So Gluck stretched the truth in the service of Santa Claus. Sometimes one had to take liberties with facts in order to get, and keep, people’s attention, he reasoned. What was Santa Claus if not a friendly deception invented to delight and encourage better behavior?
One Christmas Eve, journalist Alex Palmer discovered that his great-great-uncle, John Duval Gluck, Jr., was the founder of New York’s Santa Claus Association. For 15 years during the early 20th century, this charitable organization was responsible for fulfilling the wishes of thousands of New York children who sent letters to the North Pole. Palmer was dismayed to learn that Gluck wasn’t so much a philanthropist as he was a huckster, who lined his pockets with money from generous and trusting donors.
Palmer’s exhaustively researched book, The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York, is — as the title indicates — about more than Gluck’s nefarious activities. The book includes two linked narratives: a sympathetic and comprehensive chronicle of Gluck’s life and personality, showing the complex motivations for his self-aggrandizing and often dishonest activities, and an equally detailed account of the transformation of Christmas from a religious holiday into a cultural and commercial event.
A self-described “secret history sleuth”, Palmer is the author of two previous books, Weird-O-Pedia: The Ultimate Collection of Surprising, Strange, and Incredibly Bizarre Facs About (Supposedly) Ordinary Things and Literary Miscellany: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Literature. For a writer oriented towards the quirky side of life, delving into the obscure story of New York’s “Santa Claus man” and his world was a fascinating project. Palmer’s research led him to previously unknown relatives. He says:
My search to uncover the true story of John Gluck took me to Georgia, Florida, Texas, and into hidden pockets of New York City. I spoke to relatives I hadn’t known existed and was lucky enough to meet them. My first big break came with I tracked down a distant cousin of mine . . . She recalled John fondly and offhandedly mentioned she may have some of his papers in storage somewhere. In fact, she discovered she had several storage boxes full of his stuff . . . a trove of John’s personal correspondence, official Santa Claus Association documents, and original Santa letters that served as the backbone of The Santa Claus Man.
Palmer also uncovered an FBI report on Gluck’s deceptive activities, documents about Supreme Court case Gluck fought against the Boy Scouts of America, and “lots more Santa letters”. Palmer says his investigation “revealed a man who yearned for escape from a mundane life, but lost his bearings once he broke free.” The book includes nearly 40 pages of endnotes and a bibliography, attesting to Palmer’s thorough exploration of his subject. (It also contains dozens of terrific vintage photos, including a sketch of Gluck’s proposed Santa Claus Building, intended to “blend spiritual ideals and consumerism into a true ‘Cathedral of Commerce'”.)
Sometimes Palmer’s enthusiasm for trivia overwhelms the reader, detracting from the narrative. It probably isn’t necessary to know, for example, that the nation’s first airmail delivery took place on September 23, 1911 in a Bieriot XI monoplane and included a sack of 640 letters and 1,280 postcards.
Palmer successfully places Gluck’s story in historical context. Publishers Weekly comments that:
Palmer deftly weaves in other cultural touchstones such as the genesis of the Boy Scouts, Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” and the WWI Christmas Day armistice (in which opposing armies traded goods) to tell the larger story of America’s adoption and adaptation of Christmas that endures to this day.
The Boy Scouts are, in fact, integral to the story. In 1910, two Boy Scout organizations were formed in the United States: the Boy Scouts of America and the American Boy Scout (no “s”, peculiarly — and later to become the United States Boy Scout.) The groups differed in one significant way: members of the American Boy Scout carried guns. Many parents didn’t want their Boy Scouts armed, especially after one 12-year-old American Boy Scout shot and killed a 9-year-old boy. The “chief scout” of the American Boy Scout organization didn’t think that banning guns from his organization was the best way to ensure the group’s survival — instead, he decided, they would volunteer to help the Santa Claus Man.
If you’re looking for a sweet Christmas story, The Santa Claus Man probably isn’t what you have in mind — but history and true crime buffs will enjoy this offbeat tale of greed and good intentions.