Jimmy Stewart Plays the Accordion, Hates Oatmeal, Builds Model Airplanes with Henry Fonda, Loves His Wife, Is a War Hero, and A Genuinely Nice Guy. But Don’t Mess With Him!
Star of the Month: Jimmy Stewart
You know a movie star is pretty special if through his stellar career, and decades after his last film and passing, the whole world still affectionately refers to him by his nickname: even though very few of us ever met or personally knew Jimmy Stewart, we all feel comfortable calling him “Jimmy.” It’s just so natural, as if Stewart himself told us to skip the formalities.
Now that’s a unique star.
Jimmy Stewart: One of a Kind
I think it’s pretty safe to say that there never has been, and never will be, a movie star quite like Jimmy Stewart. This was a man who was as genuinely kind off screen as he appeared to be onscreen in his most lovable roles.
But don’t let that nice guy image fool you—Stewart could play complicated characters with the best of them. However, as his children would later attest, Jimmy left work at the film studio: acting wasn’t his life, it was his profession; one he loved, but a profession nonetheless.
If you asked Jimmy Stewart what the greatest things in his life were, I’m confident he’d tell you family, friends, and his life-changing experiences as a bomber pilot flying B-24 Liberators during WWII.
And he may even mention the accordion.
Though we all feel comfortable calling him “Jimmy,” there’s much about this beloved screen legend that may surprise you.
Here are a few things about Jimmy Stewart you didn’t know:
He's From Indiana. Pennsylvania, That Is.
James Maitland Stewart was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania on May 20, 1908. His mother Elizabeth instilled a love of music and culture in Jimmy and his two younger sisters at an early age, while his father Alex owned the local hardware store, and planned for his son to take over the family business one day.
Young Jimmy possessed a natural talent for mechanical drawing, and with all the tools and supplies of the hardware store at his fingertips, discovered another talent for engineering. As a boy, Jim spent much of his free time tinkering away in the family’s basement, building model airplanes, scaled replicas of such historic structures as the Eiffel Tower and the Woolworth Building, and constructing crystal radios, which the entrepreneurial Jim then sold as a side business.
“Jim was no slouch. He had a talent for technical things. Never was much good academically, but he could make things. He told me that when he was twelve, he made a crystal radio. He said he did it with oatmeal boxes and wires. I didn’t believe him, so he made one—and the damn thing WORKED!”
He Wasn’t Always So Skinny
One of Jimmy Stewart’s trademarks was his tall, extremely slender frame. Though keeping on weight proved a constant battle for Jim the majority of his life—a combination of his high metabolism, nervous stomach, and distaste for large meals and over-eating—Jimmy Stewart was reportedly a chubby, healthy kid in his early years, inspiring his father Alex to nickname him Jimbo. According to Jimmy [aff. link],
“It’s kinda hard to believe, but when I was a baby I was a good round shape. I was eight pounds when I was born but…somewhere on the way…through the years…I got kinda thin!”
Jim says he was a normal, healthy weight until just about age thirteen, when
“suddenly I shot up…and at the same time I got thinner. My folks were a little concerned if only because they had to keep buying me new suits…
Both my dad and grandfather were tall, so my height was no great surprise. But no one in our family was so thin. Mom got very worried about that and she made me eat huge portions of oatmeal every morning. It didn’t make me put on any weight…but it did make me hate oatmeal so much I haven’t eaten it since.”
The Favorite Foods of Jimmy Stewart
While oatmeal was obviously not one of them, according to Jimmy’s daughter Kelly, his favorite foods stayed basically the same throughout his life. Chasen’s, the famous Hollywood eatery, remained a favorite of Jim’s from his early Hollywood days to the restaurant’s closing in 1995. It was pretty much a guarantee that at Chasen’s, Jimmy would order either the chili and cheese toast, Sole Hitchcock, or vichyssoise. And if he was in the mood, dessert was always, always a single scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Be sure to check out my recipe for Jimmy Stewart Chili Cheese Toast, inspired by the famous chili at Chasen’s, Jim’s favorite restaurant.
He Was Religious
Jimmy Stewart was raised in a devout Presbyterian home, where his father in particular encouraged his son to “put your faith in god.” As Jimmy himself later said of his upbringing [aff. link]:
“It wasn’t just a one-day-a-week religion. At mealtimes we’d hold hands and give thanks for the food we had. Sunday evenings we’d sing hymns at home. As children my sisters and I didn’t have religion force-fed to us. It was just part of family life.”
Jimmy’s wife Gloria later credited her husband’s religious upbringing with instilling in him at a young age the values that made Jimmy “a decent, honorable and patriotic human being.”
Whether as a young boy praying for his father to return home safely from WWI, as a WWII bomber pilot seeking safety for the men in his squadron, or as a father himself, mourning the death of his stepson in Vietnam, Jimmy Stewart relied on his faith:
“It’s incredible just how strong a simple faith in God can be. It isn’t that God is actually going to protect [you]…because you have faith. It’s simply that having faith takes away your fear. I know that’s true from the terrible experience of losing my son in Vietnam. God just can’t be there to protect every good soldier. It just doesn’t work that way. You can only hope to do the best you can in this life…and trust there’s something better waiting for all of us. And I guess that’s what true faith is.”
He Went to Princeton
Jimmy’s father Alex was adamant that his son go to Princeton. A former student of the prestigious university himself, Alex expected Jimmy to graduate from Princeton, then come back home to Indiana and take over the family hardware store. Though a smart kid, Jimmy wasn’t a particularly stellar student. But attending his high school years at the prestigious Mercersberg Academy, combined with Alex’s ties to the university, were enough to get Jimmy into Princeton as part of the class of 1932, where he made the honor roll his junior year.
Jimmy ultimately graduated with a degree in electrical engineering, unofficially minoring in mechanical drawing, which helped him earn a scholarship to Princeton’s architecture graduate program. Jim was all set to return to Princeton as a grad student, but those plans were permanently altered when an opportunity arose for him to pursue another interest piqued during his undergraduate years: acting.
He Played the Accordion
Jimmy’s segue into acting couldn’t have been more randomly left-field.
And if you’re not already a Jimmy Stewart fan, I can confidently say you’ll never guess how Jimmy came to discover the profession that eventually became his career.
It was all thanks to the accordion.
Yes, Jimmy Stewart loved to play the accordion.
Jim’s practically lifelong affection for the instrument began as a young boy, when his father Alex accepted a rather unusual form of payment from a customer at the hardware store. The customer, a circus performer, didn’t have any money to pay Alex with, but he did have an accordion. As Jimmy remembered:
“There was one fella who played the accordion, and when he couldn’t pay his bill, he gave Dad the accordion…and Dad gave it to me and said, ‘Here, son, learn to play the accordion.’ I knew how to play the piano a little, so I could pick out the keys, and then it was a case of figuring out how the squeeze the thing. It took a long time, but I taught myself to play the accordion…and I really came to love playing that instrument. Still do.”
Jimmy Stewart and His Accordion
Jimmy, who had always been shy around girls growing up, found that at Princeton, playing the accordion was actually a great way to meet girls.
Who would have thought??
Jim also found his niche accordion skill desirable to Princeton’s musical dramatic society, the Triangle Club.
The ACCORDION. Again, who would have thought!
Future Broadway and Hollywood director Josh Logan, an upper classman during Jimmy’s years at Princeton, and the president of the Triangle Club, noticed Jim’s natural charm when he auditioned, accordion and all, for a role in the club’s latest production. Jimmy got the part, and played the accordion as a specialty number in the show. Logan, impressed with Jim’s stage presence, eventually asked [aff. link]
“…if he ever thought of becoming an actor. ‘Good God, no. I’m going to be an architect.’ He [Jimmy] walked away as if I had slandered him.”
Despite his confidence that acting would never be his career, Jim became a regular in the Triangle Club shows during his years at Princeton. And after graduating from the university in 1932, Jimmy accepted an offer from Logan to join his new Cape Cod theater group, the University Players.
And he brought his accordion.
Jimmy believed his time with the Players would merely be a fun summer diversion before he headed back to Princeton’s architecture graduate program in the fall. But as it turned out, that summer marked the start of Jimmy Stewart’s acting career.
He Was Best Friends with Henry Fonda
During that summer with the University Players, Jimmy barely missed getting to know the man who soon became his best friend for life, Henry Fonda. In fact, it was Fonda’s departure from the Players that led Josh Logan to offer Jimmy a spot with the group in the first place: he needed a replacement for Fonda.
Fonda quit the company after his tempestuous romance and two month marriage to Margaret Sullavan, the Players’ leading actress, ended. Sullavan herself was yet another link Fonda and Stewart, as yet still not buddies, shared: while Hank married Sullavan in 1931, Jimmy had pined for her from afar for years, becoming smitten with the unconventional beauty after Maggie appeared in a Triangle Club production during his Princeton years.
After his summer with University Players, Jimmy found, in his own words, that
“Acting was [like] getting bit by a malaria mosquito.”
In other words, he was hooked.
So Jim put his architecture study on hold, and took advantage of a unique opportunity to reprise on Broadway a bit role he’d done with the University Players. It wasn’t a lucrative or starring role, but it was a promising start to an acting career, on Broadway no less!
Hank and Jim: BFF's!!
And it was as a struggling actors in New York City that Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda became best friends. Along with Josh Logan and another pal, the boys took a small, cold-water flat on West Sixty-third Street, and pooled their resources to just barely make the rent each month. The mildewy flat, which Fonda would comically christen “Casa Gangrene,” was located a few floors below a whorehouse, and just a block or two away from where famous gangster Legs Diamond used to live.
Humble beginnings for men who later became some of Hollywood’s most respected legends!
But the boys had a blast: beer parties complete with Fonda’s skilled cooking of hobo sandwiches and Swedish meatballs, occasional run-ins with the mob, Jim playing the accordion in Times Square while Hank sang to earn the always needed rent money, and building model airplanes together between jobs, all formed the foundation of the extraordinary Fonda/Stewart friendship. It was a foundation so strong, not even their divergent politics could tear Hank and Jim apart. The pair remained lifelong friends, so close that words were often unnecessary when Hank and Jim were together.
Jimmy Stewart: An Unconventional Leading Man
MGM talent scout Bill Grady was the first of the Hollywood crowd to recognize that Jimmy Stewart had something, a unique, possibly star-making quality. As Grady recounted after seeing one of Jim’s early stage performances with the Triangle Club [aff. link]:
“They [the performers] were a motley group, and like all amateurs, accentuated their ridiculous appearance with excessive mugging and gestures. All but the skinny guy on the end. He was six-foot-four, towering over all the others, and looked uncomfortable as hell. While the others hammed it up, the thin one played it straight and was a standout. Later in the show the thin one did a specialty, singing a song to his own accompaniment on an accordion…”
Grady introduced himself to Jimmy after the show, and found that though “the thin one” also had a winning personality, he would be “of no particular interest” to MGM. His look was just too unconventional for a leading man, and yet he didn’t exactly fit the look of a character actor either.
What to Do with "The Thin One"
Grady later caught a performance of Jim’s in a bit Broadway role, where again, his presence and line delivery nearly stole the show. This time, Grady couldn’t resist touting the virtues of “the thin one” to Louis B. Mayer, and Jimmy Stewart was offered a contract with MGM.
The initially reluctant Jim eventually signed with the studio after good friend Hank Fonda, recently moved to Hollywood himself after signing with Fox, convinced him to go for it.
It was a long, uphill climb to stardom for Jimmy, as Mayer had absolutely no idea what to do with his new contract player who, despite a rigorous workout program with the studio’s personal trainer, and a Mayer-mandated high-fat diet filled with milkshakes, pasta, and a special concoction of egg nog and brandy, just couldn’t manage to put on weight, the weight Mayer believed necessary to make Jim leading man material.
Ultimately, it was through loan out deals to other studios—such as Columbia Pictures for the 1939 classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, that Jimmy proved himself a highly believable and popular leading man.
He Was Versatile
Jimmy Stewart was one versatile actor. Throughout his career, Jimmy played quite literally everything imaginable, from a murderer (After The Thin Man), to a dancing sailor (Born to Dance), or an idealistic young senator (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) to a worried father (The Man Who Knew Too Much), a slew of gunslinging Western Heroes (all those Anthony Mann films!), to a psychologically trouble detective (Vertigo).
Talk about diverse!
But it’s easy to overlook Jimmy Stewart’s versatility because, despite the wide range of characters he brought to life in his films, Jimmy always seems like such a natural up on screen. So natural in fact, you find yourself thinking he must just be playing some version of himself. But this was far from the case.
Co-star Thomas Mitchell called Jimmy “the most naturally gifted actor” he ever worked with, but Jim hated being labeled a “natural actor.” In Jimmy’s eyes, the term belittled all the hard work he poured into each role. So perhaps Jimmy’s naturalness in his films is best described as something he worked so hard to perfect, it projects as effortless ease on screen.
The Jimmy Stewart Stutter
“Jimmy had the same effect on pictures that Marlon Brando had some years later. Jimmy had the ability to talk naturally. He knew that in conversation people do often interrupt each other and that it’s not always easy to get a thought out. It took a little while for the sound men to get used to him. But he had an enormous impact. And then, some years later, Marlon came out and did the same thing all over again—but what people forget is that Jimmy did it first.”
He Was a Bomber Pilot During WWII
On September 16, 1940, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt instated a mandatory draft of all men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-six. And on October 29th, the random selection of the first 900 names to be drafted was publicly broadcast. Of those 900 names, “James Maitland Stewart” was the 310th called. And he was honored to serve.
Jimmy could easily have avoided the draft, as several big stars of the time did through the protection of their studio bosses.
But he didn’t.
Jim even had another out from military service: after being drafted, Stewart failed the physical because he was 10 pounds under weight. But rather than accept defeat, Jim argued with the doctor at his second physical that his slight weight was a family characteristic. It wasn’t, but that was how great Jimmy Stewart’s desire to serve his country was.
Jimmy Stewart: A True Hero
In March 1941, just after winning the Best Actor Oscar for The Philadelphia Story (1940), Jimmy Stewart entered the army as a buck private. Then, with his passion for flying, Jimmy applied to the Air Corps. But at age thirty-two, a full six years older than the standard age cutoff for the Air Corps, his chances of acceptance were slim. In the end, Jimmy’s flying experience—he’d earned his private pilot license in 1935, and a commercial pilot license in 1938—was more valuable to the Air Corps than his age was limiting. Jimmy was accepted, and mastered the difficult flying of B-24 Liberators.
In November 1943, Jimmy Stewart arrived in Great Britain to lead the 703rd Bomb Squadron division, which consisted of a dozen B-24 bombers and 350 soldiers and flyers. During his time overseas, Jimmy flew in 20 combat missions, and accumulated more than two thousand hours of flying time.
Like many of our greatest generation who bravely served, Jimmy Stewart didn’t like to talk about his WWII service. But he revealed just how meaningful those years were to him when a reporter once asked if Jim viewed his experiences during the war as greater than his years in the movies.
Was Jimmy’s short and poignant response.
He Was An Amazing Friend. But Chose His Friends Sparingly.
Director John Ford said of Jim that
“You don’t get to know Jimmy Stewart. Jimmy Stewart gets to know you.”
And it’s true. Despite his warm, friendly demeanor, very few people got to know Jimmy intimately. Daughter Kelly shared that Hank Fonda was one of the very few close friends her father ever had.
Jimmy once said that
“I think every living creature is capable of feeling left out, and I almost look at it as a duty for one creature to look out for another.”
And indeed, it was his nature to be kind and welcoming to all. But Jimmy Stewart chose his close friends wisely, and sparingly. Often, Jim and his closest pals were so in tune to one another, words were simply not necessary: Hank Fonda and Jimmy were known to sit together, silently building model airplanes or kites, for hours on end, without speaking a word. These two were so close that silence was not awkward, but the ultimate expression of their ease and comfort in one another’s company.
Another of Jimmy’s closest friends was the equally laconic Gary Cooper. I absolutely love this anecdote Jim shared about Coop, and a hang out that was quite typical of the word count exchanged between these two buddies whenever they got together:
“Coop didn’t waste many words. Remember once we went for a long walk. Aaaah, big bird flew overhead. Cooper pantomimed a gun and said BANG!…High point of the afternoon’s conversation.”
Indeed, when a friend is close like that, words truly are unnecessary. And as Hank Fonda once said, Jimmy Stewart was
“Simply the kind of guy everyone should want as a friend.”
He Was Married One Time. And Remained Faithful.
Much has been written about Jimmy Stewart’s romantic life. While his personal values and moral code make it hard to believe that Jim was ever the heartbreaking ladykiller some Stewart biographers make him out to be—that interpretation sounds more like an attempt of said biographers to present the near saintly Stewart in a controversial light in order to sell a book, if you ask me—there’s no doubt that young Jimmy Stewart was popular with the ladies!
Jimmy dated such renown beauties as Ginger Rogers, Norma Shearer, Marlene Dietrich, Olivia de Havilland, and Dinah Shore before falling for the elegant and classy Gloria Hatrick McLean.
Jim and Gloria met at a dinner party hosted by their good friends Gary and Rocky Cooper, who put the party together with the intent to set Jim and Gloria up! Well, the Coopers’ plan worked, and Jim and Gloria became near inseparable shortly after. As Jimmy said of meeting Gloria [aff. link],
“For me it had been love at first sight. She was the kind of girl I had always dreamed of. The kind you associate with open country, cooking stew, and not fainting because it was made of cut-up squirrels. She’d look at home on a sailboat or a raft.”
Even better, Gloria wasn’t an actress, which Jimmy thought crucial to making a marriage in Hollywood work.
Jimmy Stewart and His Sweet Family
And the marriage did work. Beautifully. Jim and Gloria married on August 9, 1949 at Brentwood Presbyterian Church. Jimmy quickly adopted Gloria’s two sons, Michael and Ronald, from her previous marriage, and loved them as his own. Then in 1951, the couple had twin daughters Judy and Kelly. By all accounts, Jimmy Stewart was a sweet father, absolutely adored by his children, who appreciated the blessing of parents who were involved in their lives. In Hollywood no less. As son Michael would say, “it wasn’t a Hollywood upbringing,” and the family was grounded and tight-knit as a result.
Jim was a faithful, devoted husband, despite the temptations of Hollywood. He and Gloria remained happily married for 45 years, until Gloria’s passing in 1994. It was heartbreaking for Jimmy to lose the love of his life to lung cancer, but he was a firm believer that he would be with Gloria again:
“I’m devastated. I don’t know how I’m going to live without her. The only consolation is knowing that we will soon be reunited. Our love will continue in heaven.”
How sweet is that??
He Was Nice. But Don’t Mess with Him.
Jimmy Stewart was as genuinely nice offscreen as he appeared to be in his most lovable screen roles.
But that did’t mean he was a push-over. Jim was a principled guy who knew what he believed it, and stuck with it no matter what. This admirable Stewart quality is best summed up by Jim’s friend and the producer of his television show (The Jimmy Stewart Show (1971-1972)), Hal Kanter:
“He knows exactly what he’s doing, has strong opinions and can dig in his heels when he wants to. Remember, he’s remained a staunch Republican in a town where most of his friends are Democrats. He’s been a star in Hollywood, where divorce is rampant, but he’s been married to the same woman for almost forty years, with never a breath of scandal. And most importantly, never forget that he served in World War II and was the lead pilot in [almost] two dozen bombing missions.
Something got him through that war; something makes him stand by what he believes in no matter what. There’s a toughness, a stick-to-your-guns kind of courage and strength underneath that genuine niceness. People sometimes think because he’s that nice, he’s easy to manipulate. Believe me, the best advice I can give you is don’t mess with him.”
More Jimmy Stewart Next Week!
And that wraps up my introduction to our December Star of the Month, Jimmy Stewart.
Be sure to join me next week as I review and go behind the scenes of one of my favorite Jimmy films, Frank Capra’s inspirational, moving, and timeless tribute to democracy, 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.