I just read a biography of the great actor Jimmy Stewart, but it honed in on his military career. It’s called: Jimmy Stewart Bomber Pilot by Starr Smith. Jimmy Stewart had an “other life” as an airman/ soldier which lasted for 30 years. He was a bomber pilot during World War II, and years later, he even did some bombing runs during the Vietnam War. When he retired from the military in 1969, he was a Brigadier General. That’s Brigadier General James Stewart.
But, as always, we are going to focus on his health. Jimmy Stewart was one of those people who was naturally lanky. He was tall and lean, and he was born to be that way. And not just lean, but at times, downright skinny. It was a constant struggle for him to maintain his weight. During the war years, when he was under fire for being too thin, he kept a lot of peanut butter around because he found that it was something that he could get down to help keep his weight from sliding.
In fact, when he was first drafted into the Army, he was rejected outright for being underweight. He was 6’3” and weighed 144 pounds. That’s only a few pounds more than I weigh, and I’m only 5’6”.
But, Jimmy wouldn’t take no for an answer; he was determined to serve his country in wartime. So, he tried enlisting, but again he was rejected for the same reason. So, he waited 3 months, and then re-enlisted. That time, he got in, but there are rumors that there was some monkey business between him and the scale operator: a wink and a nod- you get the idea.
Stewart was already an avid and accomplished aviator. He owned his own plane. He had a commercial license, and he was instrument-rated. In fact, he was already so accomplished as an aviator, that he started off being assigned to train other B-52 pilots, including giving them their check rides. The military brass really did not want to send the beloved Jimmy Stewart into battle, but he was determined to go. So, he used his influence and that of others he knew in high places to get what he wanted: assigned to the mighty U.S. Eighth Air Force in England, which did the bombing runs over Nazi-occupied Europe. Again, Jimmy Stewart outdid himself. He not only did the bombing flights, but he became the Squadron Commander, orchestrating, on a daily basis, the flight runs of the other pilots in his unit. Jimmy Stewart flew in the aerial bombardment of Berlin, which was a pivotal campaign of the war. He won the Distinguished Flying Cross for having led a raid that resulted in perfect accuracy of the drops, by him and his men, and without losing a man.
After the war, Jimmy Stewart went back to acting, and the first picture he made was: It’s A Wonderful Life, the Christmas classic. A few years later, he was set up on a date with Gloria Hatrick by his close and good friend Gary Cooper, and a year later, Jimmy and Gloria married. And they stayed married to the end too. They had twin daughters, but Gloria had two sons from a previous marriage whom Jimmy adopted.
But, let’s get back to his health. I learned that Jimmy Stewart contracted scarlet fever as a child which put him on his back for a while. I wonder if that had any long-term effects on his health. Regarding his habits, it seems that he did smoke, but not heavily. He wasn’t like his pals Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper, both of whom he roomed with for a while before any of them became famous. Those two were heavy smokers, but Jimmy, apparently, smoked but much less. In his movies, he is usually seen smoking a pipe or cigar, but I did find one image of him from real life in which he was smoking a cigarette. I suspect his wife Gloria smoked because she died of lung cancer at age 75- and she was 10 years younger than he was. I’m sure that when he married her, he never thought that he would outlive her, but he did.
Regarding alcohol, it’s the same thing: he drank but not heavily. And again, the Hollywood stars of that era were all heavy drinkers: Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, Robert Mitchum- all of them were full-blown alcoholics. But, Jimmy Stewart was like a teetotaler, in comparison. But, he did drink some, mainly socially. He liked the British beer that they had available during the war.
Regarding his diet, I couldn’t find much, but my impression is that he ate the standard American diet. It sounds like he ate whatever the Army put in front of him- or what anybody put in front of him. But, he wasn’t a food person; he wasn’t a big eater. He really had a small appetite, and eating wasn’t his obsession at all. He often complained that he couldn’t eat as much as people wanted him to.
I found online that his favorite food was pork chops. But, it goes to show that some people stay thin no matter what they eat. Is it a blessing or a curse? It depends on how severe it is. I imagine it’s a real pain to have to struggle all the time to keep your weight UP. I think it can be just as challenging as having to struggle all the time to lose weight.
So, why was he so thin all the time? Keep in mind that he was a classic and EXTREME ectomorph. It refers to a body type system developed by a Dr. Goldwait early in the 20th century. And ectomorph referred to a Abraham Lincoln type build where there is usually great height, always natural leanness, a short gut, fast transit of food, a tight rib angle, fast metabolism, and generally weak appetite and inefficient digestion. You realize that no one digests their food perfectly. A lot of nutrients pass into the toilet. But, in ectomorphs, the percentage of undigested food (lost calories) is greater. The opposite of an ectomorph is an endomorph- your Dom Deloise type, who are stocky without being muscular, often short, with an expanded rib angle, slow metabolism, and slow digestion, where they wring out every calorie from food with the greatest of ease. Again, Jimmy Stewart was a classic ectomorph.
But, in Jimmy’s case, he lived long- either in spite of being so thin or because of it. He lived to 89, and it seems that he could have lived longer. It said that he had a cardiac pacemaker, for which the battery died. But, instead of replacing it, he just decided to do without it. Well, that was not a good idea. There are a ton of things I object to in medical practice, but a cardiac pacemaker is not one of them. If you need one, you need one.
So, as a result of that, apparently, his circulation started failing, and he developed a blood clot in his leg which traveled to his lung and killed him. If not for that, he probably would have lived to his 90s. They said he was despondent over his wife’s death and wanted to join her.
And, I’ll add, without criticism or derision, that he started slipped mentally in his latter years. You can tell from his interviews and appearances that he was losing it mentally. And he was a very bright man; extremely bright. Besides being a master aviator, he had a degree in architecture, which he earned at Princeton. That was before his acting career. And it was at Princeton that he got his first taste of acting. He joined the acting club at Princeton, ostensibly as a way to meet girls, but he found that he liked acting and was rather good at it. And that’s how it all started for him.
I think that very few people would dispute Jimmy Stewart’s willingness and eagerness to fight the Nazis, but what about fighting the Vietnamese? Did he think at all about the righteousness of that war? I figure he must have because he had to be aware of all the public opposition to it. Indeed, he was aware of it, but he felt it was just to be fighting in Vietnam. I think he believed in the moral righteousness of America in whatever war we were fighting. He went from being a Nazi fighter to a Cold Warrior against international communism- and it felt right to him.
And even though my view of the Vietnam War and American militarism in general is very different from his, I have to admit, that, like everybody else, I like Jimmy Stewart. I can’t help it; he was a great guy.
And I think it’s fair to say that Jimmy Stewart is probably one of the most beloved Americans of all time, for his wonderful movies, for his war heroism, and for being such a real person and down-to-earth guy amidst all the glamour and glitz. I have a feeling that, going forward, there aren’t going to be too many people like him.