Nov 3, 2017

Book Review--Hank & Jim: The Fifty-Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart

Hank & Jim: The Fifty Year Friendship of Henry Fonda and James Stewart
Scott Eyman
Simon & Schuster, 2017

What you learn is never what’s said. It’s what’s done.

-Jane Fonda

I’ve always felt that platonic relationships don’t get enough attention from biographers, though they can often be the source of the most fascinating stories. With his new book, Hank & Jim, Scott Eyman demonstrates just how satisfying it can be to explore an enduring friendship. Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart offered each other solace that they couldn’t find from anyone else and their complex personas and uncomplicated bond make for an intriguing history.

The actors met briefly in college and truly connected when they were roommates with two other struggling stage-struck friends in New York. When they eventually migrated to Hollywood, the pair rented a house together, building a home base for each other until Fonda married. After that, they would often live close enough for frequent visits and just as often work across the country from each other, going wherever the roles led them, but their bond endured to the end of their lives.

While the men were different in significant ways: Stewart was warm, right wing and adored making movies; Fonda was icy, firmly liberal and preferred the stage, they shared a sort of detachment from others. Essentially self-contained loners, they found their greatest bond in simply understanding each other and that would often mean that the things they didn’t say to each other were as significant as the things they did. They were perhaps at their closest when they spent hours together not speaking at all. The men also shared a sense of duty and honor, not always unwavering when it came to personal relationships, but solid professionally and when it came to their military service in World War II.

In their early years, the pair behaved like two boys at play. Though both men cut a swath through the ladies of Hollywood, there was nevertheless a sort of innocence to them. Obsessed with building elaborate model airplanes from their New York days to the early years in Hollywood, they’d spend hours funneling their excess energy into their latest project. Fonda and Stewart also had a soft spot for animals, which got out of control when a colony of feral cats overwhelmed their rental home. They were also fond of playing elaborate practical jokes, which they learned to execute with devilish skill.

The first part of the book is most rich with stories of the two. As they move on to marriage, parenthood and varied careers, their stories diverge for long periods. For a while, it feels like the best of their years together are behind them, but in the closing chapters the full meaning of their friendship emerges and it is incredibly moving.

As much as Fonda and Stewart could be loners, the other relationships in their lives were vibrant, with many of them enduring for decades. They were both eternally in love with Margaret Sullavan, though Fonda was the one to marry her, if briefly. He would find a less turbulent love with his fifth wife Shirlee and Stewart found a partner for life when he married a widow named Gloria and became father to her twin sons. Loyal friends included the photographer John Swope, director Josh Logan and actor Burgess Meredith, and their stories reveal much about the things Fonda and Stewart valued most.

I particularly enjoyed the anecdotes shared by renowned Hollywood storyteller actor Norman Lloyd (now his life would make a fascinating book!) Perhaps most touching though are the memories shared by the men’s children, and particularly Jane and Peter Fonda, who were often frustrated in their attempts to reach their icy father, though the love was clearly there.

Now that I have read a few biographies written by Eyman, I am certain that I could loathe the topic of his next book and still give it a try. He’s got a wonderful knack for finding the right tone for his subjects, so that while each new title has a familiar standard of quality, the feel is always markedly different. That mixture of reliability and novelty is unusual and always interesting.

Many thanks to Simon & Schuster for providing a copy of the book for review.

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