M. returned to Indiana County and became a partner in the retail hardware business Sutton, Marshall and Stewart, which had been started in 1848 by John and Peter Sutton and W. B. Marshall, and was later joined by J.M.’s older brother, Archibald. That same year, the Suttons and Marshall left the business, with Marshall forming his own retail outlet to sell dry goods and notions, while Archibald, with the help of J.M, continued on, selling hardware, groceries, grain, and lumber.

Three years later, J.M. married the town beauty, Virginia (Jennie) Kelly, once she finally accepted the last of his many proposals, having already turned him down several times because of his excessive drinking. Although he promised he would stop, he didn’t, and she then broke off their engagement a month before the scheduled wedding was to take place, until he swore “under God” that he would be a worthy husband and father.

Jennie eventually married J.M. and gave birth to four sons, two of whom died in childhood. One of the survivors was Alexander Maitland (A.M.), a tall, tough youngster who grew to manhood known affectionately as the “wild” Maitland, because of his love of fun and good times. His father, J.M., saw his own youthful reflection in the boy, and sent him off to Princeton in the hopes that the demands of higher education and religious formality would straighten him out.

Alexander dutifully majored in chemistry until his senior year, when the six-foot-three, good-looking young man became obsessed with the daily events that were leading up to the outbreak of the Spanish- American War. Only months before graduating, he left Princeton to enlist, leaving so quickly that it was said he didn’t even have time to turn off his Bunsen burner. He was sent to Cuba, but was disappointed not to see any real action. When the war ended, he returned to Apollo, determined to settle down and make a decent life for himself. He made a deal to buy out his aging father and uncle, and became the hardware store’s sole proprietor. Then he decided it was time to find a wife.

In 1906, Alexander proposed marriage to thirty-one-year-old Bessie Jackson, saving her from the unfortunate but seemingly inevitable old- maid life predicted for her by the growing whispers about town. The church wedding was held on December 19, 1906, after which the squarely built, muscular Alexander carried her across the threshold of their new home on Philadelphia Street that he sanctimoniously christened “The Garden of Eden.” On Wednesday morning, May 20, 1908, the Stewarts became the proud parents of James Maitland Stewart, named after his most distinguished paternal grandfather.

Whatever fun-loving, youthful adventurism Alexander had left quickly evaporated, replaced by an increasing Fundamentalist-driven devotion to the store. His face became an endless map of brow-wrinkling concern, as the weight of responsibility for the family’s now- struggling business fell heavily upon his broad shoulders. He worked diligently, believing, as both the church and Princeton had taught him, that hard work and productivity were the pathways to earthly success, and that, in turn, was the only true avenue to heavenly immortality. Likewise, anything unproductive was the devil’s doing, even his Bessie’s nightly parlor-room playing of the family Steinway grand piano—unless it was church music she was practicing, which, all too often, Alexander knew, it was not.

Nor did he appreciate her “social singing,” fine for the church choir, but not the local music club’s amateur shows. When she agreed to take a role in Madame Butterfly, Alexander’s spirited, preachy protestations only made her laugh. Marriage, she was reminded of once more, had indeed changed her “wild” Alexander more than she thought it ever possibly could. His singular focus had shifted from seeing how much whiskey he could drink to how late he could keep open the doors of the J.M. Stewart and Company Hardware Store, or the Big Warehouse, as it was known to everyone in the neighborhood. To that end he now expected Bessie to play the dutiful, supportive wife, and her appearance in Madame Butterfly was not exactly what he had in mind.

Although Bessie called her little boy, whom she adored and showered with affection, Jimsy, he was Jimbo to his father because of his chubbiness, which annoyed the ramrod-tight, tough, and trim Alexander. It also didn’t help matters any that Jimbo was utterly enchanted by his mother’s music. He loved to sit in the parlor after the family had finished dinner and listen to Bessie’s sweet and simple 3D4 melodies. One day he asked his mother to teach him how to play, a suggestion that Alexander immediately discouraged and that set off a battle between him and Bessie as to the need for music in the home at all. The standoff ended only when Alexander received a most unexpected form of remuneration for a bill one of his customers could not afford to pay.

It was Alexander’s policy, influenced no doubt by his Fundamentalist tilt, to encourage hospitality to those less fortunate, including, interestingly, any and all local traveling entertainment companies that happened to pass through Indiana. Alexander believed that those who earned an honest living, even if in (the wholesome side of) show business, were doing some form of God’s work. When young Jim, who loved horses, convinced his father to take him to watch a carnival set up their tents and attractions, Alexander, as a gesture of goodwill, invited several of the carnies home to dinner, and even extended some of the performers credit to purchase supplies at the store. As it happened, one of them was unable to pay his bill, and offered instead an accordion he claimed had been in his family “for generations.” Alexander reluctantly accepted the instrument. Fine for them and their tents, unacceptable for him and his home. But as a good Christian he took it, put it away, and forgot about it. That is, until Bessie found it one day and decided to teach Jimsy how to play some melodies on it. Although Bessie’s knowledge of the instrument was limited to the right, or keyboard, hand, the friendly local barber, who had learned to play the music box as a child on the streets of his native Italy, volunteered to teach the boy the rest of what he would ever need to know.

— • —

Bessie gave birth to Mary Wilson, or “Doddie,” in January 1912. Two years later, in October 1914, Virginia Kelly, or “Ginny,” arrived. As soon as she was old enough, Ginny was given the seat next to Bessie on the piano bench and taught to play harmony on the higher keys while Doddie was trained on the fiddle. After dinner Bessie and Ginny liked to play piano duets, with Jim on the accordion and Doddie creaking along on her little string box.

At times even the reluctant Alexander joined the makeshift family band. Although known for his booming bass at church, he purposely sang softly at home so as not to drown out the others. And he always made a point of balancing the mirth with a healthy dose of preaching: the meaning and value of the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, or one of the many stories he had memorized word for word from the New Testament.

Bessie did not really object all that much to Alexander’s strict, if ritualistic, home rule. Rather, she found in it evidence of an intense level of care and affection from a faithful, hardworking husband. Even when Alexander raised his voice to rail against some local injustice, real or imagined, or something one of the children did that displeased him, she never challenged him directly, preferring to use her calming influence to quietly talk things over later, after the children were all soundly asleep.

She especially appreciated the close relationship Alexander had developed with their son. Once the two girls were born, it quickly became apparent to her that Jimsy, who for the first three and a half years of his life had flowered as the sole object of her maternal attention, had developed an intense shyness at home whenever his father was away at the store. Things were no better at school. He did not make many friends there or participate in any of the group after-class activities, preferring to come directly home and head for the basement, where he worked on hobbies he was able to pursue and be entertained from by himself.

Of these, his outright favorite was building model airplanes. After the 1903 miracle flight the Wright brothers had made off the shores of North Carolina, a decade of youth grew up dreaming of one day flying above the clouds and into the hitherto unknown of the clear blue skies. Benefiting from his father’s endless supplies of nails, wood, glues, hammers, and saws, and the many 100-to-1-scale model parts Alexander bought for him, young Jimmy used kites, string, metal rings, and the works of a broken-down alarm clock for a motor to turn a push-mobile he had been given one Christmas into a model two-seater large enough for him to sit in and “fly” around the family backyard.

One day, after convincing himself his “plane” was aerodynamically sound, the precocious nine-and-a-half-year-old dragged the thing up the staircase to the attic, where he pushed it through the large windows onto the adjoining sloping roof of the wash house and “took off.” Just then, his father, hearing the commotion, rushed from the house and dove beneath the falling contraption, softening the impact and allowing the boy to escape with only a few minor bruises and cuts.

After making sure his Jimbo was not seriously hurt, Alexander firmly admonished the boy for being so reckless, but carefully avoided discouraging his sense of daring and adventure, which, in truth, he wished he saw more of. He was concerned the boy was being “smothered” by his mother and two sisters, and was not getting enough exposure to “real men.” Despite the near tragedy of the model airplane incident, it reassured the senior Stewart that his son was beginning to show signs of more “manly” pursuits than playing the accordion. Still, believing the boy needed a safer hobby, he bought one of the new crystal sets that had just come on the market and encouraged Jimbo to pursue another of the new century’s phenomena, radio.

If Jimmy was upset at having his plane-hobbying time reduced, he dared not show it, at least not directly. He feared going up against the hard rule of his father. With no other male in the house, Jimmy’s main companion became loneliness. While throughout his life, in public at least, he chose to recall only the perfection of his happy childhood, privately he confessed to friends a somewhat different version. “I worshipped my parents and felt protective toward my sisters; I knew I had to please the folks . . . but in some ways I was lonely—damned lonely. There was some things I just couldn’t talk about.”

From the Hardcover edition.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 16 )
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 19 of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 5, 2009

    I am a great fan of Jimmy Stewart--but skip this book!

    I love biographies and Jimmy Stewart. Therefore I was deeply disappointed in this book. I have seen most of his films and do NOT need a play by play description of them! I want to know about the MAN! On top of that many of the movie plot descriptions were incorrect! Skip this book and let us hope for a better one on the life of our George Bailey.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 26, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I love Jimmy Stewart!

    I really was looking forward to this book, but it has turned out to be one of the longest reads ever! The author did his research, but jumps around WAY TOO MUCH! And goes into WAY TOO MUCH detail on other people in Jimmy's life. Also, if you don't ever want to see Vertigo then read this book, for the author goes into painfully explicit detail on the movie. I will not be reading anything else by this author for sure.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 29, 2009

    Nice Guys are Boring

    This book was BORING as heck. Jimmy Stewart was a really fine actor and a great guy who led an exemplary life. This does not make for an interesting story.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2014

    After reading this book, I had to wonder how much was true to li

    After reading this book, I had to wonder how much was true to life considering all of the obvious mistakes. The author made constant plot mistakes and couldn't keep his facts straight. A good editor would have helped this book a lot, not only in correcting the mistakes but also cutting out a couple hundred pages of worthless dribble. Jimmy deserved better.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 27, 2008

    I Also Recommend:

    QUICK READ

    THIS BOOK WAS A VERY QUICK READ AND TOUCHED ON JIMMY'S LIFE FROM BEGININNG TO END. THE ONLY DOWN SIDE OF THE BOOK IS THAT IT SUMMERIZED A LOT OF THE MOVIES THAT HE PARTICIPATED ON. BOOK HAD A GOOD COLLECTION OF PICTURES.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 21, 2013

    A girl

    I gtg anyways my moms takeing awy my nook bye

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2012

    Uh

    Djjffvhjfueufpleaseififfcccffjddh cnjjchatdkdkdddanyonedkfkfkfkfc

    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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