I’ve long been a fan of the actor James “Jimmy” Stewart. He was a handsome everyman, homespun yet sophisticated, scrawny yet tough. He did it all from comic pratfalls to Hitchcockian suspense to dusty Westerns. He also famously ate himself into a stupor to make weight so that he could enlist in the US Air Force during WW2. He flew 20 combat missions and ultimately retired at the rank of Brigadier General. Jimmy wasn’t just a great actor, he was a true patriot and one of thousands of American heroes in whom we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude.
But that story is for another time. This one is Christmas-themed: At this time of year, it is a singular pleasure in our home to invest a couple of hours reveling in arguably Stewart’s most iconic role: George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. (Plus I get to look at Donna Reed, which is never a bad thing.)
Thanks to this movie, Jimmy Stewart has become an indelible feature of the modern American Christmas. In case you hadn’t noticed, however, so has the yeti.
That’s right, the legendary abominable snowman (the “‘bumble snowmonster of the North”) is just as much a Christmas character for post baby-boomers as Rankin-Bass’ animated Rudolph, Hermie, Yukon Cornelius, and the Island of Misfit Toys.
OK, but that’s stretching it a bit to link Jimmy Stewart to the yeti through Christmas. It’s also unnecessary, because Jimmy Stewart doesn’t need Christmas movies to forge that link. He’s part of yeti-lore forevermore.
You see, Jimmy’s wife Gloria loved animals, and Jimmy had a long-time interest in cryptozoology. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was no hotter cryptozoological subject than the abominable snowman or yeti (as evidenced by its appearance as a character in 1964’s Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer), and Himalayan expeditions to find the legendary beast attracted such notables as Sir Edmund Hillary and Marlin Perkins.
They also attracted cryptozoologist Peter Byrne, who was funded by oilman Tom Slick to visit a Nepali monastery to obtain “yeti relics” that the monks swore up and down were pieces of real yetis. While Byrne was attempting to negotiate with the monks to get a yeti relic out of the country to that it could be examined by Western scientists, aid to the effort was provided by a friend of Slick’s who happened to be in India at the time: Jimmy Stewart.
Professor William Osman Hill of the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Museum in London desperately wanted to examine a relic “yeti hand” held in the monastery in Pangboche in Nepal. Hill and Slick apparently gave Byrne a mummified human hand from which a finger could be swapped with a finger from the “yeti” hand. Byrne was able to make the switch, but there was great worry that the finger would not make it through customs and get to Hill in London.
No problem – Byrne traveled to Calcutta with the finger, and there he met with the Stewarts who provided safe passage for the relic to London – in Gloria’s lingerie case!
Our story picks up today on the BBC’s website. Apparently, that finger was lost for decades among Professor Hill’s items at the museum. It was recently found, however, and subjected to modern DNA analysis. The verdict? Human. (Attaboy, Brian Dunning!) So the yeti hand held as a relic in the monastery in Pangboche was a human hand all along, but we have Jimmy Stewart (really Gloria!) to thank for playing a crucial role in solving the mystery.