Henry Fonda and James Stewart are acting legends from Hollywood’s golden age. Today both men are still highly respected for their body of work and for careers which they managed to sustain for decades. But unbeknownst to many, they also maintained a lifelong friendship beginning prior to their years on the screen which spanned the course of their lives. This book explores that friendship as well as their personal lives and individual careers.
Due to their difference in politics, Stewart was a Republican and Fonda a lifelong Democrat and their onscreen personas some might be surprised that they were able to form such a close and lasting relationship. But at heart they were very similar and those similarities greatly outweighed their differences.
I’ve been hearing great buzz about Hank and Jim for a couple of months now which initially piqued my interest. I don’t read that many biographies, generally only focusing on those of my favorite stars. Although I do enjoy James Stewart, I’ve never been a particular fan of Henry Fonda. However, I did love the unique premise of the book and when I won it in a giveaway I was thrilled.
This is hands down my favorite biography I’ve read to date. I actually had a difficult time putting it down and finished it in record time. Many biographies get bogged down with too much detail and end up feeling impersonal. More like a recitation of facts, than an introduction to a real person. That is not at all the case with Hank and Jim. Though it is clear author Scott Eyman did a lot of research and includes innumerable quotes and sources, the tone of the book is engaging and friendly, even when mentioning their flaws and weaknesses.
Another thing I loved about Hank and Jim, is that it also broadens their friendship by sharing personal tidbits about their circle of friends. I learned enough about Margaret “Maggie” Sullavan (Hank’s first wife and Jimmy’s unrequited love) to want to read a full-fledged biography on her. I was also introduced to agent turned producer Leland Hayward, Broadway director Josh Logan, director John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, Gary Cooper, John Wayne among others. Some their stories were only told as they touched the lives of Stewart and Fonda, others got several pages all to themselves.
Hank and Jim is also a fascinating look at how the entertainment industry of that time worked. Both men began on Broadway before moving into film, but they each continued to work on stage throughout their lives. It’s interesting to see not only how those circles interconnect, but also how each of them moved through them.
Though I’ve seen many of Stewart’s films and some of Fonda’s, I really didn’t know much about either of their lives off screen. I was surprised by how truly committed each of them were to serving in the military during WWII and how their experiences shaped the second half of their careers. It was also shocking to discover how the innocent faced, Protestant Stewart was quite a ladies man in his early years in Hollywood. I was very saddened by how Fonda’s perfectionism kept him from feeling successful in not only his career but his true passion. And though Stewart found domestic happiness, Fonda’s extreme reserve and inability to process or address emotional moments hindered him from ever really being close to anyone other than Stewart.
I absolutely adored this book and highly recommend it. If you aren’t familiar with Stewart or Fonda or if you are not crazy about biographies, please don’t let that stop you from reading Hank and Jim. Because the theme of friendship and the way it shape their lives is one we can all relate to. And the stellar writing and presentation of Stewart and Fonda’s lives make it an addictive and compelling story any reader can enjoy.