By Alex Palmer
Lyons Press (October 1, 2015)
Reviewed by Carolyn Burns Bass
Alex Palmer was guest host of #LitChat on December 7, 2015. You can read an archive of his session here.
Just in time to usher in the holiday season comes Alex Palmer‘s The Santa Claus Man, The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York. Legend is that Macy’s and Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” invented the modern American Santa Claus. While those icons certainly have their place in modern Christmas mythology, Palmer’s The Santa Claus Man reopens a long-shuttered window into the history of Santa Claus in New York and the commercialism of Christmas as we know it.
It all began with the dead letters department at the New York City post office. Every year letters to Santa Claus, St. Nicholas, Sinterklaas, and other derivatives of the name, were destroyed as undeliverable mail per the policy of the U.S. postal department. In 1911 that policy changed and the New York City postmaster sent out a call for someone to receive all of the Santa Claus mail on behalf of the city’s children. A couple of years went by before John Duval Gluck, Jr. acted on impulse and stepped up. In 1913, fresh off an arrest and fines from his part in promoting the first and only bullfight in New York City, Gluck saw an opportunity to restore his reputation, bring joy to poor children on Christmas, and provide a lifestyle of prestige and privilege. The International Santa Claus Association was formed and Gluck became known as New York’s Santa Claus.
A natural showman, Gluck rallied the social roster around the feel-good notion of bringing Christmas joy. With his battle cry, “Will you play Santa to the poor little kiddies?” respondents included industrial tycoons, pre-prohibition society matrons, politicians, jazz-age celebrities and ordinary middle class families who wanted to share a bit of good will at Christmas. The first year was an unadulterated success and the next year other cities organized chapters of Gluck’s new organization. A second and third year brought increasing reach into the darkest neighborhoods of Gotham.
Dear Santa Claus
I am a little girl eleven years old. I have one little brother and three little sister beside myself. My papa is sick with Rheumatism and cannot work. So dear Santa I am writing this letter to you. I hope dear Santa you will not forget us on Christmas.
Hailed as a hero to the poor children of New York, with little governmental oversight of charitable organizations, Gluck’s ambitions grew beyond the confines of Santa’s workshop and set him up as a fundraising huckster of mythical proportions. When Gluck’s castle falls, which you know it must, Gluck escapes besmirched by scandal, but astonishingly unscathed.
A longtime journalist, Palmer contrasts the rise and fall of the International Santa Claus Association with Gluck’s Santa-Claus-sized ego. Was it hubris alone that propelled a solid middle-class man to extravagant lengths of fraud, or was he simply a man gifted with pulling the heartstrings of ordinary people? Palmer presents Gluck as neither a villian, nor a hero, and with good journalism leaves it to the reader to decide.
An interesting side note, Palmer first heard of Gluck around his own family Christmas tree. Gluck was a great-granduncle to Palmer. Palmer drew primary sources from his own family archives, including letters from Gluck to Palmer’s grandmother.
Alex Palmer is a journalist and author living in New York City. He covers business, travel, culture, and pop culture, and his work has appeared in New York Daily News, United Airlines’ Rhapsody, Slate, Vulture, Time Out New York, Publishers Weekly, The Rumpus, Brandweek, The Hollywood Reporter, and many other outlets.
The son of two teachers, his love of learning and sharing surprising stories behind familiar subjects has led him to become a secret-history sleuth. The Santa Claus Man, The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York is his third book. His second book, Weird-o-pedia: The Ultimate Collection of Surprising, Strange, and Incredibly Bizarre Facts About (Supposedly) Ordinary Things, was published in 2012 by Skyhorse Publishing, and offers up a wealth of unexpected facts of familiar things. His first book, Literary Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Literature, takes a look at some of the more colorful aspects of great writers and their works, and was published in 2010 by Skyhorse.
Follow Alex Palmer on Twitter: @TheAlexPalmer.
CAROLYN BURNS BASS is founder and moderator of LitChat. Read her complete bio here.