Whenever I host classic films, I wade deeply into the weeds of each picture. (What can I say? Card-carrying nerd, reporting for duty.) In 2019, while researching my introduction to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I stumbled across James Stewart’s last words and they got me all verklemmt...
Jimmy was married for 44 years to his one and only wife Gloria – a woman with movie star looks, but without movie star ambitions, which was fine by her husband. After landing in Hollywood in 1934, Jimmy spent the next 15 years dating puh-lenty of beauties: Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, Norma Shearer, Olivia de Havilland, Loretta Young, Lana Turner. Rumor has it he even proposed to a few of them, yet retained his title as “The Great American Bachelor” – a label pinned on him by the press – during the peak of his popularity.
That is, until Jimmy met a 29-year-old green-eyed blonde at a dinner party (*cough* fix-up) hosted by actor-turned-amateur-matchmaker Gary Cooper and his wife “Rocky.” Like a scene outta one of his own rom-coms, Jimmy was smitten: “I could tell right off that she was a thoroughbred...the kind of girl I had always dreamed of. But first I had to woo her dog. I bought him steaks. Patted him. Praised him. It got to be pretty humiliating, but we finally got to be friends. I was free to court Gloria.”
On August 9, 1949, Jimmy wed Gloria in an intimate ceremony. There were only 18 guests inside the church, but 500 fans outside it, hoping to catch a glimpse of the newly hitched couple. The groom’s “advanced” age of 41 led his agent to quip, “By that time, a lot of big Hollywood stars are working on their third or fourth wife. But that’s not for Jimmy. He’s very old-fashioned about such an important step. Why, even in a movie, he didn’t pop the question until the last reel.”
With marriage came instant fatherhood. Jimmy adored and adopted Gloria’s sons (5-year-old Ronald, 3-year-old Michael); the Stewarts added twin girls to the fam in 1951. Following the difficult delivery, Gloria spent a month in the hospital; the nurse who cared for her later told reporters, ''I’ve never seen such an outpouring of love and concern. Mr. Stewart wouldn’t leave her bedside. When Mrs. Stewart was ready to be discharged, he was so excited that he nearly drove his car into the lobby. We got his wife ready, then he took off in a mad dash. But he had forgotten to put her in the car!”
I saw Jimmy and Gloria once, while attending an event at their church in Beverly Hills. They seemed so down to earth, no visible show biz airs, always sticking close to each other while chatting up the other guests. In a town where illicit affairs are an occupational hazard, there was never a whiff of scandal about their relationship, which ended with Gloria’s death in 1994, just after Valentine’s Day.
By all accounts, Jimmy was lost without her. Retreating from public life, he secluded himself at home, and in December of 1996, reportedly opted not to replace the battery in his pacemaker, preferring to let nature take its course.
On July 2, 1997, with his children gathered around him, Jimmy said goodbye, telling them, “I’m going to be with Gloria now.”