“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
Out of all the actors to emerge from Hollywood’s Golden Age, one stands apart as an Everyman: Jimmy Stewart. Typically portraying characters who embrace their values no matter what hardships they face, Stewart became a face for honesty to oneself and subtle resilience. In addition to appearing in numerous iconic roles and cementing his place in cinematic stardom, both his on-screen personas and character off-screen were admirable.
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. Stewart was the oldest of three children, with two younger sisters named Virginia and Mary.
Stewart grew up in his family home atop “Vinegar Hill,” overlooking 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 often come home to their mother playing the piano. Though Stewart’s father discouraged his son from taking on piano lessons, music was still an integral part of Stewart’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, where he actively participated in football, track, and glee club. In addition to these commitments, he was the art editor for the school yearbook and wrote for the school literary society.
While Stewart worked hard at school, so, too, was the case at home. During the summer, he worked as a brick loader for a construction company in town, often painting lines on the roads. In addition to developing an interest in theater, Stewart also found work as an assistant to a professional magician during his summer breaks.
When Stewart was attending Mercersberg, he took on stage roles and began to gain confidence as an actor. Though he had a natural style of delivery and could memorize lines well, he often struggled with fluid movement onstage. In some cases, he would even trip on his own feet.
As Stewart began to polish his stage presence, he also pursued an interest in building model planes. Propelled by this curiosity and enthusiastically following Charles Lindbergh’s flight when he was home sick with scarlet fever, Stewart dreamed of realizing a career in aviation. However, Stewart’s father pressed for Stewart to attend Princeton University and made sure that Stewart was enrolled there.
At Princeton, Stewart exhibited a talent in architecture and secured a scholarship for graduate school as a result. At the same time, he continued cultivating his talents as an actor and joined the Princeton Triangle Club, paving the way for him to be part of the University Players as a summer stock cast member. As part of the group, Stewart found himself playing bit parts, even after graduation.
The University Players included the likes of Henry Fonda and Margaret Sullavan, with whom Stewart developed close friendships. In fact, Fonda and Stewart were also roommates for a time while they both worked to find opportunities to act professionally. After a string of participating in several unsuccessful plays, Stewart caught the attention of an MGM scout and agreed to take a screen test. Ultimately, the screen test led to Stewart signing a contract with MGM for seven years.
At first, Stewart was being used minimally by the studio and was namely called to participate in screen tests alongside potential actresses who were being tested by the studio. Due to his stature and shy presence, the studio executives had a difficult time finding roles that they felt would be appropriate for him. His first onscreen appearance was in a Shemp Howard short called Art Trouble in 1934.
As Stewart’s time at the studio continued, he progressed through several unremarkable roles–including a musical role in Born to Dance (1936), which required him to sing and dance–until he was cast in his first dramatic role in After the Thin Man (1936). Around the same time, Stewart reconnected with Sullavan, who insisted that he be her leading man and led to him taking on more successful film roles.
Of course, 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 (1938), and the political drama, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
After gaining attention through Capra’s films, Stewart was cast in The Philadelphia Story (1940), 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 his Indiana hardware store. With 28 films behind him, Stewart found himself 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. As his time in the service and accomplishments there continued, Stewart was promoted to major. Stewart continued to play a role in the Air Force after the war, reaching the rank of Brigadier General in 1959.
Stewart paid a visit to his hometown after his service in World War II, which was publicized widely 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 (1946), which is arguably one of his most memorable performances. Unfortunately, the film was a box office disappointment and Stewart began to doubt his career as an actor, as a result. Luckily, he found success again starring in Hitchcock films, such as Rear Window (1954) and Vertigo (1958), and spent a major part of his later years acting in Westerns.
After the war, Stewart married former model Gloria Hatrick McLean and adopted her two sons, Michael and Ronald. From that point on, Stewart’s family came first. He and Gloria had twin daughters, Judy and Kelly. Tragically, their son, Ronald, was killed in action in Vietnam while serving as a lieutenant in the Marine Corps.
Stewart and his wife maintained an active lifestyle, frequently hosting themed gatherings with their neighbors. In addition to enjoying gardening, the couple loved to travel the world. It was these travels that inspired Stewart to begin writing poetry, leading him to publish Jimmy Stewart and His Poems (1989).
Stewart returned to Indiana with his wife for his 75th birthday. The town honored him with a bronze, life-sized statue and dedication ceremony. Unfortunately, when the day of the dedication arriver, the statue was not ready. Instead, the town substituted a look-alike fiberglass statue in its place. 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 thought of returning to a quiet life in Indiana, his celebrity and busy career prevented him from doing so. Nonetheless, Stewart remained linked to his hometown and continues to be honored there to this day.
The Jimmy Stewart Museum functions as a hub for the community. Housed on the third floor of the Indiana Public Library, the museum contains items handpicked by Stewart himself for display. As a result, visitors can view a stunning collection of awards, memorabilia, props, costumes, family mementos, and even the front door to his Roxbury Drive home. The museum also portrays an interesting look at the Stewart family genealogy, while also carrying visitors through descriptions of each film. The exhibits also offer a focus upon Stewart’s time in Indiana and his contributions to the town later in life. 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.
Here are a few shots leading up to the museum:
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. A narration from a Jimmy Stewart impersonator will let you know when it is safe to cross.
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.
Moreover, the Stewart family home still stands atop Vinegar Hill on 104 North 7th Street. While the home is privately owned and no longer belongs to the Stewart family, distant relatives still reside in Indiana.
Shortly before his 80th birthday, Jimmy was asked how he wanted to be remembered. He wanted individuals to recall him “[a]s someone who ‘believed in hard work and love of country, love of family, and love of community.’” Stewart surely succeeded in this regard.
Click here to learn more about booking Hometowns to Hollywood’s presentations on Jimmy Stewart.