JAMES MAITLAND STEWART: A BIOGRAPHY James Maitland Stewart, the oldest child and only son of Alexander and Elizabeth Jackson Stewart, was born in his parent’s home at 975 Philadelphia Street in Indiana, Pennsylvania on May 20, 1908. After Jimmy’s arrival, the family expanded to include two sisters, Mary Wilson and Virginia Kelly.
Alex (pronounced Alec) Stewart owned the local hardware store. The J.M. Stewart & Co. hardware store had been founded in 1848. Alex purchased a share of the business from his father, James Maitland Stewart in 1905, and assumed sole ownership in 1923. The hardware store, known locally as “the big warehouse”, was a Philadelphia Street institution.
The Stewart’s could trace their roots in Indiana County to 1772, when Jimmy’s third great-grandfather Fergus Moorhead first arrived in what is now Indiana County from Franklin County, Pennsylvania. After Fergus was captured by Indians in July, 1776 his wife and three children returned to Franklin County. He was held captive a total of eleven months. The Moorheads returned to Indiana County, but not until Fergus served with the Cumberland County Militia in the Revolutionary War. Elizabeth Ruth Jackson, known as Bessie, was from Apollo, Pennsylvania, a small town about twenty-five miles west of Indiana. The Jacksons could trace their ancestry back to 1773 and she also had a relative that served in the Revolutionary War. Her father Col. Samuel Jackson, served during the Civil War. She had graduated Wilson College in Franklin County and was thirty-one years old at the time of her wedding on December 19, 1906. Bessie was once described by the local paper as a “lady of regal bearing, dignified and quite proper.”
From his mother and grandfather, J.M. Stewart came Jim’s reserved, dignified manner, as well as the distinctive, deliberate way of thinking and speaking. When Jimmy was five years old, his dad purchased a house atop “Vinegar Hill” at 104 North 7th Street, with a view overlooking downtown Indiana. The Stewart children would slide down the stairway of their home on an Oriental rug, present magic shows and impromptu plays in the basement, and circle the top of Vinegar Hill in a horse-drawn rig. This remained the family home until Alex’s death in 1961.
The Stewart’s had a close-knit and highly principled family life. They held hands and said grace at every meal. Music and reading were focal points of the family’s time together. Elizabeth Stewart was an accomplished musician and pianist, and she passed this gift on to her children. When Alex Stewart was given an accordion by a customer as payment of a debt at his store, he originally gave it to his daughter Virginia (Ginny) to play, but as she was too small to handle it, it was given to Jim, so that the instrument did not “go to waste.” Jim also played the piano, as did his sister Ginny. Mary (Doddie) played the violin.
The Stewart family was members of the Calvary Presbyterian Church of Indiana, where Alex and Bessie sang in the choir. Jimmy’s happy childhood left a lasting impression. He was self-possessed and self-confident. He valued hard work and knew exactly who he was. As long as his activities fell within the range that his father deemed acceptable, Alex would indulge his only son.
When President Harding’s funeral train was passing thru a town about 20 miles from Indiana, Bessie said Jim could not go see it since it would be in the middle of the night. Alec on the other hand thought that his boy should see a piece of history and wakened Jimmy up and they went to see the train. When the train was coming close gave Jimmy two pennies to put on the track. The train of course flattened them. Jimmy & Alec carried these for years. After his death Jimmy found Alec’s penny in his desk drawer.
Plays were presented to neighbor hood children, inspired by the various artifacts his father sent home from France during World War I. Model planes were built and launched from the roof of the house. Homemade radios were built and sold. Jimmy became a Boy Scout and remained active with this organization as an adult. Stewart’s formal education began in Indiana at The Model School, now Wilson Hall, on the campus of Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He attended The Model School through ninth grade.
In 1923 his parents enrolled him at Mercersburg Academy in Mercersburg Pennsylvania, an all-boys school known for its strong religious emphasis at the time Stewart attended.
Jimmy would have been quite content to return to Indiana and would have preferred to stay with his family and friends, but Alex wanted Jim to attend his alma mater Princeton University. Alex had graduated from Princeton in 1898. At Mercersburg, Stewart was active in a variety of activities. He played on the football team for three years, and in his first year at the Academy, he was on the track team. He was art editor for the yearbook KARUX from 1926 to 1928, and he was also a member of the John Marshall Literary Society. Jimmy was active in the choir and glee club, the Stoney Batter drama club, it was here that he had his first real on stage role in “The Frog Prince”, and was elected to play his accordion in the school’s Marshall Orchestra.
During his first summer break, Stewart returned to Indiana Pennsylvania 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 his friend, Bill Neff, a professional magician. He and Neff played the Pennsylvania-Chautauqua circuit and Stewart’s job was to play his accordion during any “awkward” moments. This gave the young entertainer even more exposure to on-stage performances. He graduated from Mercersburg Academy in 1928. Although Jimmy would have preferred to attend the Naval Academy, Alex‘s mind was made up and Stewart entered his father’s alma mater, Princeton University, in the fall of 1928. His ability to play the accordion enabled him to join the Triangle Club and appear in their production of The Golden Dog, even though there was a ban on freshmen appearing in any Triangle Club productions. He was invited back for the following year by the Triangle to perform a solo on his accordion, “So Beats My Heart for You.” He and the future director-producer Josh Logan performed together in a production of The Tiger Smiles during his junior year and two other productions during his senior year. One production was for the Triangle Club, and the other with Princeton’s Theater Intime. He was also on the cheerleading squad in his junior year and head cheerleading in his senior year.
Although he initially considered engineering, Jimmy finally settled on architecture as his course of study, at which he excelled. He so impressed his professors with his thesis on an airport design that he was awarded a scholarship for graduate studies. His interest in aviation had begun as a boy and was to be a lifelong passion. Stewart became a member of Princeton’s Charter Club in 1929. The Charter Club sponsored weekend jazz parties with the biggest names in the business. One particular weekend event headlined Bix Beiderbecke, Bud Freeman, Jimmy Dorsey and Charles Teagarden. T hough he was becoming more and more involved in performing at this time, Stewart still insisted that he would pursue his graduate studies and a career in architecture. He graduated from Princeton University in 1932. Economic factors greatly influenced what Stewart actually did after his graduation.
A fire had devastated the family’s business in 1929 and his father was in the process of rebuilding. Stewart’s sister Mary had been accepted in an art program at Carnegie Tech, while Virginia had been accepted a Vassar. Because of the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed Stewart questioned whether he would find employment as an architect.
Two weeks after graduation, he received an offer from friend Josh Logan to join the University Players, a summer stock group based in West Falmouth on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and he accepted. Logan wanted him to play his accordion in the tea room next to the theater and to do some small walk-on parts. Stewart arrived in Falmouth in the summer of 1932 and began to learn his craft in earnest. While there he met another soon-to-be famous actor, Henry Fonda. At Falmouth, Stewart played the accordion, worked as a stagehand, designed sets, and generally learned the theatre business from the inside out.
In 1932, when the Players had the opportunity to stage Carrie Nation on Broadway, he played a number of small roles that included a constable, a vigilante, an innocent bystander and gardener. While living in New York, he roomed with Henry Fonda and began a friendship that would endure until Fonda’s death in 1982. Though Carrie Nation ran only seven weeks on Broadway, Stewart caught the attention of the critics. He also got favorable reviews for his roles in other Broadway plays, Goodbye Again (1932), Spring in Autumn (1933), and All Good Americans (1933). Goodbye Again had a nine month Broadway run before moving to Boston, where he was then cast inWe Die Exquisitely. He left to become stage manager for Camille (1933), starring Jane Cowl, and moved back to Broadway to play Sergeant O’Hara inYellow Jack (1934). This performance earned him a screen test with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). In the midst of these and other stage performances, Stewart had also done a screen test for the Fox movie studio and was cast in his first moving picture, a Warner Brothers two-reel comedy, Art Trouble(1934). Neither Warner Brothers nor Fox offered him a contract. While waiting to hear from MGM, Stewart was cast in Journey at Night. However, the play closed after the second night and Stewart went home to Indiana, Pennsylvania. Two months later, MGM called him to Hollywood. His friend Henry Fonda met him at the train station. Jimmy was to play the part of a cub reporter in a Chick Sale short, Important News (1936). MGM then cast the 6’3” Stewart in the role of another newspaper man named “Shortie” in the filmMurder Man (1936), starring Spencer Tracy.
From 1935 to 1939 Stewart appeared in 29 motion pictures. In those four years he played a doctor, lawyer, teacher, newspaperman, mechanic, executive, hayseed, soldier, skater, farmer, football star, speed driver, detective, and even a murderer. During this period, he appeared with most of the acclaimed actresses of the time including Joan Crawford, Katherine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Margaret Sullavan, Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers, Claudette Colbert, Jean Arthur and Elinor Powell. In addition to film, Stewart also did voice work for the studios and radio networks, includingThe Lux Radio Theater, The Screen Guild Theater, and MGM’s promotional program, Good News of 1938. The year 1939 was pivotal for Stewart. He performed in his first western, Destry Rides Again, opposite Marlene Dietrich. His performance as Senator Jefferson Smith in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington earned him an Academy Award nomination for best actor and elevated him to true “star” status. He would make nine more pictures before playing the role that would finally win him the Oscar, that of reporter Mike Conner in The Philadelphia Story. He co-starred in that film with Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, John Howard and Ruth Hussey. The film received six Oscar nominations, but only Stewart and Donald Ogden Stewart, for best screen play, walked away with a statue. Jimmy appeared in 55 motion pictures after The Philadelphia Story. Other performances that won him the Oscar nomination for best actor were It’s A Wonderful Life, released in 1946,Harvey, released in 1950, and Anatomy of a Murder, released in 1959. He worked with Hollywood’s most notable directors, including Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, Anthony Mann and Frank Capra. Of all the directors he worked with, Capra was the one who best captured what was to become the Stewart trademark, the myth of the common man struggling against great odds, the American who was at the same time “tough but vulnerable.”
The passionate Sicilian-American and the young man from Indiana, Pennsylvania somehow shared a commonality of values both on and off screen that made them friends for life. When Stewart received his Oscar for Lifetime Achievement in 1985, it was Capra he singled out as having the most profound influence on his career. Stewart’s life off-screen was as interesting and demanding as his career in films.
While he was building his reputation as an actor, the rest of the world was about to go to war. German occupation in numerous countries in the early part of 1940 led Congress on September 16, 1940 to pass the Selective Service Bill, “the draft”, this bill called for 900,000 men between the ages of 20 and 36 to be drafted each year. Stewart’s draft number was 310. When his number was called and he appeared at Draft Board No. 245 in West Los Angeles in February 1941, the 6’3” Stewart weighed only 138 pounds, 5 pounds under the acceptable weight level. He was turned down. Stewart wanted to fly and serve his country but by May of 1941 he would have been too old to get into flight school. He went home ate everything he could that was fattening and went back and enlisted in the Army Air Corps, he passed the physical with an ounce to spare. While others tried to avoid the draft, he actually wanted to serve in the military. Later he would actually campaign to see combat.
Jimmy was already a licensed pilot. Interested in aviation as a child, he had taken his first flight while still in Indiana from one of the barnstorming pilots that used to travel the Midwest. As a successful actor in 1935 Jimmy was able to afford flying lessons. He received his pilot’s license in 1935 and bought his first airplane. In 1938 he gained his commercial pilot’s license. He often flew cross country to visit his parents in Pennsylvania, navigating by the railroad tracks.
In the military, he was to make extensive use of his pilot’s training. In March 1941 at age 32, he reported for duty as Private James Stewart at Fort McArthur and was assigned to the Army Air Corps at Moffett Field. To comply with the regulations of the Air Corps proficiency board, Stewart required additional 100 flying hours and bought them at a nearby field, at this own expense. He then took and passed a very stiff proficiency board examination. In January 1942 Stewart was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant. He was then sent to Mather Field in California as a twin engine instructor this included both the B-17 and B-24. Much to his dismay, Stewart stayed stateside for almost two years, until commanding officers finally yielded to his request to be sent overseas. In November 1943, now a Captain and Operations Officer for the 703rd Squadron, 445th Bombardment Group of the Eight Air Force, he arrived in Tibenham, England. In March of 1944 he was transferred to the 453rd Bombardment Group at Old Buckenham. While stateside, Stewart flew B-17’s (The Flying Fortress). In England he flew B-24’s (The Liberator) and did so for the remaining years of the war. Stewart’s war record included 20 dangerous combat missions as command pilot, wing commander or squadron commander. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters, The Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, and the French Croix de Guerre with Palm. At the end of the war he had risen to the rank of Colonel. After the war he remained with the US Air Force Reserves and was promoted to Brigadier General in 1959. His tuxedo and dress blues with all the correct medals are on display at The Jimmy Stewart Museum. He retired from the Air Force in 1968 (mandatory retirement age) and received the Distinguished Service Medal. When the war was over, Jimmy returned home to a hero’s welcome in Indiana, Pennsylvania, immortalized by Life magazine cover that showed him posing in full uniform on top of a building with the golden cupola of the Indiana County Courthouse in the background draped with a “Welcome Home Jim” banner and a large lighted wooden “V”ictory sign – his father is said to have put these up.
But he was concerned about his career. No longer under contract with MGM, he wondered whether or not he could still act. Radio supplied some acting roles while he waited for a screen part. His first post-war radio appearance was the Lux Radio Theatre version of Destry Rides Again. Director and friend (and now ex-Colonel) Frank Capra supplied his next role with an offer to play the part of George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). Though the film was not a commercial success at the time, it was enough to revive Stewart’s faith in his acting abilities and his career. Stewart remained an independent actor working without a studio contract.
In 1950, an ailing Universal Studios approached the actor with the suggestion that he appear in the western film Winchester ’73 and also the film version ofHarvey. Although Universal couldn’t afford to pay Stewart his usual salary, acting on advice of his agent Lew Wasserman, Stewart agreed to work for a percentage of the profits. This gave Jimmy the opportunity to do the part of Elwood P. Dowd that he had wanted. Both films were major successes. Profits aside, the deal established precedent, shifting the balance of power from the studio to the star and began a gradual erosion of the old studio system of movie making.
In 1949, James Stewart, distinguished actor, trend setter and military hero, added one more part to his growing repertoire, that of a family man. He met Gloria Hatrick McLean in the summer of 1948 when he accepted a dinner invitation to the home of Gary and Rocky Cooper. The 31 year old Gloria stole Stewart’s heart. She was beautiful, outgoing, well educated and she liked to play golf. She loved animals and the outdoors, and she was not an actress. When Stewart married her on August 9, 1949, they had a ready-made family. Gloria had two children, Ronald then five and Michael, three, from a previous marriage. Stewart, for years considered one of the most eligible bachelors in Hollywood, was 41 years old. In the fall of 1950, the Stewarts learned they were to become parents of twins. On May 7, 1951, fraternal twins Kelly & Judy were born. The Stewarts lived in Beverly Hills where many other celebrities resided. Yet their son Michael says they “were raised with that small-town Christian Presbyterian ethic that nobody owes you a living. If you have bad breaks, get up and move on. That was the attitude of both my parents, and it never changed.”
After his retirement from the military, Jimmy and Gloria traveled a lot. They became very interested in safaris, zoos and wildlife conservation efforts. He continued making films and appeared on numerous television shows, includingThe Jack Benny Show. Stewart had his own television show on NBC in1971,The Jimmy Stewart Show, followed by Hawkins on CBS in 1973. Later, he would make many memorable appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Through these appearances, movie re-runs, and the release of his films to video, another generation became familiar with his work. It’s A Wonderful Life, one of his personal favorites, became a television Christmas tradition, viewed annually by millions. In 1970, co-starring with Helen Hayes, he revived his role of Elwood P. Down in Harvey on stage in New York and again in 1975 in London. In 1976, when his friend Ronald Reagan announced his candidacy for President, Stewart helped by campaigning extensively for him in California. He served as an Elder at the Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church and did television commercials for Firestone tires and Campbell’s soup. A recording of his poetry book, Jimmy Stewart and His Poems, was nominated for a 1991 Grammy Award in the spoken-word category. Jimmy and Gloria Stewart became increasingly active in philanthropic affairs over the years. His signature charity event, The Jimmy Stewart Relay Marathon Race, held each year since 1982, has raised millions of dollars for the Child and Family Development Center at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
Professionally, he became a champion for the preservation of film and a powerful opponent in the fight against the colorization of classic films. He advocated his platform in hundreds of interviews and even testified before Congress on the topic. In the meantime, his career achievements were being honored by every major film festival and center, including Cannes, Berlin, Monterey and The Kennedy Center. In 1985, when Stewart received The Lifetime Achievement Award from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he had already become one of Hollywood’s most highly honored and deeply loved stars. He has been the recipient of many coveted awards and the subject of countless tributes that recognize not only his professional successes, but his character and patriotism.
In 1967 the Pennsylvania Award for Excellence in the Performing Arts was awarded to Jimmy Stewart. The American Film Institute has recognized the magnitude of Jimmy’s accomplishments by awarding him the coveted Life Achievement Award in 1980 for fundamentally advancing the art of American Film. In presenting the award, the AFI summed up many aspects of his enduring presence: “In a career of extraordinary range and depth, Jimmy Stewart has come to embody on the screen the very image of the typical American. Whether flying the ocean as Charles Lindbergh, going to Washington as Senator Jefferson Smith, or playing an ordinary man who somehow never got around to leaving his home town, Stewart has captured the essence of American hopes, doubts, and aspirations. His idealism, his determination, his vulnerability, and above all, his basic decency shine through every role he plays…..”
In 1983 on his 75th birthday his hometown of Indiana unvailed a statue of their native son in front of the County Chourthouse. There is a fiberglass rendering of this statue in The Jimmy Stewart Museum. In 1990, his alma mater, Princeton University, awarded him it highest alumni honor, The Woodrow Wilson Award, for outstanding public service. He had been awarded an honorary master’s degree in 1947 and had served as a University trustee from 1959-1963. The American Red Cross presented Stewart with their Humanitarian Award for service to his fellow man. The National Council of the Boy Scouts of America presented Stewart with the Silver Buffalo Award (on display at the Museum) for his “distinguished service to boyhood”.
Stewart’s life was not without adversity, however in July 1953 Stewart’s mother Elizabeth passed away. His father died in December of 1961. His stepson, Ronald, a commissioned Marine officer, was killed in Vietnam in June of 1969, just two months after Jimmy and Gloria had visited him while they were on a USO tour. In February 1994, Jimmy lost his beloved wife of nearly 45 years, Gloria.
In 1995 on the occasion of Stewart’s 87th birthday, The Jimmy Stewart Museum, along with a new terminal at the Jimmy Stewart Airport, were dedicated with the help of daughters Judy and Kelly in his hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania. Today visitors come to Indiana from around the world to learn more about his life and career and to see where he grew up and acquired the values he embraced thoughout his life – hard work, love of country, love of family, love of community and most of all love of God.
Jimmy Stewart passed away on July 2, 1997, at the age of 89. He was mourned by fans worldwide. Perhaps the greatest tribute of the American Film Institute was the observation that James Stewart is an actor “so beloved by the movie going public that they call him “Jimmy”, just like a member of the family.” And so he remains, our Jimmy. America still needs heroes, and Jimmy Stewart continues to fill the bill.
We at the museum have been honored to meet some of Jimmy’s friends and associates from the motion picture industry – June Allyson, Janet Leigh, Robert Wagner, Ernest Borgnine, Rich Little, Shirley Jones & Nick & Nina Clooney to name a few and we have heard the wonderful things they say about James Maitland Stewart.
For more information contact: The Jimmy Stewart Museum 800-83-Jimmy © 2006. The Jimmy Stewart Museum