- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 6, 2007

JIMMY STEWART: A BIOGRAPHY

By Marc Eliot

Harmony, $25.95, 480 pages

REVIEWED BY ROBERT M. SMALLEY

In the long history of the movies, it has often been said that Jimmy Stewart was without doubt the nicest man who ever stepped in front of a camera.

The odd thing about that assertion is that Stewart himself was somewhat unusual. He was avidly devoted to his country and determined to fight for it in World War II. And so the 8th Air Force out of Britain became his second home, leading him into the lives of British civilians, many of whom became his friends for life.

Jimmy constantly insisted to the American press that he would do or say practically nothing that would glorify him, his superiors or his crewmen, or that would glorify the war in any way. To one reporter he said, “Out of my way there, fella. I’m trying to run a squadron here.”

Much of Marc Eliot’s “Jimmy Stewart” delves into Stewart’s military career, which always remained a source of pride for him. Years later, anyone who drove by Stewart’s home in the town of Indiana, Pa., would quickly discover the tall, proud, splendid statue of him, mounted in front of the town library.

As long as he lived, Jim was still good for an autograph or two, as most visitors quickly learned. The Stewart Museum, high within the library walls, housed numerous reminders of his Hollywood career, including the restaurant booth from the famous Chasen’s Restaurant in Beverly Hills, where he and his wife dined frequently with their close personal friends, Ron and Nancy Reagan.

But what may have made him most proud of that museum was the bronze plaque on the outside wall, which reviewed his role in World War II and revealed that a Stewart fought in every war from the Revolution on through WWII.

Stewart’s most notable achievement was to lead a B-24 flight to Berlin, and direct the attack on an aircraft manufacturing facility. It was a tough fight. Some of his men were injured by the heavy flak. Stewart slid into the pilot’s seat, and his skill put them right on target.

When he arrived back in England, mission completed, he jumped down from the plane onto the tarmac and he collapsed the moment his feet hit the ground. It was his last combat mission. He was under medical care for several weeks. Fortunately for Jim, he was billeted close to his very good friend, Clark Gable. They spent many hours together discussing the war and the future.

His last flying honor was presented to him by President Eisenhower, who elevated Stewart to the rank of brigadier general.

Much of Stewart’s military career was already recounted in the book “Jimmy Stewart: Bomber Pilot.” But Mr. Eliot, the author of more than a dozen books about popular culture, also focuses on Stewart the actor. Though there is little about Stewart’s first film after his return to the screen, “Call Northside 777,” distributed by 20th Century Fox, the pages of “Jimmy Stewart” are heavy with the quotes of directors and actors who knew him well, and in their view he was the best there ever was. All are well worth reading.

In fact, Mr. Eliot tries diligently to introduce virtually every aspect of Stewart’s life. In some instances he may have tried too hard. For example, he makes the assertion that Stewart was drafted from MGM when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Stewart was already a licensed private pilot, and he was at an Army Air Corps facility south of San Francisco when the attack occurred.

Mr. Eliot digs fiercely into Stewart’s alleged love affair with Marlene Dietrich, but it is clearly established that Jimmy Stewart was a long time in finding his wife, Gloria, and he was a devoted husband and father. Still, it is a fascinating book that does much to keep alive the history of this major figure in the history of Hollywood.

But if another book should be written about Jimmy Stewart, don’t be surprised if you should find him somewhere on the moon.

Ambassador Robert M. Smalley (Ret.) was appointed by President Ronald Reagan.

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