Music was always a big part of Stewart’s life, thanks to his pianist mother. In fact, a customer who was unable to pay a bill at the hardware store while Stewart was a child eventually convinced the elder Stewart to accept an old accordion as payment. Stewart learned to play the instrument with the help of a local barber – the accordion would become a regular member of Stewart’s retinue while he was acting.
Jimmy was shy as a child, spending a lot of his free time in the basement of his family home. He studied chemistry, made mechanical drawings, and built model airplanes – His dream at that young age was to go into aviation. He struggled in school, but not because of a lack of intelligence – he was plenty creative and had a tendency to daydream.
A Small Start to a Big Star
Born on May 20th, 1908, in Indiana, Pennsylvania – yes, a town named Indiana in Pennsylvania – James Maitland Stewart was the oldest child of Elizabeth Rush and Alexander Maitland Stewart. They came from Scottish and Scotch-Irish families, and they were hardworking folk. The real crust of the Earth kind of people. Father ran J.M. Stewart and Company hardware store, the family business for several generations, and it was always assumed that Jimmy would take over the store.
Stewart had a pair of younger sisters, Mary and Virginia, and he was a devout churchgoer for much of his life, having been raised by a deeply religious father. Already, we can see that Stewart isn’t going to be the normal Hollywood hero – everybody knows Sunday morning is when you sleep off Saturday evening.
A Hard Time in School
The goal was for Jimmy to take over the hardware store after graduating from college, but it wasn’t so easy. Apparently, Stewart had below-average grades in school. Just being able to get into college was tough enough, but no one ever expected him to become an incredible movie star. His father had attended Princeton University – not the easiest school to get into, no matter what year it is – and the hope was for Jimmy to take the same path.
He got sent to a prep school in order to bump up his grades and get a chance. This included a large number of extra-curricular activities such as running track...and acting in the school play. It also included activities such as the glee club and the art editor of the yearbook.
Taking a Year Off
While he was doing all that stuff (including his first play, acting as Buquet in the play “The Wolves” in 1928), he would return home during the summer to work as a brick loader and, then, as a magician’s assistant. It is a good way to learn how to command people’s attention. He came down with scarlet fever in 1927, which turned into a kidney infection, requiring him to stay out of school, thus delaying his graduation until 1928.
His passion for aviation continued through this time, and it only increased after the first solo transatlantic flight by Charles Lindbergh. However, as he was steered toward Princeton, Stewart realized that his chances of entering the field were starting to become slim. Fret not, however – he would eventually find himself in a plane’s cockpit.
Taking his Time Finding His Calling
After graduating from prep school in 1928, Stewart moved on to Princeton. While he had enjoyed his time as an actor in school, he wasn’t focused on it as a major – instead, he studied architecture. For someone hoping or intending to manage a hardware store, there are certainly worse choices.
His time at Princeton continued apace, without much to speak of – except that he continued to enjoy his time on stage, even joining the University Players, a Massachusetts theater company. After he graduated from Princeton, the company took him around the United States as an actor, and he even had a short run on Broadway the same year he graduated – not bad for a kid who was studying architecture.