Thursday, July 2, 2015

In Memory of Jimmy Stewart

Stewart in his later years.

James Maitland "Jimmy" Stewart, died on this day (July 2), in 1997.

He was born May 20, 1908 in Indiana, PA.

Jimmy (not James....Jimmy) almost didn't have to act. He lived an upright, honest life and was as trustworthy as George Bailey himself.

Stewart is often described as “Everyman” in his roles. Although it was a role he reprised several times, never was it more obvious than in the films he made under the direction of Frank Capra, including It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

“The part of Jefferson Smith in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington constitutes the quintessential Stewart: the upstanding, all-American, small-town boy, loyal to his family, his country, his church and his ideals; the personification of ‘rock-ribbed honesty,’” said biographer Jonathan Coe (43).

This persona was not a new role for Stewart. It was a role he lived off of the screen, as well as on. Stewart grew up with strong family and religious ties in his home town of Indiana, Pa. Later in his life, this small town dedicated the Jimmy Stewart Museum as part of the Indiana, Pa. Library.[i] In 1985, a statue of Stewart was erected in front of the museum. It faces the lot where the J.M. Stewart and Co. Hardware store stood before it was razed in 1969.

Stewart biographer Jonathan Coe calls Stewart an “incorruptible American patriot” (9). Stewart was able to further solidify this image when he enlisted in March, 1941, and became an officer in the Army Air Corps and a bombardier pilot during World War II.

Coe has drawn parallels between Stewart’s real life and the life of George Bailey. Stewart signed on to It’s a Wonderful Life on Nov. 5, 1945 (Coe 78). In addition to coming from a background similar to George’s, Coe says Stewart was drawn to the part for another reason:

“There were reasons, in fact, why a story about a hero who feels ‘despondent’ might have exerted a strong personal appeal to him (Stewart) at this time, since he was profoundly shaken by his wartime experiences, which caused him to doubt both his faith and the fundamental worth of his career” (Coe 79).

Coe’s statement does two things. First, it suggests that Stewart’s despondency reflects the country’s feelings immediately following World War II. It could have been the same despondency that prevented It’s a Wonderful Life from being a box office success. Secondly, Stewart’s life at that time reflected It’s a Wonderful Life, with Stewart doubting his own faith and career, as George Bailey does in the film. George always talks about and dreams of being an engineer or an architect, but never about being an executive of a lending company. George constantly doubts his job and its value.

My note from Karoly in which she gave me
Stewart's address. (Source: Blogger's private collection)
Through my friendship with Karoly Grimes, who played George and Mary's youngest daughter, Zuzu Bailey, I was able to get Stewart's address. I came right out and asked her for it, and I expected it to be denied. I told her that I only wanted to send him a copy of my college research paper about the film. To my surprise, she gave me his address. I filed the letter away, graduated, was hired a job at at my hometown newspaper just two days after graduation, and moved into my first apartment. 

I soon learned a hard lesson about not putting off until tomorrow what I can do today. On July 1, 1997, I was sitting on my porch when I realized that I hadn’t yet written to Jimmy, even though I had his address for nearly two months. It was late, so I decided to write to him the next day. As you may recall, he died July 2, the day I was going to write to him. That was a rough day for me.

This post is a tribute to Everyman....Jimmy Stewart. If he were alive, he would be 108 years old.

Here is a great interview with Stewart from 1989:

[i] The Jimmy Stewart Museum is located at 845 Philadelphia St., Indiana, PA, 15701. To contact the museum, call (724) 349-6112 or toll-free at 1-800-83-JIMMY, or e-mail Visit online at

Coe, Jonathan. Jimmy Stewart: A Wonderful Life. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1994.

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