James Maitland Stewart, known popularly as Jimmy Stewart, was born May 20, 1908 in Indiana, Pennsylvania. He was the only son of Alexander and Elizabeth Stewart, the former of whom supported the family by owning and operating a local hardware store. Virginia and Mary, Stewart’s younger sisters, would join the family by the time Stewart was five.
Stewart first expressed interest in drama while attending Mercersburg Academy, a prep school approximately 100 miles from his hometown. It was here that he performed in a production of “The Wolves.” While attending the academy, Stewart was also involved in football and track, and also devoted free time to musical hobbies.
After graduation from Mercersburg, Stewart enrolled at Princeton Academy, his father’s alma mater. He decided to major in architecture. He also became involved in Princeton’s drama club, where he met other future film and drama stars such as Joshua Logan, an eventual director of Broadway hits, and actor Henry Fonda. After Stewart graduated, Logan offered him a role in the University Players’ production of “Goodbye Again,” which Stewart accepted. This was his first professional acting role, and it marked a career shift for him.
I have found discrepancies in sources over which movie was Stewart’s first acting role—either “Art Trouble” (1934) or “The Murder Man” (1935). Based on the available records, it seems most likely that “Art Trouble” was his first screen role, albeit a small one. Stewart’s role in “The Murder Man” was also small, but 1935 would prove to be an important year for his career. His first major role came in October 1935 with “Next Time We Love,” and fame was soon to follow. From 1935 to 1940, Stewart was featured in dozens of films, many times as the starring role. During this period, he starred in the notable film “The Philadelphia Story” (1940).
In 1941, Stewart enlisted in the Army Air Corps during WWII. This initially entailed hosting radio programs for the war effort, but eventually Stewart flew missions as well—20 in all. After returning to America, he moved in with Fonda and his family.
In 1945, Stewart landed his most iconic role of George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Two years later, he met Gloria McLean, a divorcee with two sons, at a dinner party. They began dating and married in 1949. In 1951, Stewart and McLean had twin daughters Judy and Kelly.
Stewart’s acting career continued to thrive in the 1950s, with many notable starring roles. Perhaps the most famous of these were the three Alfred Hitchcock-directed movies in which Stewart starred—“Rear Window” (1954), “Vertigo” (1958), and “North by Northwest” (1959).
“Jimmy Stewart and His Poems” was published in 1989, a period in which Stewart’s acting career was mostly in the past. He had appeared on Johnny Carson to read one of the featured poems eight years earlier. It was a best-seller for 16 weeks.
On July 2, 1997, Stewart died of heart failure due to a blood clot.