“I’ve settled down three thousand miles from Indiana. I’ve traveled to points in the world three times that distance. At times, I’ve stayed away several years at a stretch, but I somehow have never felt that I was very far from here … somehow I don’t feel that I have ever been away.” –James Stewart
What defines a life well lived?
Is it our thoughts? Our relationships? Our contributions? Perseverance, no matter what the challenge? Some Capra-esque patchwork of one life, giving way to the next? Maybe. Yet, we’re all different, and what we leave behind will be ineffably unique. Nobody’s perfect–and, in the acceptance of that fact, lies perfection.
I am a firm believer that George Baileys exist. They dream unfailingly. They’re the people who make the world tick, without even knowing how much of an impact they have. They ask for nothing in return. While George Bailey is a fictional imagining, the man who gave him life on the screen comes quite close to being humbleness, patriotism, and vivacity personified.
We all have our favorites, and Jimmy Stewart is mine. I admire the life he lived, the roles he played, and the optimistic, reflective attitude that guided him through his memorable life. He never forgot where he came from. He saw good in every person, and adventure in every place. His sense of self was never shattered by fame or fortune. Moreover, he lived a life of immense gratitude and contributed so much joy to his family, his hometown, and to millions of movie fans around the world.
Sure, I know I’ll never be perfect, but I don’t think it’s a bad goal to be a little more like Jimmy Stewart.
This blog post is particularly special to me because I feel like I’m almost writing about my best friend. There is something so delightfully human about Jimmy Stewart. He has some of the most iconic scenes in movie history: filibustering till he drops, lassoing the moon for his sweetheart, catching a killer by spying through the windows… This man only had one role as the “bad guy.” His persona on screen is admirable, but more importantly, so was his character in life.
James Maitland Stewart was born on May 20, 1908, in the coal-mining town of Indiana, Pennsylvania. His father owned a hardware store, while his mother taught piano lessons and played for the local Presbyterian church. James Stewart would be a lifelong, devout Presbyterian. Jimmy was the eldest of three children, with two younger sisters named Virginia and Mary.
Stewart grew up in his family home atop “Vinegar Hill,” which overlooks the downtown area of Indiana, Pennsylvania. As a boy, he would play with his friends and siblings outside the spacious hilltop. The Stewart children would come home to Mrs. Stewart playing the piano, as they would curiously look on and offer some of their own musical improvisations. Jimmy’s father discouraged his son from taking on piano lessons, but music was nevertheless a strong part of Jimmy’s life. Despite not pursuing more lessons in piano, Stewart did pick up the accordion, which he brought to prep school with him.
Jimmy attended Mercersberg Academy, and graduated in 1926. There, he was an active member within the school community. He played on the football and track teams, was art editor of the KARUX yearbook, sang in the glee club, and wrote for the John Marshall Literary Society.
During his first summer break, Stewart returned to his hometown to work as a brick loader for a local construction company and on highway and road construction jobs where he painted lines on the roads. Over the following two summers, he took a job as an assistant with a professional magician.
Stewart made his first appearance onstage at Mercersburg, as Buquet in the play The Wolves. He had a very natural style of delivery, but his biggest challenge was not in memorizing lines or delivering dramatic scenes. Rather, his fellow actors had to work with him on stage movement, as Stewart would often trip on his own feet.
Stewart spent much of his after-school time in the basement working on model airplanes, mechanical drawing and chemistry—all with a dream of going into aviation. It was a dream greatly enhanced by the legendary 1927 flight of Charles Lindbergh whose progress 19-year-old Stewart, then stricken with scarlet fever, was himself feverishly following from home.
Stewart abandoned his dream of being a pilot when his father insisted that Stewart attend Princeton University, where he enrolled as a member of the class of 1932. He excelled in studying architecture, so impressing his professors with his thesis on an airport design that he was awarded a scholarship for graduate studies. However, Stewart gradually became attracted to the school’s drama and music clubs, including the Princeton Triangle Club His acting and accordion talents at Princeton led him to be invited to the University Players, an intercollegiate summer stock company. Stewart performed in bit parts in the Players’ productions in Cape Cod during the summer of 1932, after he graduated.
The troupe had previously included Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan. Stewart and Fonda became great friends over the summer of 1932 when they shared an apartment with Joshua Logan and Myron McCormick. Stewart debuted on Broadway as a chauffeur in the comedy Goodbye Again, in which he had two lines. The New Yorker noted, “Mr. James Stewart’s chauffeur… comes on for three minutes and walks off to a round of spontaneous applause.”
The play was a moderate success, but times were hard. “From 1932 through 1934”, Stewart later recalled, “I’d only worked three months. Every play I got into folded.” Stewart and Fonda, still roommates, were both struggling. In the fall of 1934, Fonda’s success in The Farmer Takes a Wife took him to Hollywood. Finally, Stewart attracted the interest of MGM scout Bill Grady who saw Stewart on the opening night of Divided by Three, a glittering première with many luminaries in attendance, including Irving Berlin, Moss Hart, and Fonda, who had returned to New York for the show. With Fonda’s encouragement, Stewart agreed to take a screen test, after which he signed a contract with MGM in April 1935, as a contract player for up to seven years at $350 a week.
When reflecting upon the filmography of classic film stars, I hold a special place in my heart for those oddball film roles that occurred when the studio just didn’t know what to do with Jimmy Stewart. One such example is the Born to Dance (1936). The studio decided he wasn’t. Stewart did, however, tap into his glee club days and sang to a lovestruck Eleanor Powell. Later, Jimmy found time to poke fun at his early career after he had already established himself as a major star.
Stewart’s first job at the studio was as a participant in screen tests with newly arrived starlets. At first, he had trouble being cast in Hollywood films owing to his gangling looks and shy, humble screen presence. His first onscreen appearance was in a Shemp Howard short called Art Trouble in 1934. After having mixed success in films, he received his first intensely dramatic role, After the Thin Man. It wasn’t until Stewart met with Margaret Sullavan again that he began to star in a successful string of films, largely to her credit and insistence that he be her leading man.
Some of Stewart’s most iconic roles occurred under the direction of Frank Capra. Paired with one of the favorite screwball comedienne’s of the day, Jean Arthur, the two made an incredible team in Capra’s moving films. Stewart and Arthur worked together on the heartfelt You Can’t Take it With You, and political drama, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. After gaining attention through Capra’s films, Stewart was cast in The Philadelphia Story, and a broad range of comedic and dramatic films. Jimmy Stewart won an Oscar for Best Actor, thanks to his performance in The Philadelphia Story. He gifted the statuette to his father, who proudly displayed it in the hardware store. With 28 films under his belt, Stewart was drafted in 1940.
After failing to meet the weight requirements for the Army and Air Force (being five pounds under the 148 pound minimum), Stewart trained in the studio gymnasium until he was able to pass the minimal weight necessary to join the Air Force. Jimmy Stewart was the first major movie star to don a military uniform for service. He enlisted as a private, became a pilot, and was elevated to second lieutenant. By 1943, he was an instructor for an operational training unit, and became Captain James Stewart. After several weeks of training missions, in which Stewart flew with most of his combat crews, the group flew its first combat mission on December 13, 1943, to bomb the U-boat facilities at Kiel, Germany, followed three days later by a mission to Bremen. Stewart led the high squadron of the group formation on the first mission, and the entire group on the second. Following a mission to Ludwigshafen, Germany, on January 7, 1944, Stewart was promoted to major. Stewart continued to play a role in the Air Force after the war, reaching the rank of Brigadier General on July 23, 1959.
Jimmy paid a visit to his hometown after his service in World War II. His visit was widely publicized by LIFE magazine.
While home, Jimmy was also invited to judge a beauty contest. The following are pictures from my personal collection, as profiled in the 1941 Oak.
Stewart’s first film after the war was It’s a Wonderful Life, which is arguably one of his most memorable performances. Largely popular thanks to syndication, the film is almost essential entertainment for the holiday season. Unfortunately, the film was a flop when it came out, and Stewart began to doubt his career as an actor. Luckily, he found success again starring in Hitchcock films, such as Rear Window and Vertigo, and spent a major part of his later years in Westerns.
After World War II, Stewart settled down, at age 41, marrying former model Gloria Hatrick McLean. She was outgoing, well-educated and athletic. Jimmy would later say it was love at first sight. Gloria turned him from a notorious bachelor, who vowed to never marry, into a loyal family man. As Stewart loved to recount in self-mockery, “I, I, I pitched the big question to her last night and to my surprise she, she, she said yes!” He soon proposed and the two got married in 1949. He also adopted her two sons Michael and Ronald.
Jimmy had no problems adjusting to family life and from then on, his family came first. He and Gloria had twin daughters, Judy and Kelly, on May 7, 1951. Tragically, Ronald McLean was killed in action in Vietnam on June 8, 1969, at the age of 24, while serving as a lieutenant in the Marine Corps.
Jimmy and Gloria kept up an active lifestyle, frequently hosting themed gatherings with the neighbors at their home. Additionally, the two were avid gardeners. Stewart purchased the house next door to his own home at 918 North Roxbury Drive, razed the house, and installed his garden in the lot. The pair also loved to travel, which served as perfect fodder for Jimmy’s other talent of writing homespun poetry. Just try not to cry through his reading of “Beau,” written for his retriever.
In Jimmy Stewart and His Poems, Stewart even penned a tribute to the camera he and Gloria took along on an African safari. Sadly, the camera did not survive. He also wrote happy poems, I promise!
Jimmy and Gloria visited Indiana, Pennsylvania, again for Jimmy’s 75th birthday. This time, the town had quite the present for him–a bronze, life-sized statue and dedication ceremony! It really wasn’t bronze, however. The bronze statue cost $100,000, and it wasn’t ready in time for its 1983 dedication. So the town substituted a look-alike fiberglass statue, and no one noticed the difference — not even Jimmy, who flew in from California for the dedication. The real statue was eventually completed, and the fiberglass statue was moved next door as a display inside the Jimmy Stewart Museum, which opened in 1996. Both statues show Jimmy in his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington suit.
Jimmy and Gloria remained married until Gloria’s death from lung cancer on February 16, 1994, at the age of 75.
Jimmy never quite recovered from Gloria’s passing. He’d spend afternoons in the garden and chat with her, while remaining close to his family and friends. In 1996, Jimmy opted not to have the battery in his pacemaker changed, and to let his life run its natural course. Surrounded by his children on July 2, 1997, Stewart died at the age of 89 at his home in Beverly Hills, California, with his final words to his family being, “I’m going to be with Gloria now.”
Although Jimmy was always tempted to return to a quiet life in Indiana, his career kept him living closer to the movie-making industry. Nonetheless, his hometown never forgot him, and continues to celebrate him to this day.
Fans are known to do some crazy things, even if it involves an eight hour drive to Indiana, Pennsylvania. My journey was specifically to see the Jimmy Stewart Museum, housed on the third floor of the Indiana Public Library.
The town and museum are simple and quaint, but it’s exactly as Jimmy wanted it. Jimmy handpicked every single item that is on display, and it is quite a stunning collection of awards, memorabilia, props, costumes, and family memories. Unfortunately, the museum adheres to a strict no-photo policy, so my photos are rather limited. However, the museum did upload a nice virtual tour of the exhibit.
My absolute favorite part of the museum was the entry into the exhibit. I mentioned the Stewarts had a home on Roxbury Drive. Unfortunately, it seems that the latest trend in Hollywood is to buy and raze, and the once familiar Stewart home was razed. It now looks like this.
Luckily, someone managed to snag the door from the Roxbury home. The volunteer working at the museum explained to me that, “This is the same door that Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, and so many notables knocked on. This way, it feels like your walking right on into Jimmy’s home and exploring his life.” Incredible, incredible Hollywood history.
The museum also portrays an interesting look at the Stewart family genealogy, while also carrying visitors through descriptions of each film, and paying close attention to his time in Indiana and contributions to his hometown later in life. Another favorite item was seeing his costumes, military uniform, and tux. If you ever wanted to see how you measure up to Jimmy’s height, I can’t think of a better opportunity than to stand next to his clothes!
The Jimmy Stewart Museum is a nice little hub for the community. When I visited on a Saturday, a local school group of second graders was touring the museum in curious awe of the hometown hero. I know they have special tours for school groups, and this particular tour gathered in the museum’s theater area, which is where they show Jimmy’s films as part of their weekend matinee. The gentleman giving the tour sounded so much like James Stewart. It was like Jimmy was in the next room!
The woman working that day passed me a device for a free audio tour, since the group of kids was getting enthusiastic, but I was fine without it. It was a hoot to be surrounded by so many fellow fans! But the option is nice, in case you want to pursue it.
Here are a few shots leading up to the museum:
The Jimmy Stewart Museum is located at 835 Philadelphia Street, in Indiana, Pennsylvania. It’s open from 10am-4pm from Monday to Saturday, and from 12pm to 4pm on Sundays. Adult admission is $7, while seniors, military personnel, and students are $6. Children 6 and under are free. I highly recommend checking their film schedule, and visiting their website or Facebook page for more information.
The museum has struggled through some tough times, but just like a Capra film, they seem to be in good shape again, thanks to loyal fans. The Jimmy Stewart Museum is a terrific tribute to an incredibly humble human, and I highly recommend supporting them in any way possible. I can’t emphasize enough that fans are the lifeblood of a legacy. You are welcome to donate to the museum, pursue memberships with all kinds of perks, or make a purchase through their gift shop. Please do it for Jimmy.
I couldn’t resist.
After you visit the museum, I recommend taking a walk around the town that Jimmy held so dear. Don’t worry, Jimmy will let you know when it’s safe to cross. Awesome.
Next door to the museum, you’ll find the Jimmy Stewart statue. This photo was taken by an Indiana University of Pennsylvania student who “meets at Jimmy” with his friends every now and then. Many thanks!
Of course, a visit to Vinegar Hill is still necessary if you’re in town. The Stewart family home still stands on 104 North 7th Street, at the top of the hill. It is less wooded than it was in Jimmy’s day, and possibly recently so. When I visited, the view was slightly obstructed by freshly chopped trees and a temporary orange fence. The home is privately owned, so please be respectful to the current owners. The home no longer belongs to the Stewart family, but distant relatives still reside in Indiana.
The home is lovely, and clearly has a lot of history to it. The view overlooking downtown is also very charming, with plenty of rolling hills that characterize Western Pennsylvania’s winding roads. If that home ever goes on the market, I would love to own it!
Shortly before his 80th birthday, Jimmy was asked how he wanted to be remembered. He wanted to be reflected upon “As someone who ‘believed in hard work and love of country, love of family, and love of community.'”
I think he succeeded.
We should all be so lucky.
Click here to learn more about booking Hometowns to Hollywood’s presentations on Jimmy Stewart.