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Jimsy and Genesis
“My earliest memories are of hardware smells. The dry aroma of coiled rope. The sweet smell of linseed oil and baseball gloves. The acid tang of open nail kegs. When I open my nose, they all come back to me.”—Jimmy Stewart
His mother, Elizabeth Ruth Jackson Stewart, whom everyone knew as Bessie, called her only son Jimsy. It was a rare sign of warmth and affection to the boy in the otherwise rigid, turn-of-the-century middle-class American Presbyterian household in which James Maitland Stewart grew up, a household with a proud lineage tinted with vivid reds, whites, and blues. Elizabeth was descended from a long line of Jacksons, the first having arrived in the Colonies in 1773. From their homes in Pennsylvania, every male first-generation Jackson eagerly signed on to fight in the Revolution. This call to arms soon became a family tradition as generation after generation of Jacksons unhesitatingly fought whenever freedom demanded it, including the War of 1812 and then the American Civil War.
In June 1863, Bessie’s father, Colonel Samuel Jackson, heroically led the charge of his troops onto the infamous battlefield at Gettysburg, survived the bloody carnage, and was duly rewarded for his valor. His proud family in attendance, Jackson was promoted personally by General Grant to the northern army’s elite rank of brigadier general.
After the war, Jackson moved his family farther west, to the burgeoning industrial town of Apollo, just outside of Indiana, Pennsylvania, and about fifty-five miles east of Pittsburgh, in the foothills of the Appalachian plateau. Once settled, Jackson agreed to allow investors to capitalize on his military fame as a way to help raise money to form the Apollo Trust Company. In return, he was made president of the Trust and given a permanent seat on its corporate board. Using Apollo money, Jackson supervised the financial reorganization and massive physical reconstruction of P.H. Kaufman Steel, which helped rejuvenate Pittsburgh’s then war-weary industry and gave the entire state a much-needed economic boost. Not long after, the appreciative citizens of Pennsylvania elected him to several state and federal offices.
Along with social prominence and political power, Jackson accumulated a significant personal fortune, and at the ripe old age of thirty- four, decided it was time to start a family of his own. He met and married Mary E. Wilson, eleven years his junior, who, everyone agreed, was the most attractive unmarried woman in town.
Their union produced five children, the third of which was Elizabeth Ruth—Bessie—a popular child despite the fact that her looks were far from what the rakish Jackson had imagined a daughter of his and Mary’s would be like. In truth, Bessie was rather plain, with a circular face accented by drooping eyebrows and a down-curved mouth, nothing at all like the long line of tall, lean aristocratic Jacksons. What she lacked in traditional beauty, however, she made up for in social skills.
For one thing, Bessie was an expert musician with a special affinity for the piano, good enough as a teenager to be asked to play the organ every Sunday at the Apollo Presbyterian Church services, which she did for nearly fifteen years. Her playing charmed everyone, but no one more than the thirty-four-year-old war veteran and prominent Apollo businessman Alexander M. Stewart.
His father was James Maitland Stewart the first, or J.M. as he was universally referred to, the tenth child of John Kerr Stewart, who had come to America from County Antrim, Ireland, in 1784, eager to make his mark in the New World.
J.M. Stewart was born in 1839, attended Dayton Academy and Westminster College, after which, in 1864, just shy of his twenty- fifth birthday, he enlisted in the Signal Corps to fight for the North in the Civil War. He saw action at Winchester, Cedar Creek, Fisher’s Hill, and in several other battles near and about Richmond, Virginia. When the war ended, J.M. returned to Indiana County and became a partner in the retail hardware business Sutton, Marshall and Stewart, which had been started in 1848 by John and Peter Sutton and W. B. Marshall, and was later joined by J.M.’s older brother, Archibald. That same year, the Suttons and Marshall left the business, with Marshall forming his own retail outlet to sell dry goods and notions, while Archibald, with the help of J.M, continued on, selling hardware, groceries, grain, and lumber.
Three years later, J.M. married the town beauty, Virginia (Jennie) Kelly, once she finally accepted the last of his many proposals, having already turned him down several times because of his excessive drinking. Although he promised he would stop, he didn’t, and she then broke off their engagement a month before the scheduled wedding was to take place, until he swore “under God” that he would be a worthy husband and father.
Jennie eventually married J.M. and gave birth to four sons, two of whom died in childhood. One of the survivors was Alexander Maitland (A.M.), a tall, tough youngster who grew to manhood known affectionately as the “wild” Maitland, because of his love of fun and good times. His father, J.M., saw his own youthful reflection in the boy, and sent him off to Princeton in the hopes that the demands of higher education and religious formality would straighten him out.
Alexander dutifully majored in chemistry until his senior year, when the six-foot-three, good-looking young man became obsessed with the daily events that were leading up to the outbreak of the Spanish- American War. Only months before graduating, he left Princeton to enlist, leaving so quickly that it was said he didn’t even have time to turn off his Bunsen burner. He was sent to Cuba, but was disappointed not to see any real action. When the war ended, he returned to Apollo, determined to settle down and make a decent life for himself. He made a deal to buy out his aging father and uncle, and became the hardware store’s sole proprietor. Then he decided it was time to find a wife.
In 1906, Alexander proposed marriage to thirty-one-year-old Bessie Jackson, saving her from the unfortunate but seemingly inevitable old- maid life predicted for her by the growing whispers about town. The church wedding was held on December 19, 1906, after which the squarely built, muscular Alexander carried her across the threshold of their new home on Philadelphia Street that he sanctimoniously christened “The Garden of Eden.” On Wednesday morning, May 20, 1908, the Stewarts became the proud parents of James Maitland Stewart, named after his most distinguished paternal grandfather.
Whatever fun-loving, youthful adventurism Alexander had left quickly evaporated, replaced by an increasing Fundamentalist-driven devotion to the store. His face became an endless map of brow-wrinkling concern, as the weight of responsibility for the family’s now- struggling business fell heavily upon his broad shoulders. He worked diligently, believing, as both the church and Princeton had taught him, that hard work and productivity were the pathways to earthly success, and that, in turn, was the only true avenue to heavenly immortality. Likewise, anything unproductive was the devil’s doing, even his Bessie’s nightly parlor-room playing of the family Steinway grand piano—unless it was church music she was practicing, which, all too often, Alexander knew, it was not.
Nor did he appreciate her “social singing,” fine for the church choir, but not the local music club’s amateur shows. When she agreed to take a role in Madame Butterfly, Alexander’s spirited, preachy protestations only made her laugh. Marriage, she was reminded of once more, had indeed changed her “wild” Alexander more than she thought it ever possibly could. His singular focus had shifted from seeing how much whiskey he could drink to how late he could keep open the doors of the J.M. Stewart and Company Hardware Store, or the Big Warehouse, as it was known to everyone in the neighborhood. To that end he now expected Bessie to play the dutiful, supportive wife, and her appearance in Madame Butterfly was not exactly what he had in mind.
Although Bessie called her little boy, whom she adored and showered with affection, Jimsy, he was Jimbo to his father because of his chubbiness, which annoyed the ramrod-tight, tough, and trim Alexander. It also didn’t help matters any that Jimbo was utterly enchanted by his mother’s music. He loved to sit in the parlor after the family had finished dinner and listen to Bessie’s sweet and simple 3D4 melodies. One day he asked his mother to teach him how to play, a suggestion that Alexander immediately discouraged and that set off a battle between him and Bessie as to the need for music in the home at all. The standoff ended only when Alexander received a most unexpected form of remuneration for a bill one of his customers could not afford to pay.
It was Alexander’s policy, influenced no doubt by his Fundamentalist tilt, to encourage hospitality to those less fortunate, including, interestingly, any and all local traveling entertainment companies that happened to pass through Indiana. Alexander believed that those who earned an honest living, even if in (the wholesome side of) show business, were doing some form of God’s work. When young Jim, who loved horses, convinced his father to take him to watch a carnival set up their tents and attractions, Alexander, as a gesture of goodwill, invited several of the carnies home to dinner, and even extended some of the performers credit to purchase supplies at the store. As it happened, one of them was unable to pay his bill, and offered instead an accordion he claimed had been in his family “for generations.” Alexander reluctantly accepted the instrument. Fine for them and their tents, unacceptable for him and his home. But as a good Christian he took it, put it away, and forgot about it. That is, until Bessie found it one day and decided to teach Jimsy how to play some melodies on it. Although Bessie’s knowledge of the instrument was limited to the right, or keyboard, hand, the friendly local barber, who had learned to play the music box as a child on the streets of his native Italy, volunteered to teach the boy the rest of what he would ever need to know.
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Bessie gave birth to Mary Wilson, or “Doddie,” in January 1912. Two years later, in October 1914, Virginia Kelly, or “Ginny,” arrived. As soon as she was old enough, Ginny was given the seat next to Bessie on the piano bench and taught to play harmony on the higher keys while Doddie was trained on the fiddle. After dinner Bessie and Ginny liked to play piano duets, with Jim on the accordion and Doddie creaking along on her little string box.
At times even the reluctant Alexander joined the makeshift family band. Although known for his booming bass at church, he purposely sang softly at home so as not to drown out the others. And he always made a point of balancing the mirth with a healthy dose of preaching: the meaning and value of the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, or one of the many stories he had memorized word for word from the New Testament.
Bessie did not really object all that much to Alexander’s strict, if ritualistic, home rule. Rather, she found in it evidence of an intense level of care and affection from a faithful, hardworking husband. Even when Alexander raised his voice to rail against some local injustice, real or imagined, or something one of the children did that displeased him, she never challenged him directly, preferring to use her calming influence to quietly talk things over later, after the children were all soundly asleep.
She especially appreciated the close relationship Alexander had developed with their son. Once the two girls were born, it quickly became apparent to her that Jimsy, who for the first three and a half years of his life had flowered as the sole object of her maternal attention, had developed an intense shyness at home whenever his father was away at the store. Things were no better at school. He did not make many friends there or participate in any of the group after-class activities, preferring to come directly home and head for the basement, where he worked on hobbies he was able to pursue and be entertained from by himself.
Of these, his outright favorite was building model airplanes. After the 1903 miracle flight the Wright brothers had made off the shores of North Carolina, a decade of youth grew up dreaming of one day flying above the clouds and into the hitherto unknown of the clear blue skies. Benefiting from his father’s endless supplies of nails, wood, glues, hammers, and saws, and the many 100-to-1-scale model parts Alexander bought for him, young Jimmy used kites, string, metal rings, and the works of a broken-down alarm clock for a motor to turn a push-mobile he had been given one Christmas into a model two-seater large enough for him to sit in and “fly” around the family backyard.
One day, after convincing himself his “plane” was aerodynamically sound, the precocious nine-and-a-half-year-old dragged the thing up the staircase to the attic, where he pushed it through the large windows onto the adjoining sloping roof of the wash house and “took off.” Just then, his father, hearing the commotion, rushed from the house and dove beneath the falling contraption, softening the impact and allowing the boy to escape with only a few minor bruises and cuts.
After making sure his Jimbo was not seriously hurt, Alexander firmly admonished the boy for being so reckless, but carefully avoided discouraging his sense of daring and adventure, which, in truth, he wished he saw more of. He was concerned the boy was being “smothered” by his mother and two sisters, and was not getting enough exposure to “real men.” Despite the near tragedy of the model airplane incident, it reassured the senior Stewart that his son was beginning to show signs of more “manly” pursuits than playing the accordion. Still, believing the boy needed a safer hobby, he bought one of the new crystal sets that had just come on the market and encouraged Jimbo to pursue another of the new century’s phenomena, radio.
If Jimmy was upset at having his plane-hobbying time reduced, he dared not show it, at least not directly. He feared going up against the hard rule of his father. With no other male in the house, Jimmy’s main companion became loneliness. While throughout his life, in public at least, he chose to recall only the perfection of his happy childhood, privately he confessed to friends a somewhat different version. “I worshipped my parents and felt protective toward my sisters; I knew I had to please the folks . . . but in some ways I was lonely—damned lonely. There was some things I just couldn’t talk about.”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Jimmy Stewart by Marc Eliot. Copyright © 2006 by Marc Eliot. Excerpted by permission of Three Rivers Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.