Pieces of Time: The Life of Jimmy Stewart

Anyone hunkering down to write a juicy tell-all about the recently deceased Jimmy Stewart is in for a tough time of it.

For one thing, there is next to no dirt to kick up about Mr. Wonderful Life. No new dirt, anyway. Most colleagues from his naughty bachelor days — when he squired this and that shapely young thing to MGM premieres, urinated his name in the snow with Henry Fonda, and supposedly knocked up Marlene Dietrich — are either dead, doddering, or terminally discreet.

And most observers of his heroic tour of duty in World War II, his heroic-for-Hollywood 45-year marriage, or his beyond heroic (you might say stubborn) adherence, on screen and off, to traditional Amahrican values — right down to those Campbell’s soup ads — seem too overwhelmed by the gosh-darn apple piety of it all to cough up anything but genial platitudes.

Really, the most shocking bit of goods on the actor is that in his twilight years, he occasionally donned a toupee.

Hard luck for Gary Fishgall, author of the fortuitously scheduled, meticulously researched Pieces of Time: The Life of James Stewart. Fishgall also has the poor fortune of having been beaten to the punch by novelist Donald Dewey, who came out last year with the quite comprehensive James Stewart (Turner Publishing) — a work that, if we are to trust Fishgall’s bibliography, he studiously resisted consulting.

Of course, in addition to the Stewart anecdotes that have become common currency — his accordion playing, Katharine Hepburn bossing him around when he took her up in his plane, his crusade against colorization — the two biographers can’t help but share the same rapidly dwindling pool of interviewees. The overlap includes Doris Day, Joan Fontaine, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Jack Lemmon, and the late Robert Mitchum.

Fishgall, a Broadway drama critic and former actor-director who handles Stewart’s early stage years in New York with obvious relish, adds Sandra Dee and Hedy Lamarr, among others, to this luminous roster. Judging from his sometimes overextended background work — loved the five-generation family tree — he also befriended a librarian or two along the way. And he appears to have secured considerable cooperation from Stewart’s unsurprisingly well-adjusted, non-biz progeny.

And guess what? Not one of these individuals confirms that Stewart was in fact a cross-dressing Communist.

What they do confirm is that this was an American whose reputation we’re highly invested in keeping squeaky-clean, right to the corners. Fishgall writes off Stewart’s alleged mistreatment of Dietrich to simple passivity (engendered, he suggests, by a dominating father) and backs away from an exploration of wife Gloria’s jealousy of Rear Window co-star and rumored object of worship Grace Kelly.

He concentrates instead on diligently tracing a career that was built not in the grand, glamorous swoops of the studio era but rather through dribs and drabs and a gradual fumbling toward roles of increasing intensity.

Deprived of scandal, the book becomes everyone’s half-hour Very Special Tribute. ”I think he’s funny because he never changes his intonation on things. So you never know what’s coming out of his mouth,” offers Dee. Fishgall sums it up thus: ”He is our mirror. And we like what we see.” Mmmm, sort of.

But since the famously humble actor never offered a book of his own, save those damn poems — no autobiography named Me, Myself, and I for this fella — somebody’s got to do the mythmaking.

And one needn’t, as Fishgall swears he did, sit down and take in each and every one of Stewart’s 79 feature films (given his prose’s occasional bleariness, one’s inclined to believe him) to enjoy a little self-indulgent sentimentality about our loss.

Enough biographies. Bring on the biopic. B

Pieces of Time: The Life of Jimmy Stewart
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