The Santa Claus Man
by Alex Palmer
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GENRE: History/True Crime
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.
But then raising money was always Gluck’s gift. He would run a series of fraudulent charities, often with the help of the astounding database of 76,000 New York donors, — including Astors and Vanderbilts — that he put together through the Santa Claus Association.
He would run groups like the Defense Reports Committee, Crusade against Illicit Traffic in Narcotics, Serum Control of Cancer, Anti-Prohibition Group, and something called the Window Crib Society — which promoted cages that apartment dwellers could attach to their windows to allow their infant to play outside in a chicken-wire box.
Gluck even tried to organize a bullfight on Coney Island. But after the bull charged into the crowd, then knocked itself by slamming a wall, Gluck was arrested and fined.
One of Gluck’s most notorious associations was with the American Boy Scout organization.
The group sprouted from the competitive spirit of William Randolph Hearst. The newspaper baron founded the scouting group in May 1910 as a challenge to Chicago publisher William Dickson Boyce, who had incorporated the Boy Scouts of America three months prior.
The boys in both groups went on outdoor trips, volunteered in the community and read Boys’ Life. But their practices differed in at least one significant way: Hearst’s scouts carried loaded guns. Partly because Hearst believed boys should cultivate skill with firearms, and also to help prepare members for eventual service in the military, rifles became standard accessories for American Boy Scout members.
But after a 12-year-old American Boy Scout shot and killed a 9-year-old in The Bronx during a fight, membership plummeted.
Gluck, who used scouts as volunteers at the Santa Claus Association, fought to keep the United States Boy Scouts alive, exaggerating its membership and the luminaries who backed it. He would attach the names of prominent politicians and businessmen as “executive vice presidents” without their knowledge, even as Gluck himself went around town calling himself a member of the Secret Service.
After a long court fight and dwindling finances, the USBS folded.
Gluck retreated to his Santa Claus cave, but the Boy Scout debacle had attracted the attention of many authorities, including Bird Coler, the city’s public-welfare commissioner.
Unlike its first years, when Gluck directed wealthy patrons to needy kids, the Santa Claus Association now asked for direct donations. In 1927, Coler found that the group brought in $106,000 (about $1.4 million today) but didn’t detail its spending. Salaries kept increasing, and a $10,000 fund had simply vanished. The “Santa Claus Building” was never built, but the group had still accepted donations for its construction.
Gluck legitimately wanted to help kids. But he also craved the fame and fortune the Santa Claus Association provided him.
Coler brought his findings to the Post Office, which rescinded Gluck’s contract. By Christmas, the letters coming into the office and the public’s support of the group evaporated. Without the endorsement of the Post Office, the association lost its logistical ability to collect letters to Santa. But more importantly, it lost the city’s faith.
Like a reversal of the climax of “Miracle on 34th Street,” the letters to Santa on which Gluck prided himself were taken from him. His right to claim the title of Santa’s secretary had been revoked as the postman literally walked into his office and removed the missives delivered to Gluck days before.
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.
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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 (http://wny.cc/1bQIx5k).
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.
Alex will be awarding a $20 Amazon or B&N gift card to a randomly drawn winner via Rafflecopter during the tour.