James Maitland Stewart was born on May 20, 1908, in Indiana, Pennsylvania, the son of Elizabeth Ruth (née Jackson) and Alexander Maitland Stewart, who owned a hardware store. Stewart had Scottish and Irish ancestry, and was raised as a Presbyterian. He was descended from veterans of the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the American Civil War. The eldest of three children (he had two younger sisters, Virginia and Mary), he was expected to continue his father’s business, which had been in the family for three generations. His mother was an excellent pianist but his father discouraged Stewart’s request for lessons. When his father accepted a gift of an accordion from a guest, young Stewart quickly learned to play the instrument, which became a fixture offstage during his acting career. As the family grew, music continued to be an important part of family life. Stewart attended Mercersburg Academy prep school, graduating in 1926. He was active in a variety of activities. He played on the football and track teams, was art editor of the KARUX yearbook, and a member of the choir club, glee club, and John Marshall Literary Society. During his first summer break, Stewart returned to his hometown 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 a professional magician. He made his first appearance onstage at Mercersburg, as Buquet in the play The Wolves. A shy child, Stewart spent much of his after-school time in the basement working on model airplanes, mechanical drawing and chemistry—all with a dream of going into aviation. It was a dream greatly enhanced by the legendary 1927 flight of Charles Lindbergh, whose progress 19-year-old Stewart, then stricken with scarlet fever, was himself feverishly following from home; thus foreshadowing his starring movie role as Lindbergh 30 years later. However, he abandoned visions of being a pilot when his father insisted that instead of the United States Naval Academy he attended Princeton University. Stewart enrolled at Princeton in 1928 as a member of the class of 1932. He excelled at studying architecture, so impressing his professors with his thesis on an airport design that he was awarded a scholarship for graduate studies; but he gradually became attracted to the school’s drama and music clubs, including the Princeton Triangle Club. His acting and accordion talents at Princeton led him to be invited to the University Players, an intercollegiate summer stock company in West Falmouth, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. The company had been organized in 1928 and would run until 1932, with Joshua Logan, Bretaigne Windust, and Charles Leatherbee as directors. Stewart performed in bit parts in the Players’ productions in Cape Cod during the summer of 1932, after he graduated. The troupe had previously included Henry Fonda, who married Margaret Sullavan on Christmas Day 1931, while the players were in Baltimore, Maryland for an 18-week winter season. Sullavan, who had rejoined the Players in Baltimore in November 1931 at the close of the post-Broadway tour of A Modern Virgin, left the Players for good at the end of The Trial of Mary Dugan in Baltimore in March 1932. By the time Stewart joined the University Players on Cape Cod after his graduation from Princeton in 1932, Fonda and Sullavan’s brief marriage had ended. Stewart and Fonda became great friends over the summer of 1932 when they shared an apartment with Joshua Logan and Myron McCormick. When Stewart came to New York at the end of the summer stock season, which had included the Broadway tryout of Goodbye Again, he shared an apartment with Fonda, who had by then finalized his divorce from Sullavan. Along with fellow University Players Alfred Dalrymple and Myron McCormick, Stewart debuted on Broadway as a chauffeur in the comedy Goodbye Again, in which he had two lines. The New Yorker noted, “Mr. James Stewart’s chauffeur… comes on for three minutes and walks off to a round of spontaneous applause.” The play was a moderate success, but times were hard. Many Broadway theaters had been converted to movie houses and the Depression was reaching bottom. “From 1932 through 1934”, Stewart later recalled, “I’d only worked three months. Every play I got into folded.” By 1934, he was given more substantial stage roles, including the modest hit Page Miss Glory and his first dramatic stage role in Sidney Howard’s Yellow Jack, which convinced him to continue his acting career. However, Stewart and Fonda, still roommates, were both struggling. In the fall of 1934, Fonda’s success in The Farmer Takes a Wife took him to Hollywood. Finally, Stewart attracted the interest of MGM scout Bill Grady who saw Stewart on the opening night of Divided by Three, a glittering première with many luminaries in attendance, including Irving Berlin, Moss Hart and Fonda, who had returned to New York for the show. With Fonda’s encouragement, Stewart agreed to take a screen test, after which he signed a contract with MGM in April 1935, as a contract player for up to seven years at $350 a week. Upon Stewart’s arrival by train in Los Angeles, Fonda greeted him at the station and took him to Fonda’s studio-supplied lodging, next door to Greta Garbo. Stewart’s first job at the studio was as a participant in screen tests with newly arrived starlets. At first, he had trouble being cast in Hollywood films owing to his gangling looks and shy, humble screen presence. Aside from an unbilled appearance in a Shemp Howard comedy short called Art Trouble in 1934, his first film was the poorly received Spencer Tracy vehicle, The Murder Man (1935). Rose Marie (1936), an adaptation of a popular operetta, was more successful. After having mixed success in films, he received his first intensely dramatic role in 1936’s After the Thin Man, and played Jean Harlow’s character’s frustrated boyfriend in the Clark Gable vehicle Wife vs. Secretary earlier that same year. On the romantic front, he dated newly divorced Ginger Rogers. The romance soon cooled, however, and by chance Stewart encountered Margaret Sullavan again. Stewart found his footing in Hollywood thanks largely to Sullavan, who campaigned for Stewart to be her leading man in the 1936 romantic comedy Next Time We Love. She rehearsed extensively with him, having a noticeable effect on his confidence. She encouraged Stewart to feel comfortable with his unique mannerisms and boyish charm and use them naturally as his own style. Stewart was enjoying Hollywood life and had no regrets about giving up the stage, as he worked six days a week in the MGM factory. In 1936, he acquired big-time agent Leland Hayward, who would eventually marry Sullavan. Hayward started to chart Stewart’s career, deciding that the best path for him was through loan-outs to other studios.
In 1938, Stewart had a brief, tumultuous romance with Hollywood queen Norma Shearer, whose husband, Irving Thalberg, head of production at MGM, had died two years earlier. Stewart began a successful partnership with director Frank Capra in 1938, when he was loaned out to Columbia Pictures to star in You Can’t Take It With You. Capra had been impressed by Stewart’s minor role in Navy Blue and Gold (1937). The director had recently completed several popular movies, including It Happened One Night (1934), and was looking for the right actor to suit his needs—other recent actors in Capra’s films such as Clark Gable, Ronald Colman, and Gary Cooper did not quite fit. Not only was Stewart just what he was looking for, but Capra also found Stewart understood that prototype intuitively and required very little directing. Later Capra commented, “I think he’s probably the best actor who’s ever hit the screen.” You Can’t Take It With You, starring Capra’s “favorite actress”, comedienne Jean Arthur, won the 1938 Best Picture Academy Award. The following year saw Stewart work with Capra and Arthur again in the political comedy-drama Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Stewart replaced intended star Gary Cooper in the film, playing an idealist thrown into the political arena. Upon its October 1939 release, the film garnered critical praise and became a box-office success. Stewart was nominated for the first of five Academy Awards for Best Actor. Stewart’s father was still trying to talk him into leaving Hollywood and its sinful ways and to return to his home town to lead a decent life. Stewart took a secret trip to Europe to take a break and returned home in 1939 just as Germany invaded Poland.
Destry Rides Again, also released in 1939, became Stewart’s first western film, a genre with which he would become identified later in his career. In this western parody, he is a pacifist lawman and Marlene Dietrich is the dancing saloon girl who comes to love him, but doesn’t get him. In the film, Dietrich sings her famous song “The Boys in the Back Room”. Off-screen, Dietrich did get her man, but the romance was short-lived. Made for Each Other (1939) had Stewart sharing the screen with irrepressible Carole Lombard in a melodrama that garnered good reviews for both stars, but did less well with the public. Newsweek wrote that they were “perfectly cast in the leading roles.” Between movies, Stewart began a radio career and became a distinctive voice on the Lux Radio Theater’s The Screen Guild Theater and other shows. So well-known had his slow drawl become that comedians began impersonating him. In 1940, Stewart and Sullavan reunited for two films. The first, the Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedy, The Shop Around the Corner, starred Stewart and Sullavan as co-workers unknowingly involved in a pen-pal romance but who cannot stand each other in real life (this was subsequently remade into the musical, In the Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland and Van Johnson, and later as the romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan). It was Stewart’s fifth film of the year and that rare film shot in sequence; it was completed in only 27 days. The Mortal Storm, directed by Frank Borzage, was one of the first blatantly anti-Nazi films to be produced in Hollywood and featured Sullavan and Stewart as friends and then lovers caught in turmoil upon Hitler’s rise to power, literally hunted down by their own friends.
Stewart also starred with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in George Cukor’s classic The Philadelphia Story (1940). His performance as an intrusive, fast-talking reporter earned him his only Academy Award in a competitive category (Best Actor, 1941), and he beat out his good friend Henry Fonda (The Grapes of Wrath). Stewart thought his performance “entertaining and slick and smooth” but lacking the “guts” of “Mr. Smith.” Stewart gave the Oscar statuette to his father, who displayed it for many years in a case inside the front door of his hardware store, alongside other family awards and military medals. During the months before he began military service, Stewart appeared in a series of screwball comedies with varying levels of success. He followed the mediocre No Time for Comedy (1940) with Rosalind Russell and Come Live with Me (1941) with Hedy Lamarr with the Judy Garland musical, Ziegfeld Girl, and the George Marshall romantic comedy Pot o’ Gold featuring Paulette Goddard. Stewart was drafted in late 1940, a situation that coincided with the lapse in his MGM contract, marking a turning point in Stewart’s career, with 28 movies to his credit at that point.
The Stewart and Jackson families had deep military roots as both grandfathers had fought in the Civil War, and his father had served during both the Spanish-American War and World War I. Stewart considered his father to be the biggest influence on his life, so it was not surprising that, when another war came, he too was eager to serve. Members of his family had previously been in the infantry, but Stewart chose to become a military flier. An early interest in flying led Stewart to gain his Private Pilot certificate in 1935 and Commercial Pilot certificate in 1938. He often flew cross-country to visit his parents in Pennsylvania, navigating by the railroad tracks. Nearly two years before the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, Stewart had accumulated over 400 hours of flying time. Considered a highly proficient pilot, he entered a cross-country race as a co-pilot in 1939. Stewart, along with musician/composer Hoagy Carmichael, saw the need for trained war pilots, and joined with other Hollywood celebrities to invest in Thunderbird Field, a pilot-training school built and operated by Southwest Airways in Glendale, Arizona. This airfield became part of the United States Army Air Forces training establishment and trained more than 10,000 pilots during World War II, and is now the home of Thunderbird School of Global Management. In October 1940, Stewart was drafted into the United States Army but was rejected for failing to meet height and weight requirements for new recruits—Stewart was five pounds (2.3 kg) under the standard. To get up to 148 pounds, he sought out the help of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s muscle man and trainer Don Loomis, who was noted for his ability to add or subtract pounds in his studio gymnasium. Stewart subsequently attempted to enlist in the Air Corps, but still came in under the weight requirement, although he persuaded the enlistment officer to run new tests, this time passing the weigh-in, with the result that Stewart enlisted and was inducted in the Army on March 22, 1941. He became the first major American movie star to wear a military uniform in World War II. Stewart enlisted as a private but as both a college graduate and a licensed commercial pilot applied for an Air Corps commission and pilot rating. Soon to be 33, he was almost six years beyond the maximum age restriction for aviation cadet training, the normal path of commissioning for pilots. Stewart received his commission as a second lieutenant on January 19, 1942, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, while a corporal at Moffett Field, California. He also received a pilot rating, although the circumstances are unclear, since he did not participate in the standard pilot training program. Stewart’s first assignment was an appearance at a March of Dimes rally in Washington, D.C., but Stewart desired assignment to an operational unit rather than serve as a recruiting symbol. He applied for and was granted advanced training in multi-engined aircraft. Stewart was posted to nearby Mather Field to instruct in both single- and twin-engined aircraft.
Public appearances by Stewart were limited engagements scheduled by the Army Air Forces. “Stewart appeared several times on network radio with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, he performed with Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, Walter Huston and Lionel Barrymore in an all-network radio program called We Hold These Truths, dedicated to the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights.” In early 1942, Stewart was asked to appear in a film to help recruit the anticipated 100,000 airmen that the USAAF would need to win the war. The USAAF’s First Motion Picture Unit shot scenes of Lieutenant Stewart in his pilot’s flight jacket and recorded his voice for narration. The short propaganda film, Winning Your Wings, appeared nationwide beginning in late May and was very successful, resulting in 150,000 new recruits.Stewart was concerned that his expertise and celebrity status would relegate him to instructor duties “behind the lines.” His fears were confirmed when after his promotion to first lieutenant on July 7, 1942, he was stationed from August to December 1942 at Kirtland Army Airfield in Albuquerque, New Mexico, piloting AT-ll Kansans used in training bombardiers. He was transferred to Hobbs Army Airfield, New Mexico, for three months of transition training in the four-engine B-17 Flying Fortress, then sent to the Combat Crew Processing Center in Salt Lake City, where he expected to be assigned to a combat unit. Instead he was assigned in early 1943 to an operational training unit, the 29th Bombardment Group at Gowen Field, Boise, Idaho, as an instructor. He was promoted to captain on July 9, 1943, and appointed a squadron commander.
For Stewart, now 35, combat duty seemed far away and unreachable and he had no clear plans for the future. However, a rumor that Stewart would be taken off flying status and assigned to making training films or selling bonds called for immediate action, because what he dreaded most was “the hope-shattering spectre of a dead end.” Stewart appealed to his commander, 30-year-old Lt. Col. Walter E. Arnold Jr., who understood his situation and recommended Stewart to the commander of the 445th Bombardment Group, a B-24 Liberator unit that had just completed initial training at Gowen Field and gone on to final training at Sioux City Army Air Base, Iowa. In August 1943, Stewart was assigned to the 445th Bomb Group as operations officer of the 703d Bombardment Squadron, but after three weeks became its commander. On October 12, 1943, judged ready for overseas movement, the 445th Bomb Group staged to Lincoln Army Airfield, Nebraska. Flying individually, the aircraft first flew to Morrison Army Airfield, Florida, and then on the circuitous Southern Route along the coasts of South America and Africa to RAF Tibenham, Norfolk, England. After several weeks of training missions, in which Stewart flew with most of his combat crews, the group flew its first combat mission on December 13, 1943, to bomb the U-boat facilities at Kiel, Germany, followed three days later by a mission to Bremen. Stewart led the high squadron of the group formation on the first mission, and the entire group on the second. Following a mission to Ludwigshafen, Germany, on January 7, 1944, Stewart was promoted to major. Stewart was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for actions as deputy commander of the 2nd Combat Bombardment Wing on the first day of “Big Week” operations in February and flew two other missions that week. On March 22, 1944, Stewart flew his 12th combat mission, leading the 2nd Bomb Wing in an attack on Berlin. On March 30, 1944, he was sent to RAF Old Buckenham to become group operations officer of the 453rd Bombardment Group, a new B-24 unit that had just lost both its commander and operations officer on missions. As a means to inspire the unit, Stewart flew as command pilot in the lead B-24 on several missions deep into Nazi-occupied Europe. As a staff officer, Stewart was assigned to the 453rd “for the duration” and thus not subject to a quota of missions of a combat tour. He nevertheless assigned himself as a combat crewman on the group’s missions until his promotion to lieutenant colonel on June 3 and reassignment on July 1, 1944, to the 2nd Bomb Wing, assigned as executive officer to Brigadier General Edward J. Timberlake. His official tally of mission credits while assigned to the 445th and 453rd Bomb Groups totaled 20 sorties.
On March 22, 1944, Stewart flew his 12th combat mission, leading the 2nd Bomb Wing in an attack on Berlin. On March 30, 1944, he was sent to RAF Old Buckenham to become group operations officer of the 453rd Bombardment Group, a new B-24 unit that had just lost both its commander and operations officer on missions. As a means to inspire the unit, Stewart flew as command pilot in the lead B-24 on several missions deep into Nazi-occupied Europe. As a staff officer, Stewart was assigned to the 453rd “for the duration” and thus not subject to a quota of missions of a combat tour. He nevertheless assigned himself as a combat crewman on the group’s missions until his promotion to lieutenant colonel on June 3 and reassignment on July 1, 1944, to the 2nd Bomb Wing, assigned as executive officer to Brigadier General Edward J. Timberlake. His official tally of mission credits while assigned to the 445th and 453rd Bomb Groups totaled 20 sorties. Stewart continued to make missions, uncredited, flying with the pathfinder squadron of the 389th Bombardment Group, with his two former groups, and with groups of the 20th Combat Bomb Wing. He received a second award of the Distinguished Flying Cross for actions in combat and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. He also received the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. Stewart served in a number of staff positions in the 2nd and 20th Bomb Wings between July 1944 and the end of the war in Europe, and was promoted to full colonel on March 29, 1945. On May 10, 1945, he succeeded to command of the 2nd Bomb Wing, a position he held until June 15. Stewart was one of the few Americans to rise from private to colonel in four years.
At the beginning of June 1945, Stewart was the presiding officer of the court-martial of a pilot and navigator who were charged with dereliction of duty for having accidentally bombed the Swiss city of Zurich the previous March—the first instance of U.S. personnel being tried for an attack on a neutral country. The Court acquitted the defendants. Stewart continued to play a role in the United States Air Force Reserve after the war, reaching the rank of Brigadier General on July 23, 1959. He was also one of the 12 founders and a charter member of the Air Force Association in October 1945. Stewart rarely spoke about his wartime service but did appear in January 1974 in an episode of the TV series The World At War, “Whirlwind: Bombing Germany (September 1939 – April 1944)”, commenting on the disastrous mission of October 14, 1943, against Schweinfurt, Germany. At his request, he was identified only as “James Stewart, Squadron Commander” in the documentary. Stewart received permanent promotion to colonel in 1953 and served as Air Force Reserve commander of Dobbins Air Reserve Base. In 1959, James Stewart was promoted to Brigadier General. During his active duty periods, he remained current as a pilot of Convair B-36 Peacemaker, Boeing B-47 Stratojet and B-52 Stratofortress intercontinental bombers of the Strategic Air Command. On February 20th 1966, Brigadier General James Stewart flew as a non-duty observer in a B-52 on an Arc Light bombing mission during the Vietnam War. At the time of his B-52 flight, he refused the release of any publicity regarding his participation, as he did not want it treated as a stunt, but as part of his job as an officer in the Air Force Reserve. After 27 years of service, Stewart retired from the Air Force on May 31, 1968. He was promoted to major general on the retired list by President Ronald Reagan.
Stewart was almost universally described by his collaborators as a kind, soft-spoken man and a true professional. Joan Crawford praised the actor as an “endearing perfectionist” with “a droll sense of humor and a shy way of watching you to see if you react to that humor.” When Henry Fonda moved to Hollywood in 1934, he was again a roommate with Stewart in an apartment in Brentwood, and the two gained reputations as playboys. Both men’s children later noted that their favorite activity when not working seemed to be quietly sharing time together while building and painting model airplanes, a hobby they had taken up in New York, years earlier. After World War II, Stewart settled down, at age 41, marrying former model Gloria Hatrick McLean (March 10, 1918 – February 16, 1994) on August 9, 1949. As Stewart loved to recount in self-mockery, “I, I, I pitched the big question to her last night and to my surprise she, she, she said yes!” Stewart adopted her two sons, Michael and Ronald, and with Gloria he had twin daughters, Judy and Kelly, on May 7, 1951. The couple remained married until her death from lung cancer on February 16, 1994, at the age of 75. Ronald McLean was killed in action in Vietnam on June 8, 1969, at the age of 24, while serving as a lieutenant in the Marine Corps. Daughter Kelly Stewart is an anthropologist. Stewart was 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. He was a lifelong supporter of Scouting, having been a Second Class Scout when he was a youth, an adult Scout leader, and a recipient of the prestigious Silver Buffalo Award from the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). In later years, he made advertisements for the BSA, which led to his being sometimes incorrectly identified as an Eagle Scout. An award for Boy Scouts, “The James M. Stewart Good Citizenship Award” has been presented since May 17, 2003. Stewart was a Life Member of the Sons of the Revolution in the State of California.
In December 1996, Stewart was due to have the battery in his pacemaker changed, but opted not to, preferring to let things happen naturally. In February 1997, Stewart was hospitalized for an irregular heartbeat. On June 25, a thrombosis formed in his right leg, leading to a pulmonary embolism seven days later. Surrounded by his children on July 2, 1997, Stewart died at the age of 89 at his home in Beverly Hills, California, with his final words to his family being “I’m going to be with Gloria now!” President Bill Clinton commented that America had lost a “national treasure … a great actor, a gentleman and a patriot.” Robert Mitchum had died the day before. Over 3,000 mourners, mostly celebrities, attended Stewart’s memorial service, which included a private 21-gun salute for his service in the Army Air Forces. Stewart is interred at Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Glendale, California.
- May, 20, 1908
- Indiana, Pennsylvania
- July, 02, 1997
- Beverly Hills, California
- Forest Lawn Memorial Park (Glendale)
- Los Angeles County, California