Saturday, May 17, 2008

Happy 100th Birthday to an American Icon

There are certain iconic figures who represent the very best of America. Jimmy Stewart, born 100 years ago this month (May 20, 1908), falls into that category. His movies continue to bring joy to the hearts of millions of people -- not just in America, but around the world. In his hometown of Indiana, Pennsylvania, there's a Jimmy Stewart Museum on the third floor of the Indiana Public Library that honors the great actor and his movies. The museum is 100 percent Jimmy -- complete with a gift store that stocks DVDs, books, movie posters and so forth. If you happen to be in Indiana, they're having a Centennial Celebration for Stewart there on May 24, complete with a flyover by Air Force jets and the unveiling of a massive birthday cake for Stewart. Meantime, the Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County, 621 Wayne Ave., will host an opening reception for a special exhibit, "The Stewart Family Collections."

Stewart had an idyllic childhood in Indiana. He was an Eagle Scout, he attended the local high school Indiana and then went on to Mercersburg Academy. He eventually graduated from Princeton University in 1932 and tried to become a stage actor. It was a difficult way to make a living. "From 1932 through 1934, I only worked four months," Stewart later recalled. "Every play I got into folded." He went out to Hollywood for his first screen test in 1934 and the rest -- as they say -- is history.

At age 41, Stewart married Gloria McLean (the two met at a party at Gary Cooper's house). He adopted his wife's two sons, Ronald and Michael, from her previous marriage. Ronald was killed in Vietnam. Michael still lives in Phoenix. Another interesting story: Jimmy was a conservative Republican who backed Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. He once got in a fistfight with his close friend Henry Fonda, who was an ardent liberal, over some minor political disagreement. The two quickly buried the hatchet and remained friends until Henry Fonda's death in 1982.

Jimmy Stewart often played noble characters with strong principles. Sometimes his characters had a dark side, but they almost always possessed an instinctive sense of right and wrong. In my all-time favorite film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Jimmy Stewart's character Jefferson Smith articulated the finest American ideals during his dramatic filibuster scene. At one point, hoarse and exhausted, Smith struggles to remain standing on the Senate floor, but his words are pure poetry:

JEFFERSON SMITH: "Just get up off the ground, that's all I ask. Get up there with that lady that's up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won't just see scenery; you'll see the whole parade of what Man's carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so's he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That's what you'd see. There's no place out there for graft, or greed, or lies, or compromise with human liberties. And, uh, if that's what the grownups have done with this world that was given to them, then we'd better get those boys' camps started fast and see what the kids can do. And it's not too late, because this country is bigger than the Taylors, or you, or me, or anything else. Great principles don't get lost once they come to light. They're right here; you just have to see them again!"

Toward the end of his life (he died in 1997), Jimmy wrote a lot of poetry. One of his most beloved poems was one he wrote about his dog Beau. He read it on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, and it touched Carson so much it made him cry. It's a loving poem. Stewart's compassion and kindness reverberate from the words.

I'll give Jimmy the last word with his moving poem:


By Jimmy Stewart (1908-1997) [Beloved Actor, WWII Veteran, Humanitarian]

He never came to me when I would call
Unless I had a tennis ball,
Or he felt like it,
But mostly he didn't come at all.

When he was young
He never learned to heel
Or sit or stay,
He did things his way.

Discipline was not his bag
But when you were with him things sure didn't drag.
He'd dig up a rosebush just to spite me,
And when I'd grab him, he'd turn and bite me.

He bit lots of folks from day to day,
The delivery boy was his favorite prey.
The gas man wouldn't read our meter,
He said we owned a real man-eater.

He set the house on fire
But the story's long to tell.
Suffice it to say that he survived
And the house survived as well.

On the evening walks, and Gloria took him,
He was always first out the door.
The Old One and I brought up the rear
Because our bones were sore.

He would charge up the street with Mom hanging on,
What a beautiful pair they were!
And if it was still light and the tourists were out,
They created a bit of a stir.

But every once in a while, he would stop in his tracks
And with a frown on his face look around.
It was just to make sure that the Old One was there
And would follow him where he was bound.

We are early-to-bedders at our house
--I guess I'm the first to retire.
And as I'd leave the room he'd look at me
And get up from his place by the fire.

He knew where the tennis balls were upstairs,
And I'd give him one for a while.
He would push it under the bed with his nose
And I'd fish it out with a smile.

And before very long
He'd tire of the ball
And be asleep in his corner
In no time at all.

And there were nights when I'd feel him
Climb upon our bed
And lie between us,
And I'd pat his head.

And there were nights when I'd feel this stare
And I'd wake up and he'd be sitting there
And I'd reach out my hand and stroke his hair.
And sometimes I'd feel him sigh
and I think I know the reason why.

He would wake up at night
And he would have this fear
Of the dark, of life, of lots of things,
And he'd be glad to have me near.

And now he's dead.
And there are nights when I think I feel him
Climb upon our bed and lie between us,
And I pat his head.

And there are nights when I think
I feel that stare
And I reach out my hand to stroke his hair,
But he's not there.

Oh, how I wish that wasn't so,
I'll always love a dog named Beau.

[From Jimmy Stewart and His Poems, 1989]

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