By Eric Kohanik,
He was as All-American as anyone could possibly be on the silver screen, so it’s no wonder that Jimmy Stewart became a Hollywood legend that everyone adored.
Onscreen, Stewart was widely revered for many film classics, including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Philadelphia Story, Rear Window, Vertigo and, of course, It’s a Wonderful Life. Offscreen, meanwhile, Stewart was remembered favorably as well, thanks to a personal life that was wholesome and admirable.
James Maitland Stewart was born in Indiana, PA., on May 20, 1908. His father owned a hardware store that had been started by Stewart’s grandfather. And, although his mother was an accomplished pianist, Stewart was steered away from taking piano lessons during his boyhood by his father, who had simply expected his son to carry on the family business.
Things changed, though, when Stewart’s father received an accordion as a gift. The youngster quickly learned to master the instrument and, according to multiple accounts, Stewart would go on to play the accordion, mostly offstage, during his entire acting career.
Although Stewart initially studied architecture at Princeton University, he soon became enchanted by Princeton’s Triangle Club — a musical comedy theater organization — leading him to refocus his career ambitions. After graduating in 1932, he became a close pal and roommate of Henry Fonda, sharing apartments in Cape Cod and New York, where the two young men launched their acting careers in summer-stock productions and on Broadway.
Encouraged by Fonda’s early success in Hollywood, Stewart was urged to take a screen test after a talent scout from MGM spotted him onstage. That led to a steady job as a contract player for the Hollywood studio — and a chance to share yet another apartment with Fonda in Los Angeles.
Stewart was a shy and humble guy. Nevertheless, he had a surprisingly impressive romantic life. In fact, both he and Fonda developed strong reputations as playboys. But Stewart’s image never strayed from the squeaky-clean luster that had always been such an integral part of him.
After briefly dating Ginger Rogers, Stewart ended up in a relationship with Fonda’s ex-wife, Margaret Sullavan, who had lobbied to have Stewart be her leading man in a 1936 romantic drama called Next Time We Love. After Sullavan, Stewart became involved in a brief — and, according to several sources, quite tumultuous — romance with Hollywood screen queen Norma Shearer. His amorous escapades after Shearer also included a brief affair with Marlene Dietrich while they were working on a 1939 Western called Destry Rides Again.
Stewart eventually settled down after World War II. He met and married Gloria Hatrick McLean in 1949, adopting both of her young sons from her first marriage. The couple went on to have twin daughters in 1951 and remained together until Gloria’s death in 1994. Stewart died three years later, at the age of 89, reportedly telling family members gathered at his bedside that he was “going to be with Gloria now.”
Throughout the years, Stewart became known for various philanthropic accomplishments. One of the most notable was the Jimmy Stewart Relay Marathon, launched in 1982 as an annual fundraiser for the Child and Family Development Center located at the St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA.
Having been a Boy Scout as a youth and a Scout leader as an adult, Stewart was also widely known for his steadfast support of the Boy Scouts of America. He continues to be acknowledged for his dedication to the organization through the James M. Stewart Good Citizenship Award, which has been handed out to Boy Scouts since 2003.
Stewart’s offscreen activities also included a variety of other interests that ranged from building model airplanes (a hobby he would eventually share with Fonda as well) and gardening to writing a bit of poetry every now and then. His most famous poetic effort, “Beau,” was a humorous and touching tribute to a golden retriever that Stewart and his wife had owned.
In fact, when Stewart read “Beau” for TV audiences during a memorable 1981 guest appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, the poem quickly garnered widespread national attention — and reaffirmed America’s love for the ultra-popular screen legend.
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