Jimmy Stewart was my teen idol

While other girls were still obsessed with Christian Slater, I fell in love with a dreamboat in black and white

Published December 24, 2015 11:00PM (EST)

  (Paramount Pictures)
(Paramount Pictures)

I saw "It’s a Wonderful Life" for the first time when I was 15. I’d noticed it in the periphery of Christmas for many years, with teachers rolling televisions into classrooms to play the film during grade school holiday parties. But the mere fact of its black-and-whiteness had immediately led me to dismiss it as “boring,” and I’d instead opted to chomp mini candy canes and pass notes about who in class had gotten her period so far.

Then in my sophomore year of high school, I strolled through my parents’ living room and caught a glimpse of Jimmy Stewart’s slow smile. It stopped me. Who was this absolute dreamboat of a man, and why wasn’t he all we were talking about nonstop, every day of the year?

Previously my affections had veered toward the likes of Christian Slater and Neil Patrick Harris -- each ticking the bad boy and good boy (and gay boy) categories that typically mark one’s adolescent crushes. But Jimmy Stewart was a different kind of crush. He was incredibly handsome, yes -- with that full mouth and those twinkling eyes -- but more so in a teasing, playful way. Here was a man whose speaking voice sounded as if he were forever on the cusp of swallowing his own tongue, and somehow, coming out of that face, it came off as utterly charming.

There was nothing sexual in my affection for him. Unlike Christian Slater, I never imagined kissing him or slow dancing with him to Extreme’s “More than Words.” Intimacy was in no way a part of the fantasy. I just wanted this kind man, with his tall, grasshopper body, to come knock on my door, and offer to lasso me the moon. 

I still wasn’t quite ready to be physically attracted to an actual grown man -- one who had to shave every day, and who most likely knew how to kiss without banging into your teeth. At 15, sex was still a hazy concept -- a confusing, gropey mess of strange appendages, and this feeling that was only intensified by attending Catholic school. I once made out with a boy on a patch of grass near the gym, right beneath a statue of the Blessed Virgin. Later, I couldn’t quite decide if this made the sin better or worse.

 My safe, cozy little Indiana world was opening up ever so slightly, cracking with tiny fissures that I knew would eventually split wide, dropping me face first into adulthood. My driver’s license loomed around the corner. The oldest of my seven siblings was hauling duffel bags off to college, leaving gaping holes at the dinner table where we once sat so closely our elbows knocked. And my relationship with my father had suddenly become stilted and awkward. I spoke to him in scripted teen-speak -- all sighs and mumbles. I’d recently learned that he had at various points in his life had serious struggles with alcohol. This knowledge sent me reeling. I’d never seen him take a sip of a drink in my entire life, and had always assumed he was just incredibly fond of iced tea. I made his iced tea every night  -- a chore that had previously annoyed me, as I spooned powdery Nestea into a pitcher and swirled it with a spoon. But now, the dark swirls appeared even murkier to me. Here was this new knowledge -- that my dad was not just my dad, existing solely to blast Neil Diamond’s “We’re Coming to America” as he drove us to school, or to chase bats out of the house with a golf club when they managed to sneak down our chimney. He was an independent person, with his own contradictions and experiences, and a life that spooled out long before I’d ever poofed into existence.

There was so much new knowledge. And the prevailing message of it all was that life was in fact unknowable. No one could tell me what my future would hold, and what triumph or romance or heavy sorrow was hidden in my own story. It was a thought that kept me awake at night, staring at the drooping canopy over my bed. Who would I love and hold dear? And would they love me back?

Out my window, I would hear the Indiana freight trains blasting their whistles, ghostly and urgent, and then I would wonder why that sex scene in the movie "Dreamscape" -- the one where Dennis Quaid seduces Kate Capshaw on a train and then that cobra man appears -- why did it make me feel so excited and strange? Was there something wrong with me? Did I have a reptilian sexual perversion?

The trains outside would race by, several miles away, though they sounded as if they were in fact roaring up my parents’ driveway. I would lie as still as possible, and wonder what would happen if I just never again moved from this stretch of my floral bedspread.

There was no sex in Bedford Falls. This I knew. There was only the delicious, electric tension between George and Mary as they tried to share a telephone together. Their school dance was all white gloves and Charleston competitions. There was no “Oh Me So Horny” blasted from a stereo while a boy tried to grind his Dockers against you. Bert the cop never cracked jokes to Ernie the cabbie about “fingerbanging,” no matter how risqué Violet’s dress was that evening. There were no drinking problems, unless you counted Old Man Gower understandably going on a bender after receiving his heartbreaking telegram. The main street of Bedford Falls wasn’t dotted with the plastic glow of Arby’s and Long John Silvers. Instead, there were cheerful soda fountains, and the trusted Bailey Building and Loan.

I longed for this idyllic place and time so badly I could almost taste it, and I funneled all of this angsty longing into Jimmy Stewart. I wanted him to “call on me” one night during a passing stroll. To stride up my parents’ porch with his long legs… and then freeze time. To make things simple and knowable once more. To make them -- if you will -- black and white.

Of course, in Bedford Falls people were also dying in WWII. The only person of color was a maid, and women were either married off or doomed to lives as sad, bespectacled librarians. But this didn’t really register with 15-year-old me. All I saw was a winking George Bailey singing “Buffalo gals won’t you come out tonight...” And that was all I wanted to see.

I went to the local library and unearthed Jimmy Stewart’s address from a leather-bound “Who’s Who.” I penned him a letter in my scrawled cursive, letting him know how much I appreciated his contribution to American cinema. I mentioned that I sometimes thought about being an actress myself, having just been in a rather successful version of "The Jungle Book" at my high school, where I leapt around stage with mascara on my nose and a felt tail safety-pinned to my sweatpants.

I kept the letter very formal, and had the self-control to not unleash all of my teenaged Midwestern melancholy onto an 80-year-old Hollywood legend. I certainly didn’t tell him what he meant to me. I also never dwelled upon the fact that the crush I was writing to was in fact a senior citizen. In my mind I was writing to the Jimmy Stewart of my daydreams, and my daydreams made no allowances for walkers or liver spots.

My mother made no comment about my new choice of teen idol. She merely hid her smile when I asked her to rent "The Philadelphia Story" and "Harvey" at the local Blockbuster. She’d hand the tapes over to me along with my requested bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, and then let me shut myself into my room with my daydreams. She bought me a book about him for my birthday, a big coffee-table-style deal with glossy photos of him smiling next to a mink-coated Rita Hayworth. As I flipped through the pages my eyes skimmed words like “womanizer” and “FBI informant,” and I slapped it shut, reading no further.

At a flea market I purchased an enormous, vintage-style poster of "It’s a Wonderful Life." I pulled "Beetlejuice" down from my bedroom door and carefully scotch-taped Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in its place.

One July morning when I was 17, I walked barefoot out to the mailbox, the day already thick with Ohio River humidity. My car was parked nearby, and as I flipped through the catalogs and bills, I wondered where my friends and I would go that night. Would we break into the quarry to swim? Go to the truck stop that sold hilarious porn? And then suddenly, I spotted a small white envelope addressed to me. It was postmarked from Marina Del Rey, California, and may as well have read “Marina del Rey, Mars.” I couldn’t for the life of me think of who it could be from. I tore it open, and inside was a small card covered in shaky black script:

“Thank you for your very kind and thoughtful letter. I wish you well in your acting work, and I hope you have a wonderful life. Sincerely, James Stewart.”

I stared in disbelief, my heart pounding in my ears. I had completely forgotten I ever wrote to the man! Had he really held this card in his hand? And now it was in my hand? I imagined this elderly Jimmy Stewart sitting somewhere in a patch of California sun. I imagined a blanket over his knees, looking not unlike he does in "Rear Window." But this time, instead of gaping at his murderous neighbors, he was peering quizzically at a fan letter from a pensive teenager in Indiana.

I stood on the hot pavement and let the card quiver in my hand, which was shaking with excitement. George Bailey had at last made it up my driveway. He had come calling after all! And yet… it was too late. He hadn’t stopped time. Life was pushing me forward quickly now. I didn’t know it then, but in two months I was going to fall in love for the first time. It would be with a boy with his own twinkling eyes, though his would be hazel. In another four months I would lose my virginity to him. He would make me mix tapes and write me funny poems. And in a year and a half, he would die very suddenly during my first week of college.

In a few more years, my father and I would slowly learn how to talk to each other again -- mainly by mocking the other’s political leanings. But we would eventually grow very close. In another 17 years he would develop Alzheimer’s. I would sit by his bed and offer him sips of water through a straw. And I would give anything for one more chance to make him iced tea.

In 13 years I would meet my husband in a shadowy bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He would be Irish and dimpled, and would make me laugh so hard my eyes would tear. We would have a child together. A singing, blue-eyed boy, whose smile would make my heart feel like a fireworks display.

In 20 years, I would carefully pull that poster down from my bedroom door. It would have hung there for decades. Long after I’d left for college. Long after I’d moved to New York, and later Europe. Unlike George Bailey, I would kick the dust of that town off my feet and see the world. Or at least parts of it. By the time I’d take it down, it would be yellowed slightly from the sun. I would carry it back to my home in Brooklyn, and hang it on my bedroom wall there. Lying in bed at night, I would once again see Jimmy Stewart’s profile in the darkness. Though this time my husband would be snoring softly, while my son’s tiny hands gently held my face.

Standing out in my parent’s driveway, holding that quaking card -- I wouldn’t know any of this. I wouldn’t know what the movie I had memorized all those years ago had been trying to tell me: There is no stopping of time. Life moves on and on and on; the future is unknowable. It is filled with moments of great happiness -- kissing your true love Donna Reed for the first time. And moments of immense grief -- your father dies the very night you kiss her. But it’s this joy and this sadness -- the mingling of the two -- it’s the great big mess of it that makes a life. And so we stay brave, and move through the mystery with nothing but hope and luck to safeguard us. But also with knowing that there will be tremendous love woven into the story. And that -- that is what makes it wonderful.

By Johanna Gohmann

Johanna Gohmann has written for The Morning News, xoJane, and Babble, and she is a regular contributor to Bust magazine. Her essays have been anthologized in A Moveable Feast: Life-Changing Food Adventures Around the World, The Best Sex Writing 2010, The Best Women's Travel Writing Volume 10, and Every Father's Daughter - 24 Women Women Writers Remember Their Fathers. www.JohannaGohmann.com

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