The Friendship Of Jimmy Stewart And Henry Fonda Shows That Partisanship Can Be Overcome

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Uber-liberal Orson Welles once offered as a reason for his friendship with the equally conservative John Wayne was that the latter had “better manners” than the director’s liberal friends.

There is certainly a kernel of truth in this when viewed from our vantage point. There are of course some instances where conservatives go into the gutter—and if one considers Trump a conservative then “bad manners” are expressed from the highest office in the land. But by and large it is celebrity liberals today who are the most hateful.

A prime example is when liberal actor George Clooney mocked the Alzheimer condition of conservative Charlton Heston; and then refusing to apologize because Heston was the president of the “evil” NRA.

But once upon a time, liberal celebrities and conservative ones could shelve their differences and remain friends. The best example was the rock-steady friendship between Henry Fonda, a fervent liberal, and Jimmy Stewart, an equally fervent conservative.

In this good and very readable book, Scott Eyman shows that their differences were not just ideological, but extended into their personalities as well.  

Fonda was cold, and unresponsive except for angry outbursts and this affected his children; particularly Jane who dealt with her daddy issues via radical politics—a fist-clenching politics in stark contrast to her liberal anti-Communist father.

By contrast, Stewart had the more appealing personality. Gentle (even as a military commander) and openly affectionate, Stewart was, by Fonda’s admission, a much better father.

These qualities filtered into their screen personas.  Eyman pithily shows how the emotionally repressed Fonda tasked audiences with searching for what he registered on-screen. Stewart, however, was more upfront, unafraid to express raw emotions and ordinary in a way that made this highly intelligent Princeton student approachable to audiences.

And yet despite, or because of their different personalities, these two engaged in what is today called a “bromance,” which is a relationship so close that upon encountering them Welles believed they were homosexual lovers.

But in actuality the personality of the two, which on-screen, lacked the sex appeal of Clark Gable or Errol Flynn, off screen attracted scores of pursuing women.

Stewart was the love object of Olivia De Havilland, who resisted the advances of the much-better looking Flynn; was practically pushed into the bedroom by Marlene Dietrich, who may have had lesbian tendencies; and was, despite being well into middle age, attracted the much-younger Kim Novak.

Fonda lacked Stewart’s appealing clumsiness, but had a coldness that presented a challenge to women, and thus he too was bedded by actresses like Barbara Stanwyck (also believed to be a lesbian).  But not even the efforts of the five women he married (one of whom committed suicide) penetrated his coldness.

Meanwhile, Stewart, his oats sown by the postwar period, married the same women he would be with for the rest of his life.

The best parts of this book aren’t their hardscrabble roommate days or their life-long habit of building model airplanes together but their military service and determination to remain friends despite being on opposite sides of the political spectrum.  

Of the two, Stewart had a bloodier war as a bomber pilot flying missions over Nazi Germany. By contrast, Fonda, as a Navy officer confined to a ship distanced from combat zones, witnessed death only one time when, during a scuba dive, he saw two drowned Japanese pilots still tethered to their cockpits.

As such, Stewart was the most damaged by the war. While Fonda remained tight-lipped as ever, Stewart had returned jittery and easily angered (Eyman believes the actor was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), and refused to talk about the carnage he witnessed even with Fonda.

Directors believed that of the two, Stewart’s war experiences gave him greater range as an actor who could not pull off roles much darker than Mr. SmithBy ironic contrast, Fonda who in pre-War times presented an unappealingly angry Tom Joad now took on roles reflecting the idealism and integrity that were once the specialty of Stewart.

It was in this period that their political differences, subsumed previously in their shared allegiance against Hitler, erupted into a shouting match (which some, not Eyman however, believed resulted in a fist fight) over the 1947 Congressional investigations into Communist influence in Hollywood. Ironically it was the contained Fonda who provided the most evidence of his position; signing a petition against the investigations, and in its aftermath of blacklists and loyalty oaths left Hollywood for Broadway because of his disgust with the “right-wing” political climate in Hollywood.

Stewart left no such trail, but in later years characterized Vietnam-era Hollywood, with its mocking of patriotism, in the same terms used by Hollywood conservatives circa 1947: Hollywood was taken over by the Communists.

Whatever happened during their argument, be it shouting or fisticuffs, caused both to prioritize their friendship over ideology, and for the remainder of their lives agreed never to discuss politics.

Amazingly, this agreement was maintained even when the Vietnam War affected both personally.  Jane Fonda’s pro-Communist views resulted in her praising the same Vietcong that murdered Stewart’s Marine stepson. Stewart kept his otherwise public denunciation of Jane (he blasted her as hypocrite for preaching Marxism while pocketing a high salary as an actress from her hated capitalism) out of any discussions with Henry.

Meanwhile, what Fonda refused to express publicly about his daughter’s activism was done so privately when this liberal anti-Communist told her that he would turn her in if he discovered she was a Communist.  

Because of the death of Stewart’s stepson, Fonda did try to violate the agreement to express sorrow for his friend’s loss and to apologize for Jane’s pro-Vietcong views. But Stewart cut him off at the pass in order to maintain their agreement.

Eyman’s strengths are a refusal to take sides regarding Stewart and Fonda’s oppositional politics. Instead, he lets both have the last word on the subject. But he never explores that what may have helped the continuation of their friendship, which was their awareness that each was a patriot and anti-Communist and not a traitor.

One could, I suppose, characterize the actors’ refusal to discuss politics as a cop-out that compromised their idealism. But prioritizing friendship over ideology is itself a political act, a realization that one’s opponent could have decent motives for voting the way they do; a realization missing in the Manichean rhetoric of our age.

Ron Capshaw is a Senior Contributor to The Liberty Conservative from Midlothian, Va. His work has appeared in National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the American Spectator.

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