Stewart Stern was many things to many different people. He was a 20/20 Syndicate Voting Member. Some people knew him as a screenwriter, some knew him as a teacher and mentor. To others he was a World War II vet, a volunteer at the Woodland park zoo, and a Hollywood legend. He was all of those things, but to me I was lucky enough to know him as a friend.
When I first moved to Seattle in 1994, I had heard a rumor that Stewart Stern, the screenwriter of many films, but most notoriously renowned for scripting the James Dean classic REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, lived here in town. Like many young men, I had gone through a brooding phase in my life where I had tried to emulate the James Dean persona associated with that film, and the prospect of meeting the man who wrote an icon was exciting to me.
Several years later I was at a local film event with my friend and collaborator Brian McDonald, when another friend, Stephen Cavit, offered “That’s Stewart Stern over there. You guys wanna meet him?” Stewart was a graceful man in his 70s, slightly taller than me (I’m obsessed with celebrity height for some reason), wearing glasses, and bald. Professorial. A big grin on his face that lit up the room. A grin that expressed curiosity and wonderment. He was completely absorbed in conversation, not talking, but listening with intent.
Stephen guided Brian and me over to Stewart, and introduced us. I remember Stewart’s wise eyes scanning my face into his memory banks. He took his time with this. I noticed that his gaze seemed to linger for a second longer on my full head of hair.
We spent the next ten minutes talking with Stewart about all sorts of things, but mostly he wanted to know who we were, so we told him about our most recent collaborations, WHITE FACE and INHERITANCE. I was buzzed enough that I did a lame impression of James Dean in REBEL exclaiming “You are tearing me apart,” recounting how it had gotten me in with an old girlfriend. Before our conversation was over Stewart asked us to join him for coffee at a later date, and wanted to watch WHITE FACE and read the script for INHERITANCE. Brian and I left that party feeling pretty good about ourselves. We must’ve really made an impression on that Hollywood legend. I guess we’re kinda special.
A week or so later we met Stewart for coffee near his house and brought him copies of our projects. We hung out for probably 90 minutes and none of us wanted it to end, it was like a great first date. Stewart had some artifacts at home that he really wanted to share with us, so we drove back to his place. It was a quaint house that reminded me of the homes I that I grew up surrounded by in Connecticut.
Nothing about this house made you think that you were in the presence of Hollywood royalty, but truth of the matter is that Stewart’s uncles had formed both Paramount Pictures and MGM. The only thing that tipped it off, is that if you looked closely at some of the photos, for instance, there was the candid picture of his four groomsmen. I asked “Is that…”
“Paul Newman,” Stewart finished my sentence matter of factly. He wasn’t trying to impress me, he may as well have said “John Doe”.
Meanwhile, Stewart had been searching through a very well organized collection of binders filled with photographs and newspaper clippings, including a dozen photos of James Dean. As he flipped passed the now infamous “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” photo, Stewart mentioned “There’s Jimmy wearing my coat.” Woah, hold on a second. I asked him to go back to that photo, “That’s your coat? The one in that photo? That photo I’ve seen since I was a teenager, that’s YOURS?” Stewart nodded “Yes.” Unfortunately, I can’t recall much after that. That’s when it really clicked that I was in the presence of a Hollywood legend.
This was often the case with Stewart… he had so many amazing stories, I couldn’t keep them straight. When he would tell you an anecdote, by the time it was over, he’d sewn another half dozen seeds that you wanted to explore, so I can probably only remember a fifth of them. I couldn’t tell you what we talked about that day, but I know that over the years I have heard stories about playing practical jokes with Paul Newman, working with Robert Redford at the Sundance labs, anecdotes about Marlon Brando and his father, impressions of feeding and communicating with gorillas at the zoo, chance encounters with silent film stars, and nearly freezing to death in the battle of the bulge.
When we left that day, Stewart gave us each a hug and said “This was wonderful.” That big grin on his face, glanced at my hair again, “Can I put my scalp against your hair? I’m hoping some of it might rub off on me.” Are you kidding? Hell, yes. We bumped heads like a pair of cats saying hello. This became a tradition whenever we would meet, and never ceased to amuse me, that even at his advanced age and with all his worldly experiences that he hadn’t accepted the fact that he was bald.
I thought that Brian and I must really be special, because it felt like we just spent the last hour in Superman’s fortress of Solitude.
Over the next few months we would see Stewart periodically, and because Brian lived closer to him, he would tend to run into Stewart more than I did. Every time Brian would report back “Stewart asked how you were, and said he wanted to see you.” Holy shit?! Seriously? This guy who’s best friend is Paul Newman, wants to hang out with me? WTF? I must really be a bad ass if Stewart wants to hang out with ME.
We eventually graduated from coffee meetings to Akvavit after Stewart discovered my Danish heritage. Whenever my Mother came to town, we’d all get together along with Brian, and Stewart would always make sure to bring Akvavit for us all. Had my Father lived, he would have been the same age as Stewart, so he and my Mother had a lot in common, including their disdains of nazis; they’d both dealt with them during World War II. As usual, Stewart would always hang on our every word, eager to hear of what was new in each of our lives, and then some topic would always set Stewart spinning off on the most amazing tales. Every time he regaled us with a new story, I always thought “How have we not heard this one before? Is he ever gonna run out of stories?”
Often when Stewart told stories, they were elliptical in nature. The shape often seemed to never make sense. More than once I wondered “Where the hell are you going with this? Now you’ve gone completely off the rails,” and every time just as I’d thought Stewart’s story had gone over the cliff , a narrative wind would sweep up from the gulley and carry the story to the other side where it would safely land. I would sit there dumbfounded at how these often random seeming ramblings had just come full circle and made the most elegant point.
There were no short cuts for Stewart. If I sent him an e-mail to go grab a cup of coffee, he couldn’t simply say “yes,” he would express how much joy it would give him to spend time in my company. His emails were so beautifully crafted and infused with love that I saved each and every one of them. Once I needed some footage for a music video of an older person, so I asked Stewart if he would volunteer. He hemmed and hawed at first, but finally agreed to do it. All I needed was to film him in his den writing. Once we started shooting it dawned on me why he was so reluctant to participate, because it exhausted him. Stewart couldn’t fake writing, whatever he wrote on that page that evening, he poured his heart into it. By the time we were done shooting, he was virtually in tears. He had tapped into something and written his confession in blood. He was like Merlin summoning the dragon’s breath to perform a spell.
After seeing him a few more times, I felt comfortable calling Stewart “friend”, and I began sharing Stewart’s stories with my other friends in the film community who hadn’t met him yet. Even my xeroxed versions of his tales were far more entertaining than anything I’d ever been able to conjure up. And then something happened that made me realize I wasn’t all that special…
I would go to parties and share one of Stewart’s stories, and then someone I didn’t really know would jump in with the punchline, or contribute part of it which I’d forgotten to include, or tell a Stewart story that I’d never heard before. What the hell was going on? Who’s this person? How do they know these stories that I’ve never heard. And it wasn’t just one person, it was dozens of people. It seemed that everyone knew Stewart, and not only did they know him, but many of them had been invited back to the Fortress of Solitude just as Brian and I had been. Did that mean that everyone received paragraphs of scripture when they invited Stewart out for coffee? Did they all bump heads in an attempt to migrate follicles from their scalp to his? Were they all his special friend too? I felt like the guy who had discovered the greatest unheard of band in the world, only to realize that EVERYBODY loved that band as well… “But I thought I was special”.
This was Stewart’s gift, he made every person who’s life he touched, feel special.
While visiting my Mom for Christmas I received a text from Brian that Stewart was in the hospital. He had lung cancer and it had metastasized into his brain. On my return home to Seattle I went with Brian to visit him in the hospital. There was a collection of new faces that I’d never met before who were also there to see him, no doubt all part of his special family. The doctor had just informed Stewart and his wife Marilee that there were a few ways to treat his ailment, but we were looking at two months to a year, best case scenario.
Despite the diagnosis, Stewart was in better spirits than I would have been. He looked around the room at us all, a glint in his eyes, and that big grin on his face. After including us all in the discussion about his treatment options, it was time to let him rest. I gave him a hug, touched my hair to his scalp, and told him that I loved him. I didn’t know it at the time, but that would be my last interaction with Stewart.
On Monday February 2, 2015, I was at the grocery store when I received a text from Brian “He’s gone.”
I finished my shopping, and as I sat in traffic, thinking about Stewart I expected to cry, but instead a giant grin emerged on my face as I was overwhelmed by joy. It was Stewart’s grin, that same one that I saw on his face on the night that we first met, the same grin that I saw every time we said ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye.’
I was overcome by joy because I was lucky enough to have been able to call Stewart Stern my friend. I wasn’t special but that’s how he made me feel.
As Stewart wrote to me in one of his emails “Why is ‘thanks’ such a short and weightless word? But so is ‘love’.”
20/20 Awards Co-Founder and President
20/20 Syndicate Voting Member, battle of the bulge, Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Brian McDonald, Connecticut, film, Hollywood, INHERITANCE, James Dean, Kris Kristensen, Marlon Brando, MGM, music video, page, Paramount Pictures, Paul Newman, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, Robert Redford, screenwriter, Seattle, silent film stars, Stephen Cavit, Stewart Stern, Sundance labs, WHITE FACE, World War II, writing