Today, as has been the case since the birth of aviation, there are a fair number of celebrity pilots. It’s only natural I suppose.
At their core, celebrities are ordinary people, driven by many of the same dreams as anyone else.
For actors, they make it their profession to represent the rest of us in various stages and circumstances in life. Some specialize in playing the hero. Action stars abound. Others are more subtle in their choices, ping-ponging between characters that inspire, or sway the audience toward pity, or leave us scratching our heads wondering whether they were a good guy or a bad guy in the end.
A personal favorite of mine since childhood was Jimmy Stewart. In fact, he’s such a favorite an autographed photograph of him hangs on a wall in my home. Tall, thin, and stammering his way through a diverse series of roles, Stewart was the actor I could relate to best. He could play a tough, or a gentleman, a statesmen, or a cowboy with equal ease. But at their core they were all the same guy. They were Jimmy Stewart. I admired him. America loved him.
Stewart was known as an everyman of sorts. The roles he played reflected the hope and, in many cases, the reality of the audience more than some idealized version of a Hollywood swashbuckler ever could. He was no hero, although he committed heroic acts when the situation called for it. In some movies he got the girl. In others he didn’t. Just like the rest of us.
When I was barely 20 years old I saw an episode of Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show where Stewart was a guest. He was elderly then, well past what might be called his prime. I’m not sure he was working anymore at that point, not making movies in any case.
I may have known that Johnny was a pilot, and Ed McMahon was known to have flown for the U.S. Marines. But I don’t think I knew Jimmy Stewart was a pilot until I saw him that night on the Tonight Show.
How peculiar, I thought, that a famous actor, one who had been on the silver screen for decades at that point, could do something as exciting in his real life as piloting an airplane, and the public knew so little about it.
I didn’t know the half of it. Stewart rarely talked about his experiences as a pilot outside of a few training films he made as a freshly minted officer in the United States Army in the early days of World War II. Like many, I assumed he was in the military as a morale booster. I imagined his role was to make short films to encourage others to join, and to embolden those on the front lines. I was wrong.
Yes, tall, slender, tongue-tied Jimmy Stewart was in reality a badass bomber pilot who sat in the front office of a B-24 Liberator cruising over European cities. The crews he led completed their missions, dropping bombs, absorbing flak, and doing their best to repel fighter attacks throughout the march toward Germany that took so many years and so many lives.
There’s no glamour here. Some of his men were shot down. Some were killed, some were injured. None came home unscathed – including their leader – the Hollywood movie star, James Stewart.
In what would today be considered an almost incomprehensible breach of marketing potential, Jimmy Stewart never used his military record as a stepping stone to advance his career or his personal fortunes.
Although he spoke of his love of aviation later in life, he rarely, if ever, spoke about his time as a bomber pilot and squadron commander in Europe during World War II. That phase of his life, and his experiences, remained a mystery to the public at large.
To correct that oversight, Robert Matzen has written a wonderful biography of Stewart’s experience as a pilot, leading up to and including his time in the military. “Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe” is being released next week by GoodKnight Books.
I was fortunate enough to read an uncorrected proof of the book. I’ll give it two big thumbs up and a highly enthusiastic recommendation. It’s wonderful. It really is.
What impresses me so much about Matzen’s story is what impressed me so much about Stewart himself.
In essence, I’m enthralled by the restraint both men brought to their work. There is no flag waving, no “Hail the conquering hero,” sort of ticker-tape parade in the storytelling, or in Stewart’s life.
There is, instead, an even tempered effort to carry out the work in a responsible, honorable fashion. In Stewart’s case, it was the mission that mattered. In Matzen’s it’s the telling of the story. Both men intentionally, and selflessly, disappear in their work. From their perspective at least, it’s not about them. It’s about the assignment.
Perhaps in a nod to Stewart’s reputation as an everyman, Matzen includes entire chapters that focus on how the war impacted the lives of average men and women on both sides of the Atlantic. Those chapters are as instructive of the time, and of the elements that went into making up the people who lived through them, as any I’ve read.
Matzen’s research is stellar, as is his habit. He conveys a time that is significantly different than our own. It’s a time when “me” fell in line well behind “we” whenever national security was an issue.
And although the war had a profound effect on Stewart, it had an equally profound impact on others. A young German girl named Gertrud Siepmann lived through the horror of the war from ground level, while a teenager from Baltimore named Clem Leone flew overhead in the back of a heavy bomber. Both their lives intersected as a result of the war, and everyman actor James Stewart was right there in the middle of it, too.
We really are all in this together — whatever this might be. As we always were. As we always will be.