The woman hunched over the sewing machine in her Napa bungalow couldn’t seem farther from her back story — the in-demand Hollywood actress who took road trips with rock stars, battled booze and drugs, survived cancer and somehow came out the other side.
Charlotte Stewart’s story at times might just seem too far fetched to believe — if there wasn’t a piece of celluloid to corroborate just about every instance of it.
There she is in episodes of Gunsmoke, Mannix, the Waltons, Twin Peaks. That’s her playing Mary X in David Lynch’s bizarre classic Eraserhead. She shot that film at the same time as her most famous role — Miss Beadle, the wholesome school teacher on the seventies TV series Little House on the Prairie.
“I would be all night long doing Eraserhead,” Stewart said sitting in her sewing room, “and then come skidding in to Paramount with the wig on and the Miss Beadle outfit.”
Stewart recently wrote a book chronicling her life story — fittingly titled "Little House in the Hollywood Hills, A Bad Girls’ Guide to becoming Miss Beadle, Mary X and Me." She’ll be signing copies of her new book at the Book Passage in Corte Madera at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Stewart’s acting resume winds back to 1961, with appearances in dozens of classic TV shows — or as Stewart describes it — “anytime they needed a young victim.” She worked with Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda and even Elvis. Always the supporting role — never the star.
“I would go on so many interviews to get just one job,” Stewart said. “That’s just the way Hollywood is unless you’re a star. And I certainly wasn’t a star.”
Even before the Little House gig came along, Stewart ran a hippy clothing store in Hollywood called the Liquid Butterfly, where she sewed funky patches on torn jeans and other hippy stylings. The store became a hangout for musicians like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Jim Morrison of The Doors who became Stewart’s drinking buddy.
One day Morrison summoned her to take a spontaneous road trip up the coast. The first day they made it all of ten miles to Santa Monica. The next day they drove to San Simeon and Hearst Castle. Stewart brought along her new film camera, capturing every step of the journey.
The home movie which she recently discovered, shows a relaxed Morrison driving along the Pacific Ocean, eating a hotdog at a road stop, climbing the steps of Hearst Castle and moodily gazing out a window. Stewart described their relationship during the brief journey as “friends with benefits.” After the trip, the two parted ways.
“I never saw him again,” Stewart said, “and he was dead in six months.”
Not long after, Stewart’s own life began to hit the skids. Her book tells of her personal struggles once her part on Little House ended.
“I went through financial hardship, I went through drugs,” Stewart ticked, “I went through rehab. I got married four times.”
Even after getting sober, her challenges included a successful battle with breast cancer.
In 1996, Stewart and her third husband David Banks traded in Los Angeles for Napa to be closer to her family — and to find a better environment for her husband’s growing health problems. Banks died five years ago.
At the urging of her writer friend Andy Demsky, Stewart finally decided to spill her life into the pages of a book. It had to be an unflinching reflection of the woman who played the wholesome Miss Beadle, all the while her own story spinning toward a far more complicated trajectory.
“There was all this great Hollywood stuff,” said Demsky, who co-wrote the book with Stewart. “But the real heart of the story was things like surviving alcoholism, and the death of a spouse and total financial ruin, and just bouncing back time after time.”
These days, Stewart spends much of her time in the sewing room, fashioning strips of colorful fabric and printed images of Miss Beadle into what she calls “Beadle Bags,” to sell to her legions of Little House fans. She travels the country representing the TV show at Little House events.
But she still takes the acting gigs that come her way and soon will reprise her role in an upcoming new season of Twin Peaks.
But perhaps her favorite role of late — is that of a newlywed — having recently married a man she was introduced to in Napa.
“You know what?” Stewart said, flanked by bolts of brightly colored cloth. “Today in 2017 I’ve got a great life. I’m healthy, I’m happy. I’m in love.”