H’w’d loses a leading man

IT’S NOT A GOOD MORNING: My friend — and yours — Jimmy Stewart has gone. When my phone rang early Wednesday morning and the voice said, “This is Michael McLean,” I knew what to expect from Stewart’s stepson. Jimmy Stewart was at peace when he died, not in pain and he looked peaceful. McLean and Stewart’s twin daughters Kelly (Mrs. Sandy) Harcourt, and Judy (Mrs. Steven) Merrill had told me some time back, “If anything happens to Jimmy, you will be the first we will call.” I had been talking to Jimmy regularly over the years and had visited his home; after he bought the house next door to his and tore it down to put in a beautiful flower and vegetable-fruit garden in the heart of Beverly Hills, we sat outside and talked of many things. In the den of the house, he proudly showed me photos wife Gloria had taken of their trips to Africa. But, after Gloria died in 1994, our conversations were limited to the telephone. I tried to cheer him up by my calls, but his visits with other friends faded. In the past two years at home, sad to say, he only came down from his bedroom to eat lunch or dinner — and only on some occasions. He liked peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, blintzes for dinners. And recently his longtime housekeeper Anne Coyle was even able to get him to eat pancakes — something he’d never done before! When I said, “I drive by your house every day on my way to work, why don’t I stop by and we can shmooze?” He replied, “I don’t think you’d find me very interesting these days.” Stewart was, and will always be, interesting. Furthermore, he was always interested — that’s more than I can say for a lot of people I’ve interviewed. He always made me feel welcome on any set I visited and invariably gave me something (if not earth-shattering) to print. … Despite his “disappearance” from the outside world, he remained concerned about what was going on. He read Daily Variety every day, he’d tell me — at our 4 p.m. phone conversations — and he’d comment, although sparsely, about what was happening in the biz. He got a kick out of the fact that he was considered the most trustworthy personality in America in a recent nationwide poll.

JIMMY STEWART HAD RECENTLY undergone pacemaker adjustment, and had been showing improvement. It took days to get him to the hospital for his treatments and examination — and then days to get him to go home! He never rushed about anything. He was in good spirits Tuesday evening. When Jimmy started to fail at 4 ayem Wednesday, Michael was called and arrived at the house a few hours later. Judy came down from San Francisco, Kelly from Davis a few hours after that. They had been together with Jimmy regularly every week or so and had spent his birthday, May 20, with him as well as Christmas. During the Oscar campaign, I kept him posted on what the feeling was around town and although he, as an honored Academy member, received all the tapes of the nominated pictures, he admitted, “I don’t go for watching tapes.” When “It’s A Wonderful Life” made its annual airing, we talked about the movie and he told me, “Frank Capra was under-estimated — 50 years ago!” For over 50 years, Bob Wagner had been a friend of his. Even though they’d never worked together in a movie, they were the closest of pals and worked together on the Jimmy Stewart Marathon Race fundraiser for St. John’s Hospital. And when Stewart was no longer able to be on hand for the event or its cocktail kickoff, R.J. took over the full reins for him. Wagner was in tears yesterday too. “He (Stewart) was the last of the big leading men,” he said. “He was the cream of the crop. He was never concerned about the fact he was the icon. He didn’t carry a lot of baggage. But, I think he’s now where he wants to be. His heart was broken (after Gloria died). We’re lucky to have known him.” He got a kick out of the many imitations of his inimitable speech pattern — even when I kiddingly called him up and imitated him on the phone. And when I asked him whose imitation he thought was the best, he answered “Sammy Davis Jr.” He loved doing things not expected of him, like playing the accordion and singing — he even loved being a guest on “The Movie Game,” which I co-hosted years ago. Of course, it took him too long to get his answers out! He loved putting on the baggy pants and makeup to play the clown in Cecil B. DeMille’s “Greatest Show on Earth.” I remember seeing him walking down the famed dressing room row at Paramount when Bing Crosby oozed out of his own dressing room and seeing the fully clown-made-up Stewart, asked, “Working today, Jim?” Stewart looked at Crosby and answered, “Nope, I’m just going to the grocery store!” As of Wednesday afternoon, Michael said funeral plans weren’t set. Jimmy had left no specifics, McLean said. “Like my mother (Gloria) when she died, she said ‘I leave it up to the kids.’ ” As with Gloria, there will be a service (time not yet set) at the Beverly Hills Presbyterian Church and it’s not yet known whether the Air Force will want to be involved for its WWII hero. Jimmy Stewart, we all salute you.

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