Jimmy Stewart: A Biography
by Marc Eliot
Harmony, 463 pp., $25.95
In 1955 Lookmagazine declared Jimmy Stewart the most popular movie star on the planet. He starred in three films that year, all directed by Anthony Mann—The Far Country, Strategic Air Command, and The Man from Laramie—and the year before had enjoyed particular success in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Although his roles in these films ranged from that of a voyeuristic photographer glued to the activities of his Greenwich Village neighbors to a vengeful horseman subjected to a series of vividly depicted brutalities, his image for most people remained that of a man deeply amiable and unaffectedly sincere; toward women bashful and courteous; among his fellow citizens modest to a fault and reliable in any kind of fix: someone in short that you would be pleased to find living next door.
As a small boy at the time, even without having seen many of his movies, I could sense the tremendous affection he elicited. He was a surrogate family member in a way more common then than now. Indeed, with his co-star June Allyson, who played his wife in four films, he established a model for what would later seem the ideal American couple, 1950s style: decent but not stern, fun-loving but not reckless, materially comfortable but utterly unpretentious. However closely he may have been associated with emblems of national power in movies like Strategic Air Command and The FBI Story, he himself seemed benignly unthreatening.
The hesitant drawl, the hand gestures that substituted for words that wouldn’t always come, the slightly awkward carriage as he tried to find space for himself in interiors that were always a little too small for his tall and narrow frame, and, beyond these identifying traits, the catch in the voice at moments of intimate communication, the glistening of eyes on the edge of tears: these were so familiar as to enable one to evoke effortlessly not just an image but a three-dimensional being known through and through. If as a teenager I attempted to imitate him at parties, it was partly because it seemed deceptively easy, but also because to impersonate Stewart was to become him for a few moments, and that felt quite satisfying, as one’s own shyness and awkwardness were redeemed by Stewart’s heroic versions of the same traits.
He had preserved into middle age just enough of the boyishness and naive enthusiasm that animated his pre-war performances in films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and The Philadelphia Story (1940) to keep that earlier impression alive for his longtime fans. It was only gradually that one registered just how completely the war years, when he was a bomber pilot, had altered him, within and without. Yet despite how much he may have changed, some part of him managed still to embody the ideal of the small-town boy, the sort of man that every Boy Scout supposedly aspired to become. In his birthplace—and even the name of Indiana, Pennsylvania, has the perfect American hometown ring—there is a statue of him outside the courthouse and a Jimmy Stewart Museum on the site of his father’s hardware store, dedicated to preserving his legacy as actor, family man, and war hero.
Such is the myth in its blandest formulation. But here the myth is close enough to the reality to create a problem for biographers in search of lively gossip and high drama. The scandal of Stewart’s life is the absence of scandal. Marc Eliot, in his extensively researched follow-up to his recent biography of Cary Grant, ends up, for example, devoting quite a lot of space to other people’s sex lives in order to add the requisite Hollywood coloring to his life of Stewart. There is an almost comical flavor to his account of the young actor, newly imported from Broadway by MGM, being pursued by Ginger Rogers, Norma Shearer, and Marlene Dietrich with, apparently, only moderate success. (Rogers, Eliot claims, was Stewart’s first lover; she had also been the object of his youthful admiration in the early talkie Campus Sweethearts.) A Boy Scout in Gomorrah, surrounded by roisterers like Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, Stewart evidently was often content to spend his offscreen time building model airplanes, flying kites with his closest friend, Henry Fonda, or reading Flash Gordon comic strips. The most outrageous anecdote retailed here involves Stewart being pressured by the studio to frequent MGM’s private brothel (maintained so that Louis B. Mayer could exercise some measure of control over his contract stars’ sex lives) in order to verify his heterosexuality.
Eliot reads in this chaste standoffishness the lingering aftereffects of Stewart’s Presbyterian upbringing. The actor, born in 1908, does seem to have imbibed pretty thoroughly the moral outlook of a family that valued hard work and patriotic service above all else. Both his grandfathers fought in the Civil War, and both went successfully into business thereafter. Stewart’s father, Alexander, served in turn in the Spanish-American War and in World War I, and ran the family hardware store until his death in 1962. Marc Eliot casts Alexander Stewart as the dominant figure in his son’s life, a rather stern but idolized father who at least initially professed only the most grudging interest in Stewart’s stardom and was more concerned that Jimmy should honor the family tradition by serving in the military, as he eventually did.
The peculiar emotional intensity of Stewart’s acting, his ability to expose raw feeling in a way that seems unmediated, takes on a different significance if seen as the performance of someone for whom acting will always be an act of rebellion against a powerful and demanding father who placed no value on it. The odd mixture of defiance and shame that comes through sometimes might well be the mark of someone torn in opposite ways. In his father’s fulmination, recollected by his son years later—”No Stewart has ever gone into show business!”—we catch an echo of an earlier American horror of the theatrical, a near-biblical sense of taboo attaching to theatrical representation and, by association, to the presumed moral laxness of “show people.” No doubt Stewart carried a good deal of the nineteenth century around with him, and that he seems at home in the small-town Wild West of, say, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is not just acting.
The show business part of the story as Eliot tells it has a remarkable simplicity. It’s as if he just drifted into it, or perhaps that’s the way he preferred to reimagine it in later tellings. Little Jimmy sat listening to his mother Bessie play the piano, learned the accordion, formed a theater company to produce in the basement at age eight a play called To Hell with the Kaiser. Working a summer job as a projectionist, he became infatuated with movies. By getting to know the director Joshua Logan in his sophomore year at Princeton—where Stewart was majoring in electrical engineering with a view toward a career in architecture—he made the crucial connection that would lead him to summer stock (where he formed lifelong bonds with Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan), and from there to Broadway (where he finally drew some attention with a role in Sidney Howard’s Yellow Jack) and to Hollywood. He had no formal training; according to Eliot, his most meaningful acting lessons came from Margaret Sullavan, who taught him to adapt his stagy technique to the movies, and from George Cukor, who got him to discard the mannerisms he had begun to rely on. Cukor’s lesson must have stuck, because although Stewart had a full stock of mannerisms to draw on as needed, at his best he knew perfectly well how to let them all drop away.
Clearly he loved acting, loved the theater, loved the movies, yet as an actor he lacks entirely the self-satisfied bravado of the guilt-free ham. It’s as if in the heart of his playacting some residual drama of self-denial is still going on. This translates as modesty, circumspection, gravity, control. He does not so much plunge as slip into acting, and the sense of freedom he finds there is always visibly tentative. His famous stammering pauses create an anxious space in which the scene’s progression is held at bay while he plays for time, defending himself against being rushed into anything.
He had few peers at miming discomfort, whether physical or moral. That flair for discomfort sees him through a role for which he was clearly miscast, the Nietzschean professor in Hitchcock’s Rope. There are moments in the film when we almost seem to see him as the young, uncertain summer stock actor, with Hitchcock’s one-reel-take technique doubtless accentuating the stage jitters. Stewart holds things together by force of will, but the tension that comes from his not being quite right for the part or the milieu is real enough to get him across an arid stretch of rhetoric—for a moment he seems almost the high school thespian mouthing words in which he has no real stake—to reach at the end of it a persuasive moment of shock and disgust that makes the whole scene seem real.
Reading a biography of Stewart it is impossible to avoid the impression that he did not especially want his life to be read. Marc Eliot leads us through the paces of his career, and we are able to imagine them with a certain vividness because we have always those mannerisms and that unforgettable voice so close by, almost inhabiting us, so that Stewart himself seems to step in to help out his biographer by animating what would otherwise be a succession of anecdotes, statistics, and plot summaries. Yet the heart is elsewhere, never quite visible. However busy the public life Stewart led—as actor, as reserve air force officer (ultimately promoted to brigadier general), as enthusiastic campaigner for Barry Goldwater and his close friend Ronald Reagan—everything important seems to happen offstage. Certainly Stewart himself offered little in the way of verbal self-revelation.
His privacy is not so much that of the man who wants to hide or to lead a secret life undisturbed, but of the true loner, the man at home in his privacy: at home even if depressed. Eliot suggests that Stewart underwent “a recurring series of isolating, dispiriting depressions,” although he cannot tell us much about the genesis or aftermath of these crises. The scenes of slightly melancholy bachelor life sketched in the beginning of Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder seem of a piece with some phases of Stewart’s own life, and he brings remarkable understated expressiveness to the simple actions of a man inhabiting a house where he has lived alone for a long time.
Stewart married relatively late in life, certainly by Hollywood standards—he met Gloria McLean, the divorced mother of two sons by the notorious socialite Ned McLean, at forty at a dinner party at Gary Cooper’s house, and they were married a year later. Twin daughters were born in 1951. The marriage was also unusual by Hollywood standards in that it endured. The tragedy of Stewart’s later life was the death of his stepson, a marine, in Vietnam in 1968.