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On Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart

By Scott Eyman
Guest Columnist
West Palm Beach, FL, USA

Scott Eyman and Clementine

Consider this a belated explanation, as well as a note of abject gratitude. I could try to be cool and professorial but that would be a lie. Instead, I'm going to be honest. The fact of the matter is that reading saved my life. Actually, reading gave me my life.

For me, reading began as a means of escape. By the time I was nine or ten I had looked around the people that shared the house where I lived – I believe the term is family – and realized that someone had made a terrible mistake. I was going to have to lay low for a while until I could make a break for it.

I began reading. Promiscuously. I read everything I could get my hands on. I read the backs of cereal boxes, if only because it limited the amount of time I would have to spend talking to my…family.

In my youthful naiveté, I imagined that reading served as a sort of psychological camouflage. It was that, but it was more. It has always been an education, sentimental as well as practical. Occasionally it has been indoctrination; sometimes it has been adventure.

Just as the movies gave me an object for my passion, reading defined the people I wanted to spend my life with; it enabled me to find my tribe with an exactitude that life itself had denied me.

Reading enabled me to realize that I was going to – had to – spend my life with people who had flair, humor and energy, and, if possible, creativity.

Lives are messy – we don't live long enough to learn how to be neat – but with artists the mess is at least productive. 

I found that reading is the entire world laid out before you, and in a compact package that can travel with you anywhere. A book is a soft machine for giving pleasure.

Think about it – for a modest sum you can experience unimaginable sexual splendor beyond the wildest dreams of Hugh Hefner, partake of particularly thrilling violence, dress like John Jacob Astor, achieve ultimate happiness.

Henry Fonda
Henry Fonda

In short, you can bathe in the light.

Unfortunately, you can't do all this with just one book; you have to read widely and often in order to experience all that life has to vicariously offer. 

All you have to do is to want to live lives besides the single one you've been given. It's not unlike being an actor, except without bad reviews.

Of course, all that goes out the window, should you make the unfortunate decision to become a writer, in which case the bad reviews will assuredly arrive, although hopefully not in mass quantities – the full catastrophe. 

What writers speak to you? What writers challenge you? What writers anger you? What writers create a world that envelops you that you get lost in?

By a process of accumulation that stretches over decades – that continues as long as you have the wherewithal to remember the previous sentence and have sufficient ambition to go on to the next sentence – reading offers you spiritual and psychological parenting that can mold you just as surely as your genetic makeup – perhaps more so.

As far as being a writer, I didn't know how to go about it. The very word made me squeamish, because calling yourself a writer is like calling yourself a poet – you're a poet when someone else calls you a poet.

I didn't know if anybody else would ever call me a writer, and I certainly didn't know if I'd be able to make a living at it – (thirteen books later, there are days when I'm still not entirely sure I can). 

The odd thing is that my books have gotten a wider audience the older I've gotten. I take this to mean that either I'm getting better as I get older, or standards are in precipitous decline.

Or maybe I'm just lucky.

The odd thing is that even though I now write books for a living, my reading remains expansive. Some of it is related to research, which is to say my ongoing effort to get people to give me money so that I can learn all about a subject that interests me.

Jimmy Stewart
Jimmy Stewart

In the parlance of the street, this is known as a scam.

To answer a frequently asked question, research is my favorite part of the writing process, followed closely by the first draft. After that, it's pure drudgery, albeit necessary drudgery.

But leafing through old manuscripts, deciphering the handwriting in old letters, discovering the emotions hidden in diaries and documents – that's pure oxygen, because there is always a sense of intoxicating discovery.

Of all the people writers thank, the most sincere thanks are always reserved for the keepers of the word, the people who care enough about reading to preserve the texts and to teach the skills because the truth is we couldn't do it without them and we know it.

For instance, when I was writing my recent book on John Wayne, Ned Comstock at the USC Cinematic Arts Library sent me a package. Ned does this all the time for all sorts of writers; it's usually something he discovered in a collection you'd never think to look in that bears on a book you're writing.

When I opened the package I found a batch of DVD's containing some hopelessly obscure John Wayne films that Ned had copied for me out of his own collection.

I think we can all agree that this is beyond the call of a librarian's duty, but it's the sort of thing that Ned does all the time.

So when Ned was taken ill, my concern exceeded the professional and was personal. And now Ned is thankfully back at work – much more than a resource to me. Rather, he's a trusted friend who has gone above and beyond for me more times than I can count.

I'm now working on a book entitled, Hank and Jim, about the 50-year friendship between Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart.

They were starving young actors in New York when they met in 1932. They roomed together in New York and in California after they became movie stars. Despite their manifest differences in temperament and politics – Fonda was very liberal and Stewart was very conservative – they stayed best friends all their lives.

Fonda's first wife was the magical actress Margaret Sullavan. The marriage was a train wreck that lasted less than a year, but I've always had a hunch that, for Fonda, Sullavan was the one that got away.

I was going through Sullavan's papers and I found letters that Fonda had written her after their divorce. He had gone to Ireland to make a movie where he met the woman who would become his second wife, the mother of Jane and Peter.

And there was a letter from Fonda apologizing to Sullavan for having the temerity to fall in love with another woman. I think Margaret Sullavan kept that letter because it was a symbol of the power she held over one man who loved her and who always would.

And there it was, safe and secure. When things like this happen, you feel like Melville's Ishmael – only I am left to tell the tale.

I have learned over the years of writing history and biography that the line from the X-Files is right: "The Truth is Out There." You might have to take a while to figure out where it is, and people may not want to know about it, but it's there somewhere, just waiting to be found.

Without the people of the word, people like Ned Comstock, who care about reading and human beings and history, there can't be people like me to tell the stories, let alone an audience to read them.



Scott Eyman


Scott Eyman is the bestselling author of iconic Hollywood biographies.

All opinions expressed in this article are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

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