As a classic movie devotee, I’ve always wondered how two so different people as Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart — somehow he is never “James” — could maintain such a lasting and close friendship as theirs apparently was. I’d heard about the model airplane they built together, and the double dates. Yet Fonda was a New Deal Democrat who was married 5 times, had issues with his kids, and seemed to keep to himself; Stewart was a conservative Republican, got married once for life, had a decent relationship with his kids, and seemed to know everybody. The new double biography Hank and Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart, by Scott Eyman, acclaimed author of John Wayne: The Life and Legend, reconciles this conundrum, and in the process reveals that these two actors were more alike than I knew. Giveaway winner announced after the jump.
Each of them embodied America’s geographic as well as moral center — integrity mixed with a bloody-minded obstinance that wasn’t acting….But on the deepest level, they shared one crucial characteristic: they were both loners, extremely sparing with the gift of intimacy, reserving themselves for themselves….neither of them ever had an acting lesson. They were united in the belief that the best way to learn how to act was to act. Know the lines; don’t be afraid to think; above all, don’t talk about it, do it. [5-7]
The book starts at the end, in 1982, as Fonda is dying of cancer, then goes into flashback. The stories of each man’s birth, childhood, school days, and young manhood alternate, but the pace really picks up when we get to 1932, when Hank and Jim moved in together. As stage actors at the height of the Depression, of course they were broke. Fonda was living in a three-bedroom apartment with two other guys, and they needed a fourth to make rent. Enter Jim Stewart, a mutual friend of both of the other roomies: Joshua Logan, co-founder of the University Players — the springboard for both Fonda and Stewart — and future director of Mister Roberts and South Pacific (among other pictures); and Myron McCormick, who is probably best-known as Charlie Burns in The Hustler. All were constantly looking for work, finding it, and losing it, but none seems to have been deterred. Our subjects had met only briefly in 1930, but seem to have gotten the closest the fastest, and in 1935, when Fonda left for Hollywood, Stewart followed a few months later. Neither was out of work for long after that.
Hank and Jim is a well-researched book with extensive notes.* Eyman relies not only on contemporary interviews, archived sources, and other biographies, but recent interviews with both actors’ surviving family, friends, and friends’ families.** It’s a fascinating and compelling read that I finished in one sitting. It sheds light not only on the leads, but on the supporting players and their mise-en-scène. The text is littered with tales of personalities well-known to those with even a glancing acquaintance with classic movies. Who knew Margaret Sullavan was such a siren, and so troubled? Or that Anne Bancroft was so hilarious in live theater that she once upstaged Fonda? If there is any quibble I have with this book, it’s that there is such a large cast, it’s sometimes difficult to keep all the characters straight. But in the end, Hank and Jim are the stars of the show, their friendship is somehow life-affirming, and the reader will not regret a single moment spent in their world.
Hank & Jim: The Fifty Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart by Scott Eyman
416 pp. Simon & Schuster. $29.
* As befits its subjects, Hank and Jim is also a handsome volume, not overly fancy. Those who read these posts may remember I am a recovering graphic designer, and I so love the embossed metallic type on the dust jacket and spine, and the deckle-edge pages, both for the nod to the craft of old-school book-making, and because deckle edges really do make the pages easier to turn.
** Many of these interviews were facilitated by the late great Robert Osborne, as detailed in the Acknowledgments. The passage in question begins:
…without Robert Osborne this book wouldn’t exist. Bob was a magical presence in my life. With Bob in your corner, you were never alone, never outgunned. His death left an irreparable hole in the fortifications of the people who loved him, which was nearly everybody who ever met him. 
And yes, there something in my eye.
One lucky commenter in the 48 contiguous United States will receive a copy of Hank and Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart, courtesy of the publisher, Simon and Schuster. Leave a comment below by 5:00 p.m. Eastern on Friday, October 27; one will be randomly chosen via Random Thing Picker. Good luck!
Update: [Friday, Oct. 27, 2017]: And the randomly-chosen winner is…
She will be contacted by email for her mailing address. Thanks for playing, everyone, and remember you can always buy your own copy from Simon and Schuster or anywhere else books are sold.