My audio book for the last week has been a bio of James Stewart who was the ubiquitous actor of my childhood and early adulthood. Stewart made dozens of films or “pictures” as they called them in those days. Truth be told, his biography isn’t all that interesting except for the fact that he was the major motion picture star of the fifties. I can still recall scenes from “Broken Arrow” (with Jeff Chandler as Cochise). Playing cowboys and Indians around age 8 or 9 I was always Cochise. I recall saying to a friend that my name was Cochise because my arrows were a little bit yellow. Can’t recall if I was serious or making a bad play on a pun.
I felt I had things in common with Mr. Stewart. We were both tall and very skinny. And, I can attest that when, at a later date, I found myself in the same room with him, an event I will get to, I noted that he was the narrowest human I had ever seen. That is, looking at him straight on, he was not very wide. “Thin” doesn’t really describe it.
Stewart came from Indiana, Pennsylvania where his dad ran the local hardware store and was a pillar of the Presbyterian church. That’s something else we had in common—fathers who took a life long interest in influencing our lives and who found church going to be of the utmost importance. James Stewart as a personality is what one might expect of a boy from the midwest. He was a staunch Republican, exempt from McCarthyism, and best friends with Ronald Reagan. He wore a toupee, something I didn’t know and had a hearing problem from middle age on.
He was a hero of WWII. Not a fake hero but the real deal. A bomber pilot who rose from private to Lt. Colonel during the course of the war who was continually promoted to more responsible command positions. He continued as a reservist and eventually achieved a star although his promotion to general was opposed by Senator Margaret Chase Smith on the grounds that there were more deserving officers.
He became a family man at forty, marrying a divorcee with a couple of boys. Before that he had affairs with lots of actresses most notably Marlene Dietrich.
With the exception of the time out for WWII his biography is pretty much a recounting of picture after picture. I’ve seen a lot of them and this week took time to watch “Winchester 73” and “Call Northside 777”. Jimmy Stewart is a very effective and very watchable actor. The only contemporary actor who might have played all the Jimmy Stewart roles is Tom Hanks. There was an edginess to Stewart the actor, however, that Hanks doesn’t have.
When I was a kid living in Vancouver, Washington we learned that they were filming a Jimmy Stewart movie called Bend in the River up near Mt. Hood. We jumped in the car on a Sunday and headed up toward the mountain and were rewarded with a distant view of a wagon train circled in a clearing down below the hiway.
I got closer to Stewart, in his role as General Stewart, in 1967. I was at a base in NE Thailand when the Secretary of the Air Force with his entourage dropped in. I was an intelligence officer for the Air Commando Wing stationed there and, as was always the case with intelligence shops, worked in a windowless building. It was an inadequate facility with small briefing rooms connected by a long hallway. The main briefing room was full of pilots so the Secretary’s entourage couldn’t squeeze in. The Secretary, Harold Brown, who later became Secretary of Defense under President Carter, stood in the doorway and his followers trailed down the hall. I was just inside the door describing what was going on in a whisper to Secretary Brown who whispered the info to the next guy and so on down the line like “Pershing at the Front“.
The briefing over, the pilots made their way out squeezing past the Secretary and his posse who then circled through the briefing room glancing at maps and charts, then exiting. The last guy was General Stewart wearing tan 1505s, a short sleeved khaki outfit. It was just me and General Jimmy. He picked up a map of Laos and studied it a bit then turned to me as if to ask a question. I was waiting for his characteristic stutter, looking forward to answering. But he changed his mind and put the chart back on the easel, nodded and left the room. It would have been a violation of military courtesy to ask for an autograph.
It’s hard to know exactly what impact James Stewart’s films had on me. Watching his old pictures I have a sense he was a strong role model. I know for certain that his film “Strategic Air Command” was not the movie that tipped me in the direction of the Air Force. That distinction belongs to “A Gathering of Eagles” with Rock Hudson and Rod Taylor (1963). In a demonstration of shallowness, I was overwhelmed with the idea of how good I would look in the Air Force’s tan Class A uniform. I joined the next year, the same year the Air Force dumped the tan for a blue uniform that looked like something a bus driver would wear. Things don’t always work out the way you want them to.
I don’t usually read or listen to show biz bios. But I’m glad I spent some more time with Jimmy Stewart. I didn’t get to know him very well on our first encounter.