The Heroic And Inspiring Life Of Jimmy Stewart

Coming from humble beginnings, James “Jimmy” Stewart rose to become one of the most revered and respected actors in the history of Hollywood. Known for his natural ability to play convincing and relatable roles, he had a successful career that spanned over fifty years, being featured in more than 80 films. Nevertheless, there’s much more to Stewart than the characters he portrays on the silver screen. He was a man of strong morals, one of the world’s most eligible bachelors, a war hero, and much more. Take a deep dive into the life of Jimmy Stewart and see what led him to become an icon.

He Had A Degree In Architecture

Jimmy Stewart leaning against a gate
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Although he would go on to be one of the most popular actors in Hollywood, Stewart attended Princeton University before he ever stepped in front of the camera. He received a degree in architecture in 1932 but using his degree to find work proved to be harder than he thought because the country was in the middle of the Great Depression.

Low on work, he decided to pursue acting, joining a theater group in Falmouth, Massachusetts, with his roommate Henry Fonda. After some time acting on Broadway, he signed a contract with MGM, with his debut film The Murder Man, being released in 1935.

He Published A Book Of Poetry

Stewart leaning up against a wall
John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1989, Jimmy Stewart published Jimmy Stewart and His Poems, a small collection of poems that Stewart had penned throughout his life. In addition to the poems, Stewart also included his annotations about how he came up with each poem.

His poem “Beau” is arguably his most famous, which is about his dog who had passed away. In 1981, Stewart made an appearance on The Tonight Show, in which he read the poem to Johnny Carson. Both had tears in their eyes by the time Stewart had finished reading.

He Despised A Version Of It’s A Wonderful Life

Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life
Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images
Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images

One of Stewart’s best-known roles is as George Bailey in It’s A Wonderful Life. Although Stewart loved the film, there was a version of the film that Stewart couldn’t stand. This was the version that was colorized.

In 1987, Stewart sent a letter to Congress protesting the colorization of films such as It’s A Wonderful Life, which he believed went against the director’s vision for the film. He noted that he couldn’t even sit through the movie, and the colorized version took a creative direction with the film that director Frank Capra would have never considered.

He Starred In Two Unsuccessful Television Shows

Jimmy Stewart rehearsal
Robin Jones/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Robin Jones/Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While Jimmy Stewart established himself as a major movie star throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, in 1971, he tried his hand at television. That year, he played a college anthropology professor on The Jimmy Stewart Show.

Unfortunately, the show was short-lived as it failed to find an audience. However, this didn’t dissuade Stewart from giving television another shot. In 1973, he played a defense lawyer in the show Hawkins, yet the show managed to get canceled shortly after it aired.

His Academy Award Was Displayed In A Rather Unusual Place

Jimmy Stewart and Ginger Rogers
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

After winning an Academy Award for his performance in The Philadelphia Story in 1940, his father, Alex Steward, contacted him about his award. Knowing little about what his son’s accomplishment meant, he reached out to his son saying, “I hear you won some kind of award […] What was it, a plaque or something?”

His father suggested that he bring the award back home so his father could display it in his hardware store. Stewart did just that, and his Academy Award was on display in his father’s store for 25 years.

He Could Play The Accordion

Stewart playing the accordion
John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Aside from his skill in front of the camera, Jimmy Stewart had another lesser-known talent. He was skilled at playing the accordion. As the story goes, when one customer at his father’s hardware store didn’t have enough money to pay for his items, he struck a deal with Stewart’s father and traded his accordion instead.

His father then gave the instrument to Stewart, who learned how to play it from the local barber. Surely, playing the accordion was one of Stewart’s better party tricks.

He Owes A Lot To Margaret Sullavan

Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Jimmy Stewart met Margaret Sullavan while in college, and he fell for her. Unfortunately for Stewart, she didn’t see him as anything more than a friend and ended up marrying Stewart’s agent in 1936. Thankfully for Stewart, that wasn’t the end of their relationship. Although she broke his heart, she certainly helped with his career.

Sullavan became one of Stewart’s biggest fans. She talked him up to executives, insisted that he be in her movies, and even helped refine his acting skills and mannerisms. Director Edward Griffith once even commented, “It was Margaret Sullavan who made James Stewart a star.”

He Had A Complicated Relationship With Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock and Stewart
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Jimmy Stewart is known for starring in the two Alfred Hitchcock thriller films Rear Window and Vertigo. Surprisingly, Vertigo turned out to be a critical and commercial failure, with Hitchcock blaming its lack of success on the fact that he thought that Stewart looked too old for the role.

However, Stewart’s looks in Vertigo wouldn’t be the only time that his age would cause a rift between the two. When Hitchcock was casting for his film North By Northwest, Stewart desperately wanted the role, but Hitchcock passed him over. Instead, he cast the more youthful-looking Cary Grant, who was actually four years older than Stewart.

He Had Serious Issues With War Movies

In front of a plan on set
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Although Stewart rarely talked about his combat experience when fighting in World War II, he was very vocal about his opinions of war films that were being made at the time. He thought them to be incredibly inaccurate, only willing to star in two throughout his entire acting career.

At one point, the head of MGM, Louis B. Mayer, even suggested that they make a World War II film about Stewart’s time in the military titled The Jimmy Stewart Story. He rejected the idea entirely.

He Was A War Hero

Stewart in uniform
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

With both of his grandfathers serving in the Civil War and his father in the Spanish-American War and World War I, Stewart became the first major American movie star to enlist in the Army to fight in World War II. While many celebrities served in symbolic roles, Stewart insisted that he see combat and because of his love for aviation became a pilot.

Following a mission to Ludwigshafen, Germany, Stewart was presented with a Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions as deputy commander of the 2d Bombardment Wing. He was also awarded the French Croix de Guerre with palm and the Air Medal. In just four years, he rose from private to colonel.

He’s Credited With Encouraging Over 150,000 People To Enlist In The Military

Stewart in Air Force attire
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

After enlisting in the military, Stewart stopped making commercial films, although he was still under contract with MGM. He made several public appearances that were scheduled by the Army Air Forces and was in the network radio show We Hold These Truths, which was a celebration of the Bill of Rights and broadcast a week after Pearl Harbor.

He was also featured in a First Motion Picture short film titled Winning Your Wings, to inspire others to enlist as airmen. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary and resulted in over 150,000 new recruits.

The War Took A Toll On Him

Stewart being awarded a medal
Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Even though Stewart insisted that he be placed in the thick of the fighting regardless of his celebrity status, he wasn’t exempt from the adverse effects that plagued so many soldiers after the war had ended.

According to close friends and family, Stewart suffered from PTSD that involved nightmares, shaking, and a significant loss of hearing. However, the horror of war also took a toll on his physical appearance. Upon returning home, his parents were shocked by his appearance, noting that he looked as though he had aged a decade.

He Took His Time To Settle Down

Stewart and Gloria pouring coffee
Gene Lester/Getty Images
Gene Lester/Getty Images

For years, Jimmy Stewart remained one of Hollywood’s most eligible and sought out bachelors. Although there was no shortage of interested women whom he dated, none of them ever seemed to work out. However, in 1949, at the age of 41, Stewart married Gloria Hatrick McLean. The two remained happily married until Gloria passed away in 1994.

The two had four children, Ronald and Michael, from Gloria’s previous marriage, whom Stewart adopted, and twin girls named Judy and Kelly. Unfortunately, Ronald was killed in action while fighting in the Vietnam War.

One Of His Most Famous Films Wasn’t Successful At First

Stewart in It's A Wonderful Life
RKO Radio Picture/Getty Images
RKO Radio Picture/Getty Images

Upon returning from the war, Stewart’s first film was It’s A Wonderful Life in 1946. Being his first film since experiencing combat, Stewart was unsure of his ability to perform, and it didn’t help when the film wasn’t exactly a success at the box office.

Yet, the film turned out to become a Christmas classic and one of Stewart’s most renowned films. Audiences grew to adore Stewart’s performance as George Bailey, a downtrodden average American, which many of those close to him said were aspects of his actual personality.

He Was Involved In An Affair

Stewart and Dietrich
John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
John Springer Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Although it’s believed that Stewart remained faithful to his wife Gloria throughout their entire marriage, before meeting her, Stewart was having an affair with a married woman. While filming the 1939 film, Destry Rides Again, Stewart became romantically involved with his married co-star Marlene Dietrich.

Supposedly, Dietrich became pregnant with Stewart’s baby, although hastily terminated the pregnancy. After filming ended, Stewart ended his relationship with Dietrich, rarely mentioning her in his memoir, noting it as a one-time affair.

He Was A Savvy Businessman

Stewart posing for a picture
Nancy R. Schiff/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Nancy R. Schiff/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

While Stewart is best known as an American war hero and iconic actor, he is also credited with being a skilled businessman in his own right. He enjoyed building business relationships with directors and actors and made crucial deals that made him incredibly successful in Hollywood.

According to James Lacayo of People, in the 1950s, “he became one of Hollywood’s first free agents, moving studio to studio … and negotiating contracts that often gave him what was then an unusual deal: a percentage of the film’s box office receipts instead of a salary.” These strategic decisions made him a very wealthy man.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Didn’t Have Much Faith In Stewart

Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Although Stewart ended up signing a contract with MGM after demonstrating his acting skills in theater, as it turns out, the studio didn’t see him as the all-star actor that he would eventually become.

Apparently, they didn’t even recognize him as a possible leading man, claiming that he wasn’t much more than a “lanky young bumpkin with a hesitant manner of speech.” While this isn’t necessarily wrong, these are the exact qualities that audiences grew to love about the actor and solidify him as one of the most iconic actors in Hollywood history.

He Was Almost Rejected From Military Service

Jimmy Stewart in color
Getty Images
Getty Images

Already an established Hollywood actor when the United States became involved in World War II, Stewart first tried to enlist in November 1940. However, there was a bit of a problem. Stewart stood at six-foot, three inches, and was a light 138 pounds, which was five pounds under the minimum weight for enlistment.

So, to make sure that he could meet the minimum requirement, he went home and took some time to gorge himself full of food. When he returned to the recruiting center, he successfully made the required weight.

His Best Friend Was Henry Fonda

Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart
Gene Lester/Archive Photos/Getty Images
Gene Lester/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Jimmy Stewart’s life-long friendship with Henry Fonda began when Stewart moved in with Fonda as a third roommate in order to make rent when living in Manhattan. The two both then moved out to Hollywood in 1935 where they shared an apartment.

Over the course of their acting careers, they starred in four films together, and when not working, their favorite activity was building and painting model airplanes together. They also enjoyed playing golf, flying kites, and remembering the “old days.” When Fonda died in 1982, Stewart’s only public statement was that “I’ve just lost my best friend.”

He Was Deeply Involved With The Boy Scouts

Stewart sitting on a couch
Stan Meagher/Express/Getty Images
Stan Meagher/Express/Getty Images

As a young man, Stewart was a Second Class Scout and continued to support the Boy Scouts of America for the rest of his life. As an adult, he became a scout leader and was the recipient of the Silver Buffalo Award from the Boy Scouts of America.

Furthermore, through the 1970s and 80s, he made advertisements for the Boy Scouts, although he was often incorrectly called an Eagle Scout. Since 2003, the Boy Scout “James M. Stewart Good Citizenship Award” has been distributed among deserving scouts in his honor.