Hank and Jim
In the end, as in the beginning, they didn’t need words.
Hank’s health broke first. The pacemaker had been implanted while he was playing Clarence Darrow in 1975, and that was followed by a tumor the size of a grapefruit in his diaphragm. The tumor was benign, but the surgery resulted in a troublesome staph infection.
Prostate cancer was diagnosed in 1979 when he was appearing in First Monday in October.
The cancer had moved into the bone, but doses of estrogen sent the disease into remission. After that came various hip and back problems.
His frailty was obvious. In 1980, when he wanted to make Gideon’s Trumpet for television, the only way he could be insured was to pay part of the premiums himself, which he did without much complaint. Clarence Gideon was a good part, and a good part meant more to Hank Fonda than bread, than air.
wouldn’t know what to do,” he said, dismissing the very idea.
Finally it rounded back to the heart again, which was descending into congestive failure. Before, he had always rallied, if only because dying was bound to interrupt acting. But this time the doctors and his family weren’t so confident.
He was in intensive care. His wife, Shirlee, remembers that things were looking grim until Jim Stewart came for a visit. Fonda had been in a deep sleep, but when he heard Jim’s unmistakable voice he began to stir.
“Stewart, is that you?” he said, his eyes still closed.
Assured that it was, Hank opened his eyes. It was definitely Jim standing there.
“Where’s my root beer float?” Fonda asked.
At that point, everyone in the room knew he was going to live for a while longer, because Henry Fonda took root beer floats very seriously. Another thing he took seriously was Jim Stewart, his best friend.
By the time Fonda won his ridiculously overdue Oscar for On Golden Pond he was in a wheelchair. He had acted right up until his body failed him. Between completing On Golden Pond and getting his award, he made a TV movie with Myrna Loy called Summer Solstice, then appeared in a play. He had to be carried onto the set and placed in position before the curtain rose, but he didn’t care. Acting was not a job to Henry Fonda. It was, rather, his identity.
“If I go,” he told his wife, “I go with my boots on.”
By the early summer of 1982, he was clearly spiraling down. On May 16, he celebrated his seventy-seventh birthday. It had been precisely 139 days since his release from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he had resided for seven endless weeks. Shirlee had been keeping track—Cedars had been his thirteenth hospitalization since their marriage in 1965. If anybody noticed the unlucky number they didn’t mention it.
He hadn’t left the house since his daughter, Jane, had brought him his Oscar right after the ceremony. Some days he didn’t leave his bedroom. The skin around his face had begun to tighten and fade, which had the effect of making his startlingly blue eyes loom even larger. The rest of him had aged terribly, but his eyes remained radiant and fierce with life.
Every day Stewart would leave his house on North Roxbury in Beverly Hills and visit his friend up the hill in Bel-Air. Most days he would bring flowers in one hand and a bag of vegetables in the other, harvested that morning from the garden he and Gloria, his wife, had planted next to their house. If Fonda was awake and in the mood for conversation, they usually discussed gardening, and the pleasure it gave them.
When Jim wasn’t around, Jane would sit by her father’s bed. Her hope was that he would talk, say something that might dispel the aura of silence and grudge that had plagued their relationship since she was a little girl. But in his dying, as in his living, Henry Fonda kept his own counsel, reserving his thoughts about death to himself.
“When I die, put my ashes in the compost pile,” he had told Shirlee. It was the sort of defiant, I-don’t-give-a-good-goddamn statement people often make, but Fonda meant it. If there’s anything an organic gardener understands, it’s the importance of quality fertilizer.
As Jim sat with Hank that long summer, they figured out that the fall of 1982 would mark fifty years since they had thrown in together, two starving young actors in New York City. Since then they had been inseparable, emotionally if not physically.
On the surface, their friendship was a match of opposing personalities. Henry Jaynes Fonda was an agnostic trending toward atheist who had been raised in a Christian Science household on the plains of Nebraska. James Maitland Stewart was a churchgoing Presbyterian from the archetypal Midwest town of Indiana, Pennsylvania. Hank was an ardent New Deal Democrat, Jim an equally serious conservative Republican. Hank had had five wives—a fact he found mortifying—and often difficult relationships with his children, while Jim had one wife and was adored by his children.
Stewart had been finishing his architecture degree at Princeton when he was diverted into the least likely career ever attempted by a citizen of Indiana, Pennsylvania. Fonda was introduced to the craft by Dorothy Brando, whom everybody called Doe, an Omaha wife and mother with a bad marriage and a drinking problem who also nudged her son, Marlon, into the profession.
Hank lived most of his life like a tightly wound spring, and his acting followed suit. As one critic noted, he tended to project “
anger over affirmation . . . he is almost always more convincing, attractive and memorable when at odds with something—the situation, the community, himself.” He could relax only with a few select friends—for a long time with John Ford and his roster of reprobates, always with Jim, Johnny Swope, or Leland Hayward.
Stewart was apparently comfortable in life or at work.
One actress said that if you happened to turn your back and just listened to him talking, you couldn’t tell if he was playing a scene or having a conversation with someone on the set. He was that natural, that at ease.
What set Stewart apart from the other leading men of his generation was his embrace of emotional extremes—pain connected to nothing less than unmediated agony.
Stewart was regarded with open affection by the communities of Hollywood and movie fans alike. He was practically a member of the extended family of man. Nobody called Fonda “Hank” except close friends, but millions of people who never met Stewart referred to him as “Jimmy.”
In spite of their many differences, these unusually tall, skinny, gifted young actors had bonded immediately over their shared passion for their work, and for an ethereal young actress named Margaret Sullavan. Both of them worked with her. Fonda loved her, married her, then lost her. Stewart pined for her.
Through all the vicissitudes of the world, through career ups and downs, through their mutual jettisoning of their careers to go to war and the difficult adjustment that came after, they had stayed close, taking care to steer carefully past the shoals of their differing politics.
And now Jim was doing the only thing he could for his pal—be there while Hank struggled to stay awake, struggled to breathe, struggled to stay alive for one more hour, one more day. Dying is hard work, and Hank was exhausted.
Besides discussions of gardening, and periods of companionable silence, there was occasional yelling about episodes from their shared youth. Stewart was mostly deaf, while Fonda’s hearing loss was about fifty percent. Each of them had to shout in order to be heard by the other. This scene that had unaccountably not appeared in a play by Samuel Beckett struck Hank as hilarious—his sense of humor encompassed the bleak, while Jim could manage only a thin smile at their shared decrepitude.
Once or twice they reminisced about the time Stewart had played his accordion in Times Square at three in the morning, gradually gathering a crowd and passing the hat. It was a story they had been
haggling over for decades, each of them secretly delighted by the fact that they could not agree on the particulars.
Stewart said the assembled multitude amounted to at least a dozen, and maybe more. Fonda, who insisted that Stewart’s stories were always embroidered, weakly asserted that the assembled group involved no more than eight people. Stewart said they had raised 26 cents; Fonda insisted it was 18 cents.
Ah yes; they remembered it well.
Sometimes they talked about the model of the Martin bomber they had built together in New York, and that Jim had dragged across the country so that they could fly it together in Hollywood.
What was missing from the conversations was any discussion of acting, at which they both excelled, or the movies, which had granted them immortality. “
People say Hank and I are living in the past when we get together,” Stewart had said a few years earlier. “But it’s not that. It’s fun to remember things.”
In so many ways, these men had parallel lives. Each was an actor before he became a star, and they remained actors after they became legends. Each of them embodied America’s geographic as well as moral center—integrity mixed with a bloody-minded obstinance that wasn’t acting.
Beneath his placid surface, Stewart’s emotions churned, while Fonda had the stillest center of any American actor—as eloquent in his isolation as a painting by Edward Hopper. He adamantly refused to show the machinery at work, which constituted his triumph as an actor as well as his blockage as a husband and father.
Fonda would always be indelibly identified with Tom Joad, the idealistic, dispossessed ghost in the American darkness. That said, he was equally expert at playing bastards. He lunged for the part of a martinet in Fort Apache because Pappy Ford wanted him. And sometimes, as in The Wrong Man and Once Upon a Time in the West, Fonda created something truly startling—an impassivity that barely masked crushing existential guilt in the case of the former, bottomless evil in the latter.
But for most people he was Abe Lincoln defending an innocent man charged with murder, Wyatt Earp cleaning up Tombstone, Mister
Roberts coping with a restless crew and a petty tyrant, juror number 8 endlessly arguing about the guilt or innocence of a Puerto Rican boy.
What distinguished Fonda’s acting from the beginning was watchfulness, beneath which was an equally perceptible attitude of “Don’t push me.” It’s there in his Lincoln, where he comes across as gentle and unassertive, except for the fact that he always wins, always gets his way.
And it’s certainly there in The Grapes of Wrath, when Tom Joad tells a truck driver how he knocked a man’s head “plumb to squash.” There’s no regret in his voice, just a statement of fact salted with a certain satisfaction that says the son of a bitch had it coming.
“A black friend of mine,” wrote James Baldwin, “swore that Fonda had colored blood. You could tell, he said, by the way Fonda walked down the road at the [beginning] of the film: white men don’t walk like that!”
Baldwin’s friend might have been right, psychologically if not genetically, for Hank Fonda was a man apart, in life as surely as in his work. He held himself aloof from the reflexive glad-handing of show business, the cheap embraces, the ecstatic cries of “Darling!” He was as wary of cheap compliments as he was of cheap people; he knew how hard it was to build a performance that lasts, let alone a career . . . or a friendship.
Stewart was gentler with people but equally fearless in his work. Stewart played a sly voyeur in Rear Window, a haunted necrophile in Vertigo, a furtive circus clown in The Greatest Show on Earth, tenacious, driven cowboys in Winchester ’73, Bend of the River, The Far Country, and The Man from Laramie, a Mitteleuropa clerk in The Shop Around the Corner, a middle-class banker driven to desperation in It’s a Wonderful Life, a swozzled bachelor with an invisible friend in Harvey, a grizzled old pilot in The Flight of the Phoenix, a crafty small-town lawyer in Anatomy of a Murder, a cynical reporter in Call Northside 777, a senator in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Superficially, they were different people. Beneath his often dour exterior, Hank had an antic gift for mimicry and physical humor that convulsed his friends. Jim was puckish, a little vague, more
intrinsically relaxed. Perhaps it was the war that gave him a certainty about himself, the war where he had commanded men and flown B-24 bombers over Germany.
Fonda went to war, too, but as with so much else in his life, it was just one more irritating burden whose rewards seemed insufficient compared to the hope that had preceded it and the effort he had put into it.
Fonda was a closet intellectual and perfectionist, which inevitably meant he carried around a residual sense of disappointment with himself and others that could quickly ascend to seething impatience. If he attempted something, even if it was only a hobby, he had to achieve excellence. He did it with his gardening, his needlepoint, and especially with his painting. Stewart was far more easygoing; he didn’t read much, was outwardly affable, rarely lost his temper.
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. Once, an actor complained to John Ford that although he’d worked with Stewart several times, he still didn’t know the man.
You don’t get to know Jimmy Stewart,” replied Ford. “Jimmy Stewart gets to know you.”
Another similarity involved the essentials of their craft—neither of them had 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.
And now, suddenly, incomprehensibly, they were two hard-of-hearing old men who cherished their differences every bit as much as their shared memories.
Hank had good days when he was fully present, followed by bad days when his energy faded and he stayed inside himself. He had grown a beard out of pure defiance: “
I made a pact with myself that only when I am well will I shave it off, which I am almost ready to do.” The beard, which had been perhaps an inch long when he got his Oscar in March, was now bushy.
When he felt up to it, he would sit in his favorite chair with a
large sketch pad in his lap and draw. In the morning light he looked uncannily like the elderly, emaciated Auguste Renoir.
It was only right that Jim be there while Hank was dying. He had been there when Hank was acting, been there when Hank was courting his wives. They had lived together, double-dated together, starred in movies together, designed immeasurably complex practical jokes together.
There was so much to remember.