When we launched our Tumblr page in January 2015, we filled it with a variety of content on the history of Princeton University, but it didn’t take long for us to discover that one alumnus in particular consistently received a lot of attention on the platform: James Maitland Stewart ’32. In honor of this, we currently have an exhibit case in our lobby dedicated to Stewart’s long-term connection to Princeton: “‘This Is More Than a School’: James M. Stewart 32’s Princeton.”
Jimmy Stewart, the son of Alexander “Eck” Stewart of the Class of 1898, wrote on his 1928 application to Princeton that he chose it due to family connections and his belief that Princeton “is by far the best equipped to give me a broad, profitable education, provided that I apply myself diligently to the work.” His dreams of becoming a civil engineer, however, were short-lived. Diligent work proved a challenge in the face of tempting recreational activities. He later told Princeton Living, “College algebra was like a death blow to me.” He did especially poorly in a Shakespeare course and “did not survive Spanish.” Unable to keep up in his classes, Stewart was forced to attend summer school to avoid flunking out. At the end of Stewart’s freshman year, his math professor told him, “You’d better think very seriously about being something else [other than a civil engineer], or you’ll be in deep trouble.”
As Stewart sought a new career path, he threw himself into extracurricular pursuits, partly because, as Stewart wrote for Triangle Publications, “In my time, no matter what bad grades you got, no matter what exams you flunked, no matter if you were thrown out of college, you could always blame it on Triangle. If you were lazy, it was because of the Triangle. If you didn’t study but went to the movies, or stayed up all night in a bull session, the Triangle’s broad shoulders would assume the blame. That was obviously a tremendous convenience for the boys. It simplified their thinking considerably, for little time was wasted dreaming excuses for one failure or another.” Stewart didn’t limit himself to Triangle Club, however, and also joined the Glee Club, Theatre Intime, and Charter Club in addition to drawing cartoons for Tiger Magazine. In his junior year, he was elected head cheerleader.
At the time, Stewart had no intention of going into show business, and rather, as he wrote in the Saturday Evening Post in 1961, “hastily decided to become a second Frank Lloyd Wright.” Architecture drew Stewart in and studying became more appealing. Primarily on the basis of an impressive senior thesis, Stewart graduated with honors and even won the D’Amato Prize, a scholarship to study architecture in graduate school. “It doesn’t mean I was smart,” he later said. “School was really difficult for me. … I didn’t stay in architecture because I really wasn’t adept at it.”
Stewart’s early experiences in show business would not necessarily have suggested a bright future in the entertainment industry, either. His singing in Triangle wasn’t exactly pop star quality, and he almost set the stage on fire when he was directing a show for Theatre Intime. “I got into the Triangle Club because of my accordion,” he later said.
Architecture was not typically a lucrative enterprise in 1932, however, and Stewart faced Commencement without a clear future plan. During the Great Depression, few jobs were available for anyone, Princeton degree or no. Another Triangle alum, Josh Logan ’31, approached Stewart two weeks prior to graduation with a suggestion to join him in the University Players for the summer. He would be paid board and ten dollars per week. This travelling troupe of recent college graduates made a small splash and ended up with an offer to play on Broadway. Hence, Stewart faced a fork in the road. As he put it, “I had to decide whether to stay with the troupe and become the skinniest actor on Broadway or go back to Princeton and try for a master’s degree in architecture.” While thinking it over, he returned home to Indiana, Pennsylvania, where his father owned a hardware store. “One night I told my family what was on my mind—that I was thinking of trying my luck as an actor. There was a moment of stunned Presbyterian silence. Presbyterians don’t feel that theater-going, card playing and dancing are instruments of the devil; still my family couldn’t help thinking that the practice of architecture was more respectable than becoming an ‘actor fellow’. However, they rallied.”
As Stewart made a name for himself in Hollywood, winning an Academy Award in 1940 for Philadelphia Story, his father’s Class of 1898 was watching “Jimmie’s progress with the keen interest of a houseful of proud uncles [sic]” as their secretary wrote for the Princeton Alumni Weekly in 1946. But just as outside pressures had forced Stewart out of architecture into acting, worldwide conflict forced him out of acting into the military. In fact, Stewart received his draft notice prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941—in October 1940, a little more than six months after his triumph at the Oscars. “I had won my first and only lottery,” Stewart told the Trentonian later.
After World War II, Stewart returned to acting, and Princeton remained as proud as ever, awarding him an honorary Master of Arts on February 22, 1947. He returned to campus several times after that, for many reasons; despite saying he wasn’t as good an alumnus as his father, who made it to Reunions every year, Stewart’s ties to Princeton were lifelong. He was sworn in to the Board of Trustees on October 23, 1959 and served on its Library Committee. In that capacity, he secured and donated a collection of movie scripts to the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. During Reunions in 1982, Stewart lectured to Princeton’s ROTC in his capacity as a Brigadier General of the Air Force, saying he always regretted not being involved in ROTC during his own college years. In 1990, Princeton presented Stewart with the Woodrow Wilson Award, which recognizes an alum’s achievements in public service.
Though he never did become an architect, Stewart was proud of his connection to Princeton, which he called “a special place.” “You know I go all over the world and someone will come up to me, and had gone to school in Princeton, … and we just start talking … this is more than a school, a college, more.”
Our exhibit highlights the breadth of Stewart’s Princeton experiences as a student, alumnus, trustee, and award winner. You can view it now during any of our usual operating hours (Monday-Friday 9:00AM-4:45PM) or at our Reunions breakfast on May 28 from 9:00-11:00AM.
Alumni Studies Program Records (AC258)
Board of Trustees Records (AC120)
Broadcast Center Recordings (AC362)
Historical Photograph Collection, Campus Life Series (AC112)
Honorary Degree Records (AC106)
James Stewart Collection (TC049)
Memorabilia Collection (AC053)
Office of Communication Records (AC168)
Theatre Intime Records (AC022)
Triangle Club Records (AC122)