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.
I just finished reading the biography Elizabeth Taylor by David Bret. It came out shortly after her death in 2011, which means that he must have been writing it beforehand. Perhaps he was just waiting for her die to write the final words.
But, to explain the question I posed above, I meant: How did Elizabeth Taylor last as long as she did, which was 79 years? Her generation of movie stars was a hard-smoking, hard-drinking lot, and she was no exception. And like other child starlets, such as Natalie Wood and Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor got started with the drugs at an early age: drugs for sleeping, drugs for staying awake, drugs to calm her nerves, etc. And Elizabeth Taylor had another eerie parallel with Judy Garland: both of them had fathers named Francis who were both gay. Well, I should say that they were bisexual since they fathered children, but, it seems that their main inclination was to be gay. And like Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor became a gay icon, and her first and second husbands were both bisexual.
Elizabeth was born in England, although both her parents were Americans. As with Natalie Wood, it was Elizabeth’s mother, Sara Sothern Taylor, who had achieved some success on the stage who drove Elizabeth into acting, and that began as soon as the family relocated to Los Angeles when she was 7. Her first movie role didn’t come until she was 9.
I am going to focus on Elizabeth Taylor’s health because her life story is way too long to tell here. And, she had a tremendous amount of illness in her life, and even as a child, she had more frequent bouts of illness than most children do, including back problems, which is not typical of children. She had a total of about 40 surgical operations in her life- maybe more than that- including appendectomy, multiple back surgeries, hysterectomy, double hip replacements, excision of a brain tumor, lung operations, throat operations, and over 70 hospitalizations. She had so much illness that I can’t imagine why anybody would envy her or want to trade places with her. I realize that nobody gets through life without having some bad days, but one would hope that the good days would at least outnumber the bad days, but I doubt that that was true for her. I don’t know how many times she got pneumonia, but it was too numerous to count. And as with Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor’s health problems often caused delays in the production of her movies, and most famously that happened during the making of Cleopatra.
As for her food, ET was a very conventional eater who ate the Standard American Diet, and her tendency was to get heavy. She would balloon up to 180 pounds or more between films. She was a yo-yo dieter her whole life. And keep in mind that that is a bad thing in itself; it undermines both health and weight control.
So, it was bad food, heavy smoking, heavy drinking, heavy drugging (including several suicide attempts with drugs), an aversion to exercise, and did I mention that she had a tremendous amount of stress in her life? Mainly, it was her tumultuous marriages, but she also had the stress of a lot of untimely, tragic deaths of loved ones, such as James Dean, Montgomery Clift, and Rock Hudson. The sudden death of her third husband Mike Todd in a plane crash also hit her very hard. But, my impression from reading this book is that the husband with whom she had the closest bond and the deepest connection was definitely Richard Burton. And just think: he was an extremely heavy smoker and drinker, which surely drove her in that direction. As I said, it seems that that whole generation of movie stars were alcoholics, but nobody drank more than Richard Burton. But, here is a medical fact that few people realize: women’s bodies cannot handle alcohol as well as men’s. Women’s livers just cannot metabolize alcohol as fast. For consuming the same amount of alcohol, women develop higher and more protracted blood levels of alcohol, resulting in more damage to their bodies. Therefore, men who coax women to keep up with them drinking really do them harm.
I mentioned that Elizabeth Taylor’s mother Sara Sothern Taylor was an actress as a young woman, and I can tell you that, like Elizabeth Taylor, she was quite a beautiful woman. I can also report that Sara lived to the age of 99. And I think that that explains how Elizabeth Taylor managed to live to 79 despite a very abusive and destructive lifestyle; she had longevity in her family. Am I saying that she could have lived to 99 if she had taken care of herself? I wouldn't go that far considering how few people live to 99, but I do think she could have easily made it to her 90s if she had taken better care of herself.
I have only seen a few Elizabeth Taylor movies, but if I were going to recommend one it would be Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. She won the Best Actress Academy Award in 1966 for the role of Martha, the disenchanted, childless, alcoholic wife of a cynical, disillusioned history professor, played by her than husband Richard Burton. They were the fightingest couple in film history, and people joked that it wasn’t that different from their real lives. But regardless, it was acting, and they really pulled all the stops to make it seem real. Both of their performances are amazing but especially hers.
In the later years, Elizabeth Taylor was mostly involved in her businesses, retailing jewelry and fragrances, and also with her charitable foundation for AIDS research, which became a very big part of her life. And she became very infirmed at the end, having to move around in a wheelchair, reportedly from severe osteoporosis. It is said that she had Alzheimer's but that is unconfirmed. She definitely had heart failure.
Surely, it is true that Elizabeth Taylor lived in a different world, far removed from ordinary life, and her whole personhood and life experience was far and away different from that of regular folks. But, what was NOT different for her was the composition of her flesh and blood. Despite her wealth and fame, she was subject to the same rules, the same laws, the same results from the things that she did to herself that other people have to face. Her money and celebrity didn’t help her in that way at all. I suppose you could say that having the money to obtain the best medical care for her numerous problems made a difference in keeping her alive. But, remember that Medicine is a double-edged sword, and that’s putting it nicely. It was doctors who got her in trouble in the first place- with sleeping pills, tranquilizers, etc. And having vast wealth was apparently of no value to her in getting her to eat better food. So, the plain truth is that Elizabeth Taylor influenced the culture but not nearly as much as the culture influenced her.
This is a fascinating new report about the effects of giving supplemental zinc to African women. Read it first, then my comments follow:
Note that they mentioned that the women were eating low-meat/ high phytate diets. Phytic acid is an acid distributed widely in plants, and it binds minerals, such as zinc, making them unavailable. And it has also been found in Western populations that the high phytic acid in plant-based diets can compromise zinc status.
Zinc is involved in taste perception, and it has been found that vegans perform less well on taste perception tastes, suggesting the possibility of zinc deficiency.
Besides the phytic acid, also the oxalic acid in fruits and vegetables may bind zinc into a non-useable oxalate form. Then lastly, the high fiber content of plant-based diets may impede zinc absorption to some extent. There is a good side but also a bad side to all that fiber.
Note that overall, plant-based diets are very healthy and offer huge benefits. But, it's possible that they are marginal when it comes to maintaining optimal zinc status. Not major, but subtle degrees of zinc deficiency may be occurring widely among unsupplemented vegetarians and vegans. And that's why I prefer, for insurance reasons, to include a zinc supplement in my diet. I would rather be on the safe side.
And here is another consideration: As people age, their natural ability to absorb zinc goes down- way down. Dr. Walter Pierapaoli, a prominent Italian physician, believes that a significant amount of the decrepitude of old age results from poor zinc nutriture. There are over 200 enzymes that are zinc-dependent. This is way too important to leave to chance. I recommend including a zinc supplement in your health program- especially if you are eating a vegan or mostly vegan diet.
This is an Australian professor giving a lecture about his advocacy of eating a high meat/high animal fat diet.
It's not that all or most of what he says is untrue; it's that he is leaving out other considerations that are important. And first I'll say that any dietary arguments that are based on Evolution are inherently flimsy since the Theory of Evolution is so flimsy. And I am not saying that as a Creationist because I am not one. But, the idea that life on Earth developed and changed and acquired increasing complexity based on random mutations- pure genetic accidents- that were acted on by "natural selection" is not just dubious; it is mathematically absurd. So, I don't really like to hear anyone use Evolution as the basis for making dietary claims- and there is far too much of that.
But, here is an example of an important point that went unmentioned. How can humans require a high-protein diet/low carbohydrate diet when human breast milk is extremely low in protein and extremely high in carbohydrate? To be blunt: human milk is the lowest protein milk among mammalian milks, and by a wide margin. And, human milk is also the highest carbohydrate milk; it is by far the sweetest milk of any.
And even though human breast milk has only 1% protein by volume (sometimes measured as low as .9%, and I hope you caught that decimal point) human babies can easily double their birth weight in 9 months on a diet of breast milk, and some do it in as little as 6 months. So, even though humans are slow to grow and mature compared to most other mammals, the fact is that the first year of human life is a period of very rapid growth, and it all happens on a very low-protein diet.
And keep in mind that a human mother makes low-protein milk no matter how much protein she eats. She can't force her breasts to churn out a higher protein milk by consuming more protein.
So, if rapidly growing babies can grow and develop and be sustained entirely by low-protein breast milk, why assume that a human adult who is not growing at all requires a high-protein diet?
Keep in mind that I am NOT opposed to eating dietary fat. I do not demonize dietary fat like Dr. John McDougall and others do. I think it is perfectly natural and normal to eat fat. But, I think the best fats are plant fats, such as avocadoes, raw nuts, and oil-seeds. And I am not opposed to using high-quality, extra-virgin olive oil. I think all of these are good, and I partake of all them, and I stay slim while doing so. But, I have to think that all the evidence shows that it is best to limit meat consumption to small amounts- that is, if you don't eliminate it completely. The idea that we should feel compelled to eat meat, and large amounts of it, and just because our ancestors did is ridiculous.
Surely, if they were living in Northern Europe during an Ice Age, they had to eat meat, and in large amounts, because for most of the year there was no plant food available to them, and the storage of plant foods wasn't yet practical on a large and efficient scale. But, that is not the case today. Today, even if you live in St. Petersburg, Russia, the most northern major city in the world, there is plant food available in abundance the year round. The Caveman did not have what we have. And having what we have, there is no good reason for us to eat the way he did.
Look: the first thing you want to do is eat an abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, and I presume that like most people you have access to them in wide variety all year. Then, there are other plant foods with proven health-protective effects, such as nuts and also beans and legumes, which are excellent foods. There are also whole grains, which are popular to trash these days, but I like them, and I eat them. Now, in addition to that, if you want to keep some room in your diet for meat and animals foods, I don't say you can't or shouldn't, but how much room is there? If you obtain for yourself a full ration of all the disease-preventing, health-protecting plant foods available to you, unless you are an extremely big eater, you are probably not going to have much room left for animal foods anyway.
So, as I see it, the important thing is not to decide to be a vegetarian but to decide to eat plant-strong. Good sense should tell you that plant-based diets are the way to go in the 21st century. I don't say that it has to be exclusively plant, but at least make it mostly plant. And don't let bogus arguments based on Evolution talk you out of it.
I think it’s very appropriate after writing about Irving Berlin that I write about George Gershwin. After all, they were contemporaries. I read the Gershwin biography of Howard Pollack entitled: George Gershwin: His Life and Work. But no, I am not recommending it because it’s almost one thousand pages long, which is quite an arduous read. And, the focus of the book is more on his music than his personal life. It’s good; it’s just that it’s a bit excessive.
But, I’ll begin by pointing out that many people, to this day, consider George Gershwin to be the most gifted musical composer that America has ever produced. And I am one of those people. And it’s especially true when you consider that he died of a brain tumor at the age of 38. So, his incomparable wealth of music was all produced within a mere 20 years. What kind of genius does that make him?
When his Rhapsody in Blue came out in 1924, when he was 26 years old, it was met with both praise and derision. The public loved it, but there were high-brow music critics who felt that it was too undisciplined, too unorganized, too much in violation of the standards of orchestral music, too patronizing of jazz and blues, and not anything that would endure. Well, they could not have been more wrong. Today, the Rhapsody in Blue is one of the most popular and frequently performed pieces of classical music in the world- not just in the United States but all over the world. Recall the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in Los Angeles when they had 50 white grand pianos on the field playing the Rhapsody in Blue to a worldwide audience. Why’d they pick that piece? Because it is the greatest and most beloved piece of American classical music.
Like the parents of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin’s parents were Russian Jews, and they were immigrants to New York City from Russia. But unlike Irving Berlin, George Gershwin was born here: in 1898. His given name was Jacob Gershovitz. He later changed it to George Gershwin. Everybody called him George, including his family.
As a child, he was a regular kid. He was very active. He loved sports; rollerskating and hockey were big for him; and he also got into fights. But, he was a poor student. His musical life started when his parents bought an upright piano which was intended mainly for his older brother Ira. But, it quickly became apparent that George was the one with natural ability; in fact, it quickly became apparent that he was gifted. So, they found a teacher for him and then better teachers as his talent became even more apparent. It became very obvious that he was a prodigy.
George dropped out of school at the age of 15 to become a song plugger. That was a pianist who played songs all day for one of the song publishers on Tin Pan Alley in order to showcase the songs. And he started writing songs. His first big hit was Swanee when he was 17 which caught the attention of Al Jolson and became a national smash.
It was the era of Broadway musicals, and George teamed up with his brother Ira, who had become a leading lyricist, and they became an indomitable team. But, George was also interested in "serious" music, and that's what led him to Europe to study with the masters. So, he had a foot in both camps: popular and classical music.
One of his last projects was the opera Porgy and Bess which concerns the lives of poor blacks living in the slums of Charleston, South Carolina. The music is hauntingly beautiful; the most famous song being Summertime, although my favorite is Bess, You is My Woman Now. It is regrettable that acclaim for Porgy and Bess did not surface until after Gershwin's death. Today, it is considered one of the greatest American operas, and it is the favorite of many.
Gershwin's final project was to write the musical score for the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie Shall We Dance, and that is what brought him out to Los Angeles. And it is considered to be superb writing, including the perennial They Can't Take That Away From Me. And that, by the way, is the song my parents danced to at their 50th wedding anniversary.
For the remainder, I am going to focus on Gershwin's health since this is a health blog. George had a very athletic way about him. He was toned and chiseled and in good shape for most all his life. And even though he worked like demon, he always reserved time for exercise. In the afternoons, he would quit composing and do something active. He was passionate about both golf and tennis and quite good at both. He loved to swim. And he even boxed. In those days, they had boxing gyms all over New York, and he went to one regularly.
Regarding food, he was particular, and he became somewhat of a health nut. When he would visit his parents, he would bring vegetables because he knew they didn’t buy them, and he thought they should all be eating them. And that made me think that he probably didn’t get too many vegetables as a child. And therefore, he probably did not get too many fruits either. Remember that this was a time when the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables in the diet was not widely known and appreciated.
Gershwin's digestion was delicate his whole life. He had a sensitive stomach. And he tended to have digestive complaints, both upper and lower. And he complained of irregular elimination. He always stayed thin, which was probably because he was so active physically but also perhaps because assimilating food was not his strong point. He just wasn't a good digester.
He did smoke, but practically all men did back then- as contradictory as that was for an avid sportsman as he was. His preference was for pipes and cigars, and there are quite a few pictures of him with one or the other, and they may be worse than cigarettes. He drank alcohol but not excessively. He was no big drinker. There was no mention of him ever being intoxicated.
Gershwin never really studied music academically. He didn’t go to Julliard or any other music school. He learned the technicalities of music from various private teachers that he had, here and in Europe. And that’s it; he never actually took a formal course in music. But, he doggedly traveled the globe to take influence from the masters of the day, including some of the biggest names in classical music, including Debussey and Ravel. Still, it is amazing what he did without any formal education in music.
Gershwin never married, but he was considered the most eligible bachelor of his day. If they had People magazine back then, they probably would have put him on the cover as the sexiest man in America. His longest relationship was with a woman named Kay Swift, who was also a musician and composer herself, and they did some collaborating. Another girlfriend of his was Ann Ronnell, who was also a songwriter. Her song, Willow Weep for Me, which became a standard, is widely believed to have been a collaboration with Gershwin. But, he went through a lot of relationships, and it’s amazing he had the time for them. Like Irving Berlin, he often sacrificed sleep in order to produce. He often stayed up all night to compose.
So, on the whole, he was athletic and healthy and certainly active and vigorous, and he looked good. However, he suffered with chronic issues relating to his digestion, and that was the worst health problem he had. That is, until the last year of his life when horrific headaches started to plague him. Also, he developed coordination problems which hampered his ability to play the piano. Even the simple act of bringing a spoon to his mouth to eat food became difficult and troubling. He also started having olfactory hallucinations; he complained of smelling burnt rubber all the time. And mentally, he started losing it too with personality changes and sudden explosive and bizarre behaviors.
Finally, a brain tumor was diagnosed, but by then, he was too far gone. They flew out to Los Angeles the best neurosurgeon in the country from the East Coast, and Gershwin was operated on. However, he never regained consciousness after the operation, and he died several hours later. That was on July 11, 1937, and he was 38 years old. He was 2 months shy of his 39th birthday.
What can we say about George Gershwin’s tragic death? And it was tragic for him, his family, and the whole world because there is no telling how much more beautiful music he would have written. Why did he develop a brain tumor? Was it the result of his bad habits? I can’t say that because millions of people indulge in bad habits much worse than he did who do not develop brain tumors.
I don’t think we can attribute any particular cause to his developing a brain tumor, especially at that young age. To me, the lesson from this is that we should do the best we can for ourselves, and all we can, but we need to recognize that there is luck involved in health, that it is not all under our control, and there is nothing particularly fair about it. But, I don’t think that one should be discouraged by that. You simply have to recognize that you are trying to do the best that YOU can do.
I’m going to leave you with a link to the Andante movement of the Rhapsody in Blue because I don’t think I have ever heard a more beautiful melody than this. To me, this is musical perfection. It is so emotional and haunting and moving. What a gift to humanity.