By Richard Lacayo
Updated July 21, 1997 12:00 PM

WHEN JIMMY STEWART DIED, SOME of the music of mid-century America died with him. Though he was born in Pennsylvania and spent most of his life in California, his speaking voice seemed to spring from an ideal American center, both geographic and spiritual, a place of small towns and genial, unhurried people. (Once asked why he never ran for President, like his friend Ronald Reagan, he answered, “I can’t talk fast enough to be a politician.”) And with each passing year, as America became larger and its life more boisterous and intricate, that voice seemed ever sweeter.

Two weeks ago it was finally stilled. On July 2, Stewart was found dead in the bedroom of his Beverly Hills home by members of his household staff. He had suffered for years from failing health and heart problems, but friends say that Stewart, 89, had simply lost all interest in living since the death three years ago of his wife, Gloria. “He was kind of hunkering down like an old elephant, waiting to die,” says Shirley Jones, his costar in Two Rode Together and The Cheyenne Social Club. “[Gloria’s death] was a shock he never got over.”

In 75 feature films, including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Harvey, Rear Window, Vertigo and Anatomy of a Murder, Stewart took his place in the first rank of leading men of Hollywood’s golden age. And with the classic It’s a Wonderful Life, he became a staple of America’s holiday season. Yet onscreen and in life, he appeared to be utterly unassuming, a man who made being ordinary seem the most appealing thing in the world. “There was no star quality about him,” says Ernest Borgnine, his costar in Flight of the Phoenix. “He was Jimmy Stewart. Period.”

Stewart wasn’t always a Boy Scout. In the 1930s and ’40s he was the datingest bachelor in Hollywood. He was a shrewd businessman too. In the ’50s he became one of Hollywood’s first free agents, moving from studio to studio with each new film and negotiating contracts that often gave him what was then an unusual deal: a percentage of the film’s box office receipts instead of a salary. He became one of the richest stars of his generation, with a big Tudor-style house in Beverly Hills.

But the life he lived there was double vanilla—happily low-key and un-scandalous. Though it took him until the age of 41 to marry, when he settled down, he settled deep, remaining devoted to his wife, Gloria, through 45 years of a marriage that produced twin daughters Kelly and Judy, now 46, an overflowing vegetable patch and a house full of cats and dogs.

All his life, Stewart happily admitted to a passive streak in his nature. “I don’t act,” he once said. “I react.” Part of his legend insists that he didn’t so much climb to the top as float there. His upward drift started in the small town of Indiana, Pa., 65 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, where Stewart was born on May 20, 1908. His mother, Bessie, had attended college, which was unusual for a woman of her generation, and his father, Alexander, was a Princeton graduate who had returned home to run the prosperous family hardware store founded in 1853.

Stewart adored his father and spent much of his life trying to reassure him that acting was a respectable pursuit for a grown man. For his part, the drily funny Alex would rarely admit to more than bemusement at Jimmy’s fame. While not rich, the Stewart family—Jimmy, the oldest, had two sisters—was comfortable. At 15, he was sent to Mercersburg Academy, a Pennsylvania boarding school that funneled many of its graduates to Princeton. As a boy he also made a fateful attachment to an accordion that his father had accepted from a traveling carnival performer in exchange for supplies from his store. When Jimmy moved on to Princeton, the accordion went too, his ticket to the Triangle Club theater crowd, which always needed a music-maker for their theatricals and parties.

In 1932, as he was graduating with a degree in architecture, Stewart bumped into Josh Logan, a former Triangle Club member who had been a year ahead of him at Princeton. Logan would go on to direct such huge Broadway and film hits as South Pacific and Picnic, but in those days he was merely head of the University Players, a small repertory company on Cape Cod. Logan figured his troupe could use a guy with an accordion, and Stewart thought summer stock might be a nice way to meet girls. “You can see [my career] was almost accidental,” Stewart said years later. “If Josh Logan hadn’t spoken to me when I was on my way to get the diploma, I would have gone home.”

It was while performing for Logan that Stewart met Henry Fonda, who would become his lifelong friend despite their polarized politics. (Stewart was an unwavering Republican, Fonda one of Hollywood’s most active Democrats.) When a Broadway producer offered to give a University Players production a New York City showcase, Stewart went along in a bit part. That meant not only turning down a scholarship to pursue a graduate degree in architecture at Princeton but breaking the news to some pretty skeptical folks back home. “They all reached for chairs to sit down,” he said later. “I think they took it very well—considering.” The play was a flop, but good reviews in his next few roles brought Stewart an MGM screen test and a $350-a-week studio contract.

Arriving in California in 1935, he spent the next six years honing his skills in over two dozen films. “You either got a big part in a small picture,” he once said, “or a small part in a big picture. But all the time you were learning.” MGM, on the other hand, was trying to figure out what to do with him. At 6’3½” and 138 lbs. he was too skinny, the thinking went, to be a leading man.

Stewart got his best roles when MGM lent him to other studios. At Columbia director Frank Capra, who had helped put Gary Cooper on the map, saw Coop’s folksy charm in Stewart and cast him in two films, the second of which, 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, made him a star. In it he played Jefferson Smith, a political innocent in Congress who is unwittingly sucked into the schemes of corrupt politicians. For the famous scene in which Smith filibusters to exhaustion on the floor of the Senate, Stewart had a doctor swab his throat repeatedly with a harsh mercury solution to inflame his vocal cords and hoarsen his voice.

At the same time, as author Donald Dewey wrote in James Stewart: A Biography, the actor was building a reputation as “one of Hollywood’s most tireless womanizers.” Dewey counts Loretta Young, Norma Shearer, Ginger Rogers, Marlene Dietrich, Olivia de Havilland and Dinah Shore among the actor’s companions. Dewey also notes a claim made by Erich Maria Remarque, the German author who was a rival for Dietrich’s affection, that Dietrich became pregnant by Stewart when the two were starring together in the Western comedy Destry Rides Again. Remarque contended that Dietrich, at Stewart’s insistence, had an abortion. Neither Dietrich nor Stewart ever acknowledged such an episode, or even an involvement, though others who worked on the Destry set have attested that they were more than just costars. After Dietrich, Stewart became seriously involved with de Havilland, who was coming off her success in Gone with the Wind. By that time film magazines and gossip columnists were earnestly advising the 31-year-old Stewart that it was time to marry. De Havilland once told a reporter that she had refused a proposal from Stewart because she thought it was “a frivolous thing on his part. Jimmy wasn’t ready for a wife. I guess he still had a few more wild oats to sow.”

And quite a few more awards to garner. His performance in The Philadelphia Story in 1940 brought him the Academy Award for Best Actor, which many people had expected him to win the year before for Mr. Smith (it went instead to Robert Donat for Goodbye, Mr. Chips). Stewart might have spent the next year or two consolidating his success. But with war raging, he wanted to enlist in the Army Air Corps, a prospect that had horrified MGM chief Louis B. Mayer. He worried not only that Stewart was squandering his hard-won box office position but also that his donning a uniform might set off a stampede of other stars into the service.

To Mayer’s relief, Stewart was rejected on his first physical for being 10 pounds underweight, an embarrassment that made headlines around the country. After getting the Air Corps to let him try again, he stuffed himself for months with pasta and bananas. Just days after winning the Oscar, Stewart took his second physical. This time he made it, but barely. Eventually he would fly more than 20 missions over Germany and occupied France, mostly as a squadron commander. He returned home a colonel with a Distinguished Flying Cross and a deeper sense of life’s precariousness. Thinking back on how he prepared for each mission, he once told an interviewer, “I always prayed. But I really didn’t pray for my life or the lives of other men. I prayed that I wouldn’t make a mistake.” Back home he had a clause written into his movie contracts forbidding studio press agents from mentioning his service record. He always downplayed his accomplishments. “He was a press agent’s nightmare but a wonderful human being,” says his friend Burgess Meredith. At Stewart’s funeral, a six-member U.S. Presidential Air Force Guard stood at attention as mourners arrived.

Stewart’s first postwar project was It’s a Wonderful Life, which Frank Capra was preparing for his production company Liberty Films. Stewart was glad to be working again with Capra, but returning to the cameras triggered a crisis of self-confidence not so different from the one suffered by George Bailey, the beleaguered small-town banker he plays in the film. “I felt when I got back to pictures that I had lost all sense of judgment,” he said later. “I couldn’t tell if I was good or bad.”

He was good. Good enough to win his third Oscar nomination, though It’s a Wonderful Life did such poor business that Capra had to sell Liberty to Paramount. Stewart followed Life with a series of flops, including Rope, a stagy Alfred Hitchcock version of the Leopold-Loeb murder. To his horror, The New York Times cranked up a story about the collapse of his career. “I knew right then and there I was going to have to do something,” Stewart recalled later. “I knew I had to toughen up.”

That resolve led him to the roles that made him a star all over again in the ’50s. First there was the 1950 comedy hit Harvey—the story of Elwood P. Dowd, a cordial, small-town drinker, and his friend and companion, a six-foot invisible rabbit—which earned him his fourth Oscar nomination. Then came darker roles. In the violent, angry Westerns of Anthony Mann (Winchester ’73, The Naked Spur), in the tilted dramas of Alfred Hitchcock (Rear Window, Vertigo), in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, there emerged an older, not so innocent Jimmy Stewart—though no less sympathetic, particularly to fellow actors who needed a boost. Kim Novak remembers how he used to calm her nerves on the set of Vertigo: “It was mostly done with the touch of a hand. There was nobody who could squeeze your hand like Jimmy Stewart.”

For a while after his return from the war, he resumed his voracious dating habits. At one party he even persuaded Henry Fonda’s wife, Frances, to take aside Kirk Douglas’s date, tell her that she had caught Stewart’s eye and help her sneak out with Stewart when Douglas wasn’t looking. But as he approached 40, he was under pressure from family, friends and himself to get married. It was Gary Cooper and his wife, Rocky, who came to the rescue by bringing him together with Gloria Hatrick McLean, 31, a newly divorced mother of two young boys. She had wealth, a famous sense of humor and a passion for golf and African wildlife. They wed in 1949. And it stuck. “She’s made my life more exciting and interesting and meaningful than I ever thought it could be,” he said in 1992.

Though he worked steadily throughout the ’60s, he would have only one more solid hit, the 1965 Civil War drama Shenandoah. In 1969 he was shattered when his stepson Ron, a Marine lieutenant, was killed in combat in Vietnam. Afterward, Stewart remained a strong supporter of the war, but when a Pentagon rep showed up at the actor’s home to propose using Ron in a pro-Vietnam PR campaign, a furious Stewart took his visitor by the elbow and showed him the door. Yet Stewart remained a conservative in his bones. He and Fonda stayed close by agreeing never to discuss politics. In 1976, Stewart campaigned widely in California in support of his old friend Ronald Reagan in his failed attempt to win that year’s GOP presidential nomination.

By then, Stewart’s film career had slowed to a crawl. The last of his 75 feature films was The Magic of Lassie in 1978. Of course he was already enjoying the status of a legend. His voice was a staple for every comic impressionist. (“Sometimes,” he once said, “I wonder if I’m doing a Jimmy Stewart imitation myself.”) He traveled the world with Gloria and received such honors as the Lifetime Achievement Award of the American Film Institute. He was also a fixture on good friend Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, where he often recited the verses he had published in a surprise 1989 best seller, Jimmy Stewart and His Poems. (From “The Aberdares!” about a cold night in East Africa: “The North Pole’s rather chilly/Those who’ve been there all will tell./There’s lots of snow and lots of ice/And lots of wind as well”)

Stewart also liked to quote a line from Laurence Olivier: “I always play myself, with deference to the character.” These days a whole generation of younger actors can be caught playing Jimmy Stewart. (Listen closely to Nicolas Cage in The Rock, Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams or Tom Hanks in just about anything.) What they seem to want is to be like him—a man as simple and straightforward as the alphabet but with just as many possibilities. Jimmy Stewart once proposed his own epitaph: “He gave people a lot of pleasure.” No matter what they may carve into his tombstone, those words will be his legacy.