Before the charismatic John Duval Gluck, Jr. came along, letters from New York City children to Santa Claus were destroyed, unopened, by the U.S. Post Office. Gluck saw an opportunity, and created the Santa Claus Association. The effort delighted the public, and for 15 years money and gifts flowed to the only group authorized to answer Santa’s mail. Gluck became a Jazz Age celebrity, rubbing shoulders with the era’s movie stars and politicians, and even planned to erect a vast Santa Claus monument in the center of Manhattan — until Gotham’s crusading charity commissioner discovered some dark secrets in Santa’s workshop.
The rise and fall of the Santa Claus Association is a caper both heartwarming and hardboiled, involving stolen art, phony Boy Scouts, a kidnapping, pursuit by the FBI, a Coney Island bullfight, and above all, the thrills and dangers of a wild imagination. It’s also the larger story of how Christmas became the extravagant holiday we celebrate today, from Santa’s early beginnings in New York to the country’s first citywide Christmas tree and Macy’s first grand holiday parade. The Santa Claus Man is a holiday tale with a dark underbelly, and an essential read for lovers of Christmas stories, true crime, and New York City history.
An excerpt from The Santa Claus Man
The oldest of five brothers, Gluck had lived for two years in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, before his family moved to Westfield, NJ. He described it as a happy home with few wants and where every holiday was a huge deal, especially Christmas, when kind gestures both within the family and toward less-fortunate outsiders were a tradition.
At 5-foot-6, he was the shortest of his brothers by several inches and also the only one losing his hair, for which he began to compensate with a lustrous mustache, maintained with an assortment of combs, brushes, and clippers.
Gluck inherited his father’s custom brokerage business, but, at age 35, he was restless for fame and hungry to do something with his life. Picking up any day’s newspaper or stopping in at one of the movie theaters in Manhattan, one encountered thrilling stories of heroes, self-made men, and adventurers. Gluck sensed he was destined for great things too, to bring delight to the city, help his fellow New Yorkers, and garner himself some public esteem in the process. Santa might offer just the route.
Gluck was a natural showboat, and after the Post Office gave its approvals and he started the “Santa Claus Association,” he proved adept at delighting the reporters who dropped by the headquarters, in the back room of Henkel’s Chop Shop on 36th Street.
When Zoe Beckley, a reporter for the Evening Mail, arrived, Gluck told how children wrote in asking for sleds or dolls and more unusual things. Several children even asked for coal; so cold and desperate were the letter writers that they would consider it a blessing, rather than a punishment for naughtiness, to receive coal in their stockings. Kids addressed letters to Ice Street, Cloudville and Behind the Moon (it would be a few more years before the North Pole was accepted as Santa’s home).
Gluck boasted the process he had devised, drawing on years of exacting customs work, was what really made the Santa Claus Association special. A team of volunteers would go through each letter, flagging any repeats from the same child. If the child described starvation, homelessness or abuse, the volunteer set it in a special stack, which was forwarded to the Public Charities Commission for further investigation.
If the writer asked for excessive gifts or gave some other indication of not really needing Santa’s help, it was set aside in an investigation stack. If the missive passed all inspection — Gluck estimated 70% of them did — the letter was finally ready for a response.
Association members did not actually touch the gifts these children would receive. Each approved letter was sent out to a potential donor — drawn from a list of names and addresses Gluck compiled from his own business along with suggestions made by the association’s directors and volunteers.
Gluck revealed to Beckley something unmentioned to other reporters, a credential that made him almost cosmically qualified to play New York City’s Santa Claus: He had been born on Christmas Day.
“[Gluck] never had a birthday,” Beckley would write after her tour. “He had one of course, in a way. But nobody noticed it because it fell upon the 25th of December. Deeply Master Gluck pondered on this left-handed compliment of fate. He finally decided that while it was tough luck to be done out of birthdays, it would be tougher yet to be done out of Christmas.”
Following the rise and fall of John Duval Gluck, Jr., aka The Santa Claus Man, Alex Palmer’s new book offers a unique behind-the-scenes look at some of the people who first organized the kinds of Christmas celebrations we’ve all come to know and love.
From humble beginnings, operating out of a back room in Henkel’s Chop House, Gluck first took on the task of responding to hundreds of letters addressed to Santa by area children with a sense of pride and the Christmas spirit. But, as with all tales of power, corruption lurks beneath the surface, and it’s only a matter of time before Santa’s Secretary becomes enmeshed in a web of deceit.
Palmer does an excellent job of navigating the many spurious claims made by con-artist Gluck, without painting him as a Grinch out to ruin Christmas simply for personal gain. Instead, he offers a sympathetic portrait of a man who aspired to become something more than an import-export broker, a man with modern PR skills and a knack for clever storytelling, and a man whose own birthday was perpetually eclipsed by Christmas cheer – even as he condemns Gluck’s vices. At times the reader must wonder if Gluck is more to be praised for constantly outwitting those that sought to entrap him, given the cheerless acronyms of some of the groups on his tail (SPUG, the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving, springs to mind – isn’t most holiday gift-giving technically “useless”?).
But even more than his captivating portrait of Gluck, Palmer also perfectly captures the ever-changing nature of both New York City and America’s particular Christmas celebrations. Following the evolution of St. Nicholas from a whip-wielding punisher of naughtiness in 1810 to the 1927 depiction of a jolly Santa Claus who rewards good behavior, it’s truly fascinating to see how our myths continue to change as the years go by. The way the patron saint of all things Christmas is eventually distanced from his German heritage is perhaps inevitable and frustrating – not to mention culturally relevant, as we listen to current-day political candidates suggest building walls and tagging foreigners with special identification in order to make sure only “real Americans” live in America.
Equally fascinating, the book offers historical tidbits that seem both incredibly foreign and sadly relevant to 2015, including the number of daily newspapers that circulated the city at the time (a whopping 85!), or the fact that Boy Scouts were once allowed to carry loaded handguns as part of their uniforms. It was also striking to discover that NYC mail trucks were originally allowed to break the speed limit of 15 mph in order to deliver mail faster – indeed, as if it were an emergency on par with transporting injured persons to hospitals.
Though the Santa Claus Association was disbanded in 1928, Gluck’s legacy of answering children’s letters to Santa lives on. The much reformed system is now called Operation Santa Claus, and is available nationwide for any adult who wishes to play Santa for up to 10 children who still believe. (You can read about the process here, if you like.)
Highly recommended, both for those who embrace the Christmas spirit and for the Scrooges who are certain every charity contributes to “useless giving.”
About the Author
Alex Palmer is the author of The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York, called “required reading” by the New York Post and “highly readable” by Publishers Weekly.
It tells the history of Christmas in America through the true-crime tale of a Jazz Age hustler who founded an organization to answer children’s Santa letters – and fuel his own dark dreams. Palmer curated an exhibit about this Santa Claus Association for Brooklyn’s City Reliquary Museum, earning attention from the Village Voice, Time Out New York, and inspiring a memorable segment on WNYC.
The son of two teachers, Palmer’s love of learning and sharing surprising stories behind familiar subjects has led him to become a secret-history sleuth. In addition to The Santa Claus Man, he is the author of Weird-o-pedia: The Ultimate Collection of Surprising, Strange, and Incredibly Bizarre Facts About (Supposedly) Ordinary Things, published in 2012 by Skyhorse Publishing. it 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.
He is a full-time freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Slate, Rhapsody, Smithsonian, Vulture, the New York Daily News, Publishers Weekly, and The Rumpus, among others.
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