Working for old-school power publicist Peggy Siegal in a gleaming glass tower known as the Grace building nestled high above Bryant Park, the mostly female staff was in short supply. Peggy’s notoriously brusque personality left many cold, and it took a certain kind of steel to stay employed. On this day, in the late-Nineties, Peggy was typically tyrannical, brash, and boisterous.
“You!” she spits my way.
“Take the Warner Brother’s account.”
The task meant reaching out to a galaxy of A-list twinklers to entice their arrival to the premiere of “Batman.” Scanning her social register, I spied politicians, journalists, authors, high society, and actors — an elite chandelier of red carpet crystals.
One name stopped me in my tracks:
Out of all the actors to emerge from Hollywood’s Golden Age, Stewart stopped time.
In role after role, his hesitant anti-heroes moved seamlessly between warmth and darkness, with the deepest of dignities, becoming a red-blooded billboard for honesty and self-resilience.
They just don’t make em’ like Jimmy no more.
Without hesitation, I called his home number.
A nurse answered:
Without hesitation, I made my prize-winning pitch with the promise of plane fare.
“I’m very sorry, but Mr. Stewart’s not feeling well.” The nurse said.
Devastated, I declared:
“For a kid who grew up without a father, Jimmy emulates everything right in the world. Please tell him, I said so.”
“I would let you speak to him personally, but he’s just not up to it.”
She closed by saying, “However, if you give me your address, I ‘ll see to it that he sends you something special.”
And she did. Three days later, this kingly keepsake of Stewart’s with signature arrived.
Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” is the kind of celebrated cinema that lives inside me. A flickering testament to the power of friendship when the going gets tough.
It’s been my axiom that tough choices reveal true character.
Many of us can relate to a depression-era, working-class hero who spends his life helping others— or giving thanks — even if the knobs on our staircase forever fall off.
It’s a wonderful life, sure, but you’ve got to keep reminding yourself, because sometimes — in a year like this — where so many suffer from alienation and isolation, separated from their families and friends, music and merriment — it’s absolutely anything but.
One of my favorite passages is found in this bicker between Stewart’s George Bailey and Lionel Barrymore’s Mr. Potter:
“What’d you say a minute ago, Mr. Potter? They had to wait and save their money before they even ought to think of a decent home. Wait? Wait, for what? Until their children grow up and leave them? Until they’re so old and broken down that they … Do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5,000? Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about … they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath?”
It is important to appreciate that each of us has a gift to give. Absence leaves a hole in the satin of society’s fabric, and the world would never be the same without them.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” bobs up in me like a misty message in a bottle and spins an efficacious story of healing, hope, and new beginnings.
“Do not let cruelty win,” it says. “Hold on.”
We all need a lot more of that today.
This holiday season, I’ll curl up to Frank Capra’s timeless tale of a man who remained loyal to his highest and dearest values, ennobled in the lives of everyone he touched through common sense, farsighted thinking, and uncommon integrity.
As a piece of embroidery placed under the portrait of George’s father reads, “All that you can take with you is that which you have given away.”