Values

Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda's friendship: A valuable lesson for a divided nation

Mary Claire Kendall

Two Hollywood greats, James “Jimmy” Stewart and Henry “Hank” Fonda, offer a valuable lesson for today’s polarized America.

The two, “Hank” and “Jim,” were best friends. (Only Fonda called Stewart “Jim.”)  Stewart died twenty years ago this Sunday, July 2—some 15 years after, Fonda, who died on August 12, 1982.

“I talked to Fonda once about Jimmy, how they got along so well, considering that they were polar opposites politically,” Peter Bogdnovich, director, actor and writer, told me. “And Hank said, ‘We just don’t talk about politics. We just don’t talk about it.’”

Thomas Jefferson, whose Declaration of Independence birthed America on July 4, 1776, the 241st anniversary of which we celebrate this Independence Day, said of such politeness that “giving a pleasing and flattering turn to our expressions… will conciliate others and make them pleased with us as well as themselves.”—something that Stewart and Fonda’s generation understood and practiced. Indeed, when I commented, “It seems like the manners were better then,” Bogdanovich said, “A lot better.” 

“They were delightful together,” he said. “Both had such a good time together” in their bachelor years and then later joined by their wives, about which Bogdanovich writes in his book, “Who the Hell’s in it?: Conversations with Hollywood’s Legendary Actors.”

Fonda and Stewart met at the University Players in Falmouth, Massachusetts in the summer of 1932 when both were starting their acting careers. (Albeit Stewart, ostensibly there to play his accordion in the “tea room,” was reassigned to the stage, setup and acting, to preserve patrons’ nerves.) The two went to New York together when the show “Carrie Nation” debuted on Broadway, and then stayed on, suffering through some lean times. Then Fonda, who had studied acting, watched incredulously as his roommate Stewart, a Princeton graduate, class of ’32, kind of fell into Broadway roles. 

Stewart followed Fonda to Hollywood in 1935, where they also roomed together. “Greta Garbo moved next door and put up a huge stone wall, and they dug a hole under the wall,” said Bogdanovich. Or at least tried to.

Garbo’s wall notwithstanding, they both rose quickly—Fonda again looking on in amazement at Stewart’s great fortune in getting bit parts; then, in 1938, being plucked from relative obscurity to co-star in Frank Capra’s “You Can’t Take It With You” followed by his iconic performance the next year as Jefferson Smith in Capra’s "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”  

Hollywood at the time, considering the latter film too radical, passed over Stewart for a well-deserved Oscar, giving it to him instead for his performance in “The Philadelphia Story” (1940). Soon thereafter he was drafted and served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, commanding some 11 of 20 bombing missions he flew.  

Fonda also served in the U.S. Navy during the war—for three years, initially enlisting as a Quartermaster 3rd Class on the destroyer USS Satterlee because, he said, “I don’t want to be in a fake war in a studio.” Previously, he and Stewart had raised funds for the defense of Britain. 

Whereas their politics were different, Fonda and Stewart had the same sensibilities vis-à-vis sharing their war experiences. “Most of the (Hollywood) people in the war wouldn’t talk about it,” said Bogdanovich. “John Ford wouldn’t talk about it. Neither did Jimmy. And, I asked Fonda about it. But he didn’t answer. None of them volunteered anything.” Asked why, he said, “It was too painful. Too much. They didn’t want to appear to be trying to be heroic, bragging on themselves… They didn’t do that. It was just too serious of a situation to deal with it frivolously or in a casual way.”

Stewart remained in the U.S. Air Force Reserve and was promoted to Brigadier General on July 23, 1959, retiring on May 31, 1968, and then supporting the presidential bids of his other good Hollywood friend, Ronald Reagan—frequently visiting “Ron” at the White House during his presidency.

After Fonda died and Stewart aced a scene in Right of Way (1983), co-starring Bette Davis, he looked heavenward and said “Thanks, Hank.”

And, thanks to both for their example in keeping politics in its place for the sake of friendship and civility.

Mary Claire Kendall is author of Oasis: Conversion Stories of Hollywood Legends, recently published in Madrid under the title También Dios pasa por Hollywood.