Montgomery Ward Tower Building
Chicago Tribune, December 19, 1939
Largest first edition yet recorded, the 2,400,000 copies of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, written by Robert L. May and given away by a mail order company.
The Original Manuscript
Chicago Tribune, December 17, 1950
BY WILLIAM BENTLEY
RUDOLPH, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, may be an enchanting Christmas legend to small fry, and a lilting holiday tune to older folks, but in one Chicagoland home the children wish that the neon-nosed reindeer would go lose himself—but good!
That’s at 9301 Hamlin av., Skokie. And the sad truth is that this is Rudolph’s own home. The short-horned Durante built the place himself (buck by buck, you might say!). Living in the house, by kind of a squatter’s right, is the Robert L. May family. Bob May is the creator of Rudolph—and by right of that creation, he has on his hands one of the most amazing (and benign) Frankenstein monsters in literary history. Almost from the moment of Rudolph’s birth, May (and his family) entered into a bondage that finally resulted in revolt by the four May children, Barbara, Joanna, Christopher, and Ginger, now aged 16, 9, 8, and 5.
I talked so much about Rudolph at the supper table,” explained May, “that there wasn’t time for the children to tell about the more important things that happened to then during the day. So they voted in a family ordinance forbidding me to talk about Rudolph until after their bedtime.” Virginia, Bob’s wife, tactfully refrained from casting a vote.
The May children had a point, at that. Barbara May was the original listener to her father’s verse-book about the ostracized young reindeer with the illuminated, over-size nose. Barbara was 5 when the book was written. She has given eleven years of her life to Rudolph, and considers that quite enough.
The other three May children have never lived in a normal household where a deer is not the man who came to dinner (and stayed for life). They have listened to Rudolph recited, sung, and honored. They have tested all the various Rudolph endorsed products, from children’s feeding dishes to stuffed toys. They have heard their father called “Rudolph” innumerable times by somewhat less than witty friends. And, worst humiliation of all, they have often heard him described as “Rudolph’s father’—which makes the socially unacceptable deer their half-brother, at least.
There is no question but that Rudolph has become a legend—the first new and accepted Christmas legend since Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” and Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” How does a Christmas tradition start? How does an average guy like Bob May turn from an ad man to children’s poet? What us there about the story that is so enchanting to children?
Mr. and Mrs. Robert L. May on the porch of the home that Rudolph “built” in suburban Skokie. The children, left to right: Barbara, 16; Christopher, 8; Ginger, 5; and Joanna, 9.
Rudolph was written as assignment in 1939. May, then an advertising copywriter given the job of writing a Christmas story to be given away to children in a nation-wide chain of department stores (Montgomery Ward). Rudolph was the result of this assignment. The story was written in about 50 hours (including time spent in reading various versions to the now disdainful Barbara). Two million, four hundred thousand copies of the book were distributed in 1939. This shattered all records for any first edition of any book. Rudolph was on his way, but not even May knew it.
The war and the paper shortage sent Rudolph back to the Eskimo country until 1946, when the company took him out of cold storage and distributed 3,600,000 copies of the free book. Then, in 1947, the company turned the copyright over to May. A publisher put out the next edition, 100,000 of Rudolph. It wasn’t enough—not nearly enough. This year 1,000,000 copies of the book may supply the demand. Last year, in song, Rudolph was really up there on the hit parade. And one record, Gene Autrey’s version, was reproduced nearly 2,000,000 times.
What took Rudolph out if the class of just another Christmas story and into the fabulous land of living legend? May, himself, admits he doesn’t really know, and that he certainly had no foreknowledge of the furor was to result from completing a rather routine writing assignment 11 years ago. He thinks, tho, that there are two reasons that make Rudolph get up and run.
May explains in this way:
Children are the little people, the underdogs of the world. No matter how well adjusted they are, they just can’t help feeling pretty small and helpless alongside the adults that tower around them. That’s why children, even more quickly than adults, identify themselves with the underdog in a story . . . with Cinderella, the Ugly Duckling, Rudolph. When Rudolph eventually rides to glory with Santa, each child rides with him. And loves it.
The other reason, of course, is that Christmas is the big time of the year for Children. They want to hear about Santa Claus and his magic ride. Until Rudolph came along, there was only the 127-year old Clement Moore version of the story to fill the need. Now many critics claim that the Rudolph story has climbed along side Moore’s poem. Whether it has or not, it at least gives the youngsters a bit of variety in the Christmas story (and modern variety, too, that includes airliners and a gentle villain or so). This, the author feels, is as much a welcome relief to parents (who read to their children) as it is to the children.
Unlike many briefly popular seasonal stories, Rudolph’s fame grows and spreads each year. The rudy-schnozzed animal is more popular in Canada than in this country (if that be possible). And he is going abroad, too. England and Australia are taking the shy little critter to heart, and any day now, Rudolph will be speaking Spanish with a Chicago accent and making his way to Cuba and points south. It is doubtful, however, that even heart-winning Rudolph can make the grade across the iron curtain, and spread a rosy glow in Joe Stalin’s bedroom on Christmas eve.
Rudolph, while spreading light and leading Santa’s crew through a foggy Christmas eve, has not forgotten the May family—despite the Scrooge-like attitude of the May children toward their shy, but ever-present benefactor. As the result of Rudolph’s endorsement of many children’s articles, Bob and Virginia May consider the lit-up deer as a kind of rich uncle to themselves and the four May children. Among other things, says Bob May, Rudolph paid for the new home and car.
It is said that if two people live long enough together they come to resemble each other. As a result of the fuss about Rudolph, Bob May has come to be much closer to his literary creation than most authors to their characters. However, it is not true that every year around Christmas season when Rudolph springs to life that May sprouts small antlers and a W. C. Fields’ nose.
Furthermore, it is definitely untrue that Bob May, now a thing half man. half cherry-nosed reindeer, is tethered on his front lawn each morning and allowed to graze for his breakfast before driving with his car pool to the office. But the following story of the meet ing of Bob May and a new neighbor, tow-headed Jimmy Johnson, then 5, is true!
As Bob was supervising the movers at the new Skokie home, Jimmy approached and said, between licks on an enormous all-day sucker, “I know who you are. You’re Robert L. May.” This is the sort of thing that warms an author’s heart and conceit. May’s pleasure and author’s pride inflated like an oversized balloon.
“That’s right,” he said.
Unperturbed by his nearness to fame, Jimmy took a connoisseur’s lick and said, “I know who you work for, too. You work for Rudolph. So there!”
The balloon burst.
Gettysburgh Times, December 22, 1975
An icy January blast tore at my coat as I hurried on my way to work I noticed that the Christmas street decorations had been taken down and in way I was relieved. My wife was suffering from a long illness and I didn’t feel very festive.
I was glad to get inside the foyer of the Montgomery Ward building. In the elevator I leaned back and listened to the younger men eagerly discussing their work.
And how are you starting the new years?” I glumly asked myself. Here I was heavily in debt at age 35 still grinding out catalog copy. Instead of writing the great American novel as I’d once hoped, I was describing men’s white shirts. It seemed I’d always been a loser.
In the copy department a secretary called “Bob, the boss wants to see you?”
What now? I wondered.
DECIDED TO TRY.
Our department head stood at the window in his office. “Bob,” he barked, “I’ve got an idea. For years our stores have been buying those little Christmas giveaway coloring books from local peddlers. I think we can save a lot of money if we could create one ourselves. Could you come up with a better booklet we could use?”
I started to answer but he kept on talking. “I think it should be an animal story with a main character like Ferdinand the Bull.”
Finally I said I’d try.
That night I wondered about what kind of animal it should be. . . Christmas. . . Santa. . . Reindeer? Of course, it must be a reindeer. Barbara, my four-year-old daughter loved the deer down at the zoo.
BRIGHT RED NOSE.
But what could a little reindeer teach children?
Suppose he were an underdog—a loser, yet triumphant in the end. But what kind of underdog?
Certainly a reindeer’s dream would be to pull Santa’s sleigh.
Outside the fog swirled in from Lake Michigan dimming the street lights. Light. Something to help Santa find his way on a night like this.
Suddenly I had it! A nose! A bright red nose that would shine through fog like a flood light.
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” author Robert L. May, his wife, Virginia, and one of their daughters at home in 1968.
HE HAD FAITH.
The next morning enthusiastically presented my idea to the boss. “For gosh sakes, Bob, can’t you do better than that?”
I retreated to my desk and sat staring at the wall. I had faith in the reindeer, I had by now named Rudolph. But how could I convince my boss? I prayed for inspiration.
An idea struck me. A bold, audacious idea. I walked over to the art department where my friend Denver Gillen worked.
“Denver, could you draw a deer with a big red nose and still make him look appealing?”
He looked at me quizzically and I explained my idea. The following Saturday morning, Barbara, Denver and I met a the deer corral at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. As he sketched. I held Barbara up so she could better see those gentle creatures.
WE HAD SOMETHING.
By afternoon we felt we had something.
On Monday morning we brought the sketches into the boss’s office. He studied them for a long time. “Bob,” he said softly, “forget what I said and put the story into finished form.”
I started writing.
“Twas the day before Christmas and all through the hills—The reindeer were playing,
enjoying the spills…”
Spring slipped into summer. My wife’s parents came to stay with us to help. Suddenly her condition grew worse. Then in July she was gone.
At the office the boss put his hand on my shoulder, “Bob,” he said his voice unusually gentle, “I can understand your not wanting to go on with the kids’ book. Give me what you’ve got and I’ll let someone else finish it.”
But I needed Rudolph now more than ever. Gratefully I buried myself in the writing. Finally, in late August, it was done. I called Barbara and her grandparents into the living room and read it to them.
In their eyes I could see that the story accomplished what I had hoped.
Today children all over the world read and hear about the little deer who started out in life as a loser, just as I did. But they learn that when he gave himself for thers his handicap became the very means through which he achieved happiness.
“My reward is knowing that every year when Christmas rolls around, Rudolph still brings that message to millions young and old.
Original 1948 release of Fleisher cartoon.
1951 re-release of Fleisher cartoon that retains the body of the story, but includes a new opening and end credits, removing Montgomery Ward.
Daily Herald, August 12, 1976
Robert L. May, creator of the classic children’s story of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, died Wednesday in Chicago. He was 71. May wrote the story of Rudolph in 1939 as a Christmas sales promotion for Montgomery Ward’s, where he was a copyrighter. He turned the story into a poem and then a composer friend, Johnny Marks1, created the famous children’s song which Gene Autry recorded in 1949. The story sold 2.4 million copies in 1939 alone. May left Wards in 1951 and lived for seven years off his royalties. He returned to Wards in 1958 and worked as a copywriter until his retirement in 1970.He is survived by his wife, Claire, five daughters and a son.
1 John David Marks (November 10, 1909 – September 3, 1985) was an American songwriter. Although he was Jewish, he specialized in Christmas songs and wrote many holiday standards, including “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (a hit for Gene Autry and others), “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (a hit for Brenda Lee), “A Holly Jolly Christmas” (recorded by the Quinto Sisters and later by Burl Ives), “Silver and Gold” (for Burl Ives), and “Run Rudolph Run” (recorded by Chuck Berry).