He may be the only person in the world who could get away with publishing a book of poetry containing but four poems--four short poems at that.
But Jimmy Stewart, the 81-year-old Hollywood legend who made unpretentiousness a bankable box-office commodity, explains that he has only written “maybe eight--at the very top eight” poems during his entire life. And some of those were even briefer than the ones just published in “Jimmy Stewart and His Poems.”
“A couple of them had only four lines,” he says, referring to poems that he and his editors at Crown Publishers decided to exclude.
As straightforward and amiable as its author, the resulting 33-page book is fleshed out with anecdotes about the events that inspired the verses. It is illustrated with whimsical drawings by Cheryl Gross.
The unlikeliness of it all seems to delight Stewart, who is sitting on this gentle summer afternoon in the den of his Beverly Hills home. The room is a veritable mini-museum of his life, filled with photographs, awards and mementos. The best actor Oscar he won for “The Philadelphia Story” is here, in addition to the one he received in 1985 for half a century of distinguished work in more than 80 movies. It’s a cozy space, decorated in the fresh colors of spring flowers and accessorized with countless paintings and sculptures of animals.
“I haven’t done (a poem) for years, but I’ve just kept these,” he says of his rhyming verses, which celebrate such diverse subjects as a movie camera that was attacked by a hyena in Nairobi, his dead dog Beau, the tricky top step on a flight of stairs in an Argentine hotel and how unbelievably cold it gets in Kenya’s Aberdare National Park.
A few years ago, Stewart, egged on by Johnny Carson, began a tradition of reading his poetry on “The Tonight Show.” The response from the studio audience and fans throughout the country was sustained and enthusiastic, prompting repeat performances.
“Johnny Carson said to me, ‘Why don’t you put them in a book?’ ” recalls Stewart, who wears a hearing aid and has arranged himself so that what he terms his “good ear” will be closest to his listener.
Though the actor was graduated from Princeton University with a degree in architecture, he reveals that he never studied literature there--or anywhere else.
“I swear it has nothing to do with studying poetry or learning from somebody,” he insists, adding that he doesn’t have a favorite poet or even read other people’s poems.
“I just sort of stumbled into it, maybe 30 years ago,” he remembers. “The idea of poetry never occurred to me so much. I think Gloria (his wife of 40 years) and I were in South America in the late ‘50s. We were in Northern Argentina, in a small town called Junin de los Andes, which has a wonderful trout stream.
“There were four of us staying in a small hotel with three floors of steps. . . . Every one of us tripped on the last step and fell down. Gloria said, ‘The top step in Junin, (pronounced Who-neen) is mean.’ I started with that and made it rhyme and it turned out to be a poem. I wanted to record this in some way so I wouldn’t forget it.”
Stewart still considers his foray into poetry “a mystery.” But he suspects it may have been an outgrowth of an intention he’s always had to keep a diary, a desire that’s pretty much gone unfulfilled.
He made a special effort to record his impressions as a pilot stationed in England during World War II. But when he returned home after four years in the Army, his footlocker contained “some long underwear, dirty clothes and the diary. In it, I’d written what had happened the first two days.” But even though his poetic efforts have been relatively more successful and sustained, don’t look for more to appear anytime soon. Stewart maintains he has no plans for more poems unless one reaches out and grabs him as they have in the past. And he certainly doesn’t want to write his memoirs or an autobiography, though there’ve been many offers.
“I think three books have been written about me,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed reading them. (Writing an autobiography) never really sort of plunked my banjo.”
So Stewart’s literary fans may have to be content with his golden oldies, such as the poem titled simply, “Beau,” about a golden retriever who would never come when he was called--unless he felt like it. The poem is the most emotional and revealing in the book, ending, as it does, with:
And there were nights when I’d feel this stare
And I’d wake up and he’d be sitting there
And I’d reach out my hand and stroke his hair .
And sometimes I’d feel him sigh
and I think I know the reason why.
He would wake up at night
And he would have this fear
Of the dark, of life, of lots of things,
And he’d be glad to have me near.
And now he’s dead.
And there are nights when I think I feel him
Climb upon our bed and lie between us ,
And I pat his head.
And there are nights when I think
I feel that stare
And I reach out my hand to stroke his hair,
But he’s not there .
Oh, how I wish that wasn’t so,
I’ll always love a dog named Beau.
Stewart says “Beau” is both his and his fans’ favorite poem. He thinks a lot like his admirers, noting that both he and they are most fond of his film, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” And, in retrospect, he observes that the movie title could also apply to the sum of his own experience.
“Good fortune has followed me through my life to an amazing extent and for that I’m tremendously grateful. I thank God for that,” he says.
“Every day’s a new day for me. Most of the time, I’m looking forward to it.”
Stewart also seems to genuinely appreciate his supporters and demonstrates it as he walks a visitor to the front door. A van of the type that ferries tourists past celebrity homes is parked in the street. The fans inside have an unobstructed view since the Stewart home, unlike the homes of many other stars, has no gates, walls nor big shrubs hiding the house.
“Wave to them!” Stewart instructs, warmly smiling and waving himself.
Then, without an ounce of irritation in his voice, he adds: “It happens all day long.”