Eighteen months after they wed, Gloria, the wife of screen star Jimmy Stewart, confessed that she had been nervous about making a family man of Hollywood’s biggest bachelor. “I found myself thinking — now that he’ll be seeing [my sons] 24 hours a day, will Jimmy like the boys so much?” confessed the previously divorced mother of two.

Oscar-winner Jimmy Stewart’s marriage at age 41 made headlines around the world in 1949. The war hero and longtime ladies’ man had spent his youth romancing a who’s who of Hollywood legends , including Olivia de Havilland, Ginger Rogers, Loretta Young, Norma Shearer and Dinah Shore. He’d even had an affair with Marlene Dietrich before settling down with Gloria. “He sowed his wild oats, and his wild oats were very wild,” says Robert Matzen, author of Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, noting that Jimmy’s union with Gloria worked because they were “two mature people getting together later in life.

Gloria, a New York socialite who had worked as a model and actress, first caught Jimmy’s eye at a dinner party. “For me, it had been love at first sight,” he said. But it wasn’t an obvious fit. “She had all these strikes against her. She was divorced, she wasn’t Presbyterian, she smoked,” says Matzen. Gloria also had two sons from her first marriage, Ronald, who was 5 when they wed, and Michael, 3. “[Jimmy] liked the boys,” said Gloria, adding that she was pleased that during their courtship Jimmy never seemed “bored or annoyed” by the children’s presence. “He treated them as friends.”

She felt relieved that Jimmy’s interest in Ron and Michael didn’t wane after their marriage. “I promised the boys a picnic on my first day off,” Gloria recalled Jimmy telling her while filling a bucket with ice and soft drinks on a Sunday afternoon soon after they wed. The new family, including their German shepherd, Bello, spent the day at Malibu’s public beach building sandcastles. “It was quite a ball,” said Gloria. “With Jimmy, everything is an occasion, and it makes a great hit with the boys.”

In 1951, Gloria and Jimmy welcomed twin daughters, Kelly and Judy, into the family. Kelly recalls a happy childhood with parents who put on a united front but were not strict disciplinarians. “When we were punished, Mom would say, ‘How could you do this to your father?’ And Dad would pull us aside and say, ‘How could you do this to your mother?’” she tells Closer exclusively.

Sadly, their family suffered a huge loss in 1969 when Ron was killed in action in Vietnam at age 24. “They were both devastated,” says Matzen, who calls it “a very, very dark time” for Jimmy and Gloria. “It hurt him deeply to see his wife suffer so much.”

They survived by being there for each other and lived long enough to welcome grandchildren. “My sister’s boys and my brother’s boys all have very fond memories of Mom and Dad,” says Kelly. “They were very funny around the grandkids. It made their life.”

Jimmy and Gloria’s union would endure 45 years until her passing in 1994. “There are endless stories to tell — stories that are gay and amusing, heartwarming and touching about life with Jimmy,” gushed Gloria. “He never has moods, never displays temperament. He loves his home. He loves his work.” And he deeply loved the woman who made it all possible.