Thousands had met him; only a handful truly knew him.
James Maitland Stewart lived his life a closed book. An introvert. A man who said little except when telling stories—and then, being an entertainer, he never let facts interfere with a laugh at the punch line.
I beheld unknowable Jim Stewart as I set out to write about the most closely guarded secrets of his life: what he did in World War II. Written into every film contract he signed throughout the course of his iconic career was a clause stating that his war service must not be used for publicity purposes. He never publicly talked about life in combat. Ever.
With Mission, I’m satisfied I’ve gotten as close to Jim as it’s possible to get—and that what I learned while writing it will be as much of a surprise to you as it was to me.
Jimmy Stewart was one of Hollywood’s most sought-after lotharios.
Jim’s affairs weren’t conducted at a drugstore counter with two straws in a soda. Nor were they traceable via tabloids, Twitter, or the multitude of other avenues through which today’s publicity-hungry young celebs loudly broadcast the latest developments in their love lives. Under the radar, Jim bed-hopped from—in order and I’m not kidding—Ginger Rogers to Norma Shearer to Loretta Young to Marlene Dietrich to Olivia de Havilland to Dinah Shore, with helpings of Ann Rutherford, Judy Garland, and Lana Turner on the side. Women loved his quiet demeanor, his wit, and a sly naughtiness that went against the grain of the boy-next-door packaging by his home studio, MGM.
Jimmy Stewart, the laid-back guy slow to speak and slow to anger, was really high-strung, with a nervous stomach.
Did you know that Jim stood six-four and weighed about 140 pounds? It doesn’t sound very healthy, does it? In some ways, he wasn’t healthy. Being high-strung and nervous, he couldn’t keep food down, and what did stay down metabolized quickly in his hot-burning furnace of a stomach. Precarious health nearly kept him out of the military, and he had to get a special exemption to enlist in 1941. His slow-to-act veneer was his way of compensating for the rush of thoughts, impulses, and anxieties careening inside.
When Jim Stewart joined the Army and sought to be a pilot, the military considered him an “old man.”
Jim had been a private pilot for years and earned his commercial rating, but at 32, he was quite the military fossil. Fighter pilots were coming out of flight schools at 19 and 20 years of age, which relegated Stewart to the bomber groups of B-17 Flying Fortresses and B-24 Liberators being formed at U.S. bases. Pilots there were in their early to mid-20’s; commanding officers might be hitting thirty. And here came Stewart: a corporal at 32, a second lieutenant who won his wings at 33, and a first lieutenant and then captain at thirty-four.
For Jim Stewart and his bomber crews, life in combat over Europe was a brutal experience.
Before D-Day, the only Americans fighting in northern Europe were doing so in the skies over France and Germany. Jim flew in B-24 heavy bombers, planes with notorious fuel problems that sometimes blew up in friendly skies, killing the crew in a flaming instant. If the planes remained intact, crews spent hours at 20,000 feet in an unpressurized cabin that hit 40 below zero in winter. If the oxygen mask failed, asphyxiation followed quickly; exposed skin became frostbitten in seconds. The drone of four engines was deafening. And oh, by the way, the finest gunners in the world shot anti-aircraft shells at the Americans, and the finest fighter pilots in the world aimed machine guns or cannons firing incendiary bullets into their gas-soaked planes.
Jim Stewart returned from the war suffering from PTSD and had aged so dramatically that his family and friends were shocked.
Jim flew his first combat mission in December 1943, when the German air forces were strong. As a squadron commander, he routinely saw his fine young officers shot down in flames. On one mission, an anti-aircraft shell tore away the bottom of the flight deck of his B-24, and his map case fell through the hole into Germany. Only his safety harness kept Jim from following. The plane was so badly shot up that it cracked in two upon landing. He went “flak happy” on several occasions from the strain, and finally flew one mission too many and was grounded. Six months later he was home, 37 years old and looking significantly older. He slowly unwound from the brutal war and began to come to grips with the fact that his lined face and shaking hands might mean his movie career was over. Then one day the phone rang, and director Frank Capra pitched an idea for a
picture about an angel who wanted to win his wings. Jim knew all about winning wings—and considered the fact that perhaps his career wasn’t over after all.
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