In August 2020, anthropologist/primatologist Kelly Stewart Harcourt wrote a letter to the editor of New York Times reprimanding Natalie Harp, a Republican National Convention speaker and an advisory board member for the Trump campaign, for comparing George Bailey, the beloved character her father Jimmy Stewart, a life-long Republican who served as a military pilot in the Second World War, played in the 1946 classic IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, to then US President Donald J. Trump.
“Given that this beloved American classic is about decency, compassion, sacrifice and a fight against corruption, our family considers Ms. Harp’s analogy to be the height of hypocrisy and dishonesty,” Kelly wrote in her missive.
“Every little bit we can do helps,” was the message Kelly sent to me following the controversy.
Kelly Stewart Harcourt, along with husband anthropologist Alexander “Sandy” Harcourt, Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Davis, have put those same qualities into mountain gorilla conservation. They were the pioneers, along with others such as Amy Vedder, who also assisted the late American primatologist and feminist icon Dian Fossey back in the mid-1970s. Their dedication and passion helped lay the foundation for what has become perhaps the world’s most successful wildlife conservation (over a generation ago there was rampant poaching and habitat destruction in mountain gorilla areas. However, over the past decade, their numbers have steadily increased as poaching has declined considerably).
In 1989, The Tonight Show’s Johnny Carson asked his guest Jimmy Stewart about his daughters (Judy Merrill and twin Kelly), Stewart could not refrain from talking about Kelly, “she’s the mountain gorilla girl.”
But being a mountain gorilla girl came at a cost, but a cost that strengthened her resolve.
In 1986, writing about Dian Fossey’s brutal murder on the slopes of the long extinct Virunga Volcanoes in Rwanda, Vanity Fair magazine writer Alex Shoumatoff touched upon the dangers of scientific fieldwork including the real possibility that painstakingly collected field data could be lost or destroyed.
“This happened to Kelly Stewart, who was collecting data at Karisoke for a Ph.D. from Cambridge,” wrote Shoumatoff, whose article became the basis for 1988 Hollywood film GORILLAS IN THE MIST. “One night she hung her wet clothes too close to the wood stove in her cabin, and while she was having dinner at Dian's cabin, eighteen months' worth of field notes went up in smoke.”
DID YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO BE A NATURALIST?
For as long as I can remember I have loved animals and loved being in nature. When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up I usually said “vet” or “naturalist”. I believe this influence came from my parents, especially my mother.
My parents first took my twin sister and me to east Africa on a safari when we were 14. That pretty much sealed my fate in terms of one day returning there to work. It would be the first of several trips to east Africa throughout my teens.
During these years I also became interested in evolution, biological anthropology and ethology. I read Conrad Lorenz’s “On Aggression” and “Naked Ape” by Desmond Morris. I was a big fan of National Geographic and, of course, both Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey were my heroines.
WHAT GOT YOU INTERESTED IN STUDYING MOUNTAIN GORILLAS?
During my university years (as an anthropology major) I spent my summers as a field assistant at Richard Leakey’s dig at Lake Turkana (then known as Lake Rudolph). I thought I might go on to become a paleontologist. Then, on a summer trip to Congo (then known as Zaire) with my mother and sister I met gorillas for the first….the eastern lowland gorillas of Kahuzi-Biega. Adrian Descriver was the Park warden then and had habituated one group. After the first charge by the silverback my fate was further defined and I knew I wanted to study wild gorillas. That was in 1972. So I wrote to Dian Fossey and asked her if I could come to Karisoke and do anything she needed me to do. She said yes and I went to Rwanda in 1973 three weeks after graduating from Stanford.
WHAT DID YOUR PARENTS THINK OF YOU GOING OFF TO AFRICA?
My parents could not have been happier with my decision to study wild gorillas. As you can see from the above, they were big influences on my choice of path.
WHAT WERE YOUR FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF DIAN FOSSEY WHEN YOU GOT TO RWANDA?
I had actually met Dian Fossey once before in California for a sort of interview after I wrote her asking for a position at her camp. She was genial but formal and serious, and not exactly encouraging about my coming to Karisoke (ironically, she thought “girls” were weak and not cut out for the work!). So I was delightedly surprised to receive her letter of acceptance.
When I got to Rwanda Dian was extremely warm, welcoming and encouraging. She was also a bit scary, exuding a determined, uncompromising, take-no-prisoners attitude towards poachers, cattle in the Park illegally (of which there were many at that time), and any ‘students’ who didn’t dedicate themselves 100% to the good of Karisoke. Basically, she appeared to fear nothing and was not going to take any shit from anyone. At the same time, she seemed like a very emotional person, almost too emotional. These first impressions in the field never really changed. The Dian I saw that first day was the person she was, although of course many layers were added as I grew to know her better.
THIS YEAR (2021) MARKS THE 75TH ANNIVERSARY OF “IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE”. WHAT IS THE ENDURING APPEAL OF THE FILM TO AN AMERICAN AUDIENCE-AN AMERICA THAT TODAY IS SO BITTERLY DIVIDED, LIKE LINCOLN’S AMERICA?
Over the years, I have come to appreciate the movie more and more. When Dad came back from the war, he wasn’t really sure what he would do. I think IAWL was the perfect vehicle. The war changed the movies. Gone were madcap comedies. IAWL was about sacrifice and helping others, about meaning in everyday life, about hope. People needed this after the war. I think this is why the movie became so beloved. George Bailey became everyone’s hero. In these hard, divided times in our country, I have been amazed at how the movie crosses the aisle, as they say in Congress. Rabid Republicans, die-hard Democrats, they all claim George Bailey as theirs. In some ways this enduring legacy gives me hope for our country because it suggests that in the end, we all want the same things...decency, honesty, community. It gives me hope that Trumpism is but a passing poison.
DID YOU KNOW THAT SIR PAUL McCARTNEY IS REPORTEDLY WRITING A PLAY BASED ON IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE?
I have heard that Sir Paul is working on the music for a musical of It’s a Wonderful Life. If anyone can do it, he can. I think the story might lend itself to music, at least the right kind of music. Last year Sandy and I saw an opera version of IAWF. We were skeptical, but it was absolutely fantastic.....great singing and music, great acting, and amazingly loyal to the movie’s script and even the words. At the end the cast sang Auld Lang Syne to the audience and there was, as they say, not a dry eye in the house.