Rauner Special Collections Library, Dartmouth College
Everybody knows Rudolph was the last reindeer to join Santa’s crew, but few people know about the department store copy writer who brought his story to the world.
The year was 1939, the Great Depression was waning and a manager at Montgomery Ward department store in Chicago decided that the store should create its own children’s book for the annual holiday promotion.
The boss tapped Robert L. May, an ad man for the store, to take a crack at a story. May was a hit at holiday parties for his way with limericks and parodies. But May didn’t see himself as a winner. He had always felt like a bit of an outcast, and, at 35, he felt he was far from reaching his potential, pounding out catalog copy instead of writing the Great American Novel as he had always dreamed he would.
He came back with the story of an underdog, red-nosed reindeer who was in the right place at the right time — just when Santa needed a reindeer with exceptional skills. (Click to see Robert May’s original Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer manuscript.)
“Can’t you come with anything better?” the boss asked, according to a May’s 1975 telling in a story published in the Gettysburg Times.
But May believed in the story. He got his buddy in the art department to draw up some sketches and, together, they convinced the boss.
But, months into the project, his wife succumbed to cancer. Robert became a widow and a single father. His boss offered to take the reindeer project off of this plate. But May refused. “I needed Rudolph now more than ever,” he later wrote.
The book was a hit. Montgomery Ward’s printed and distributed more than 2 million copies that year at branches across the country.
But, while Rudolph was hitting it big, things grew worse for May. He spent years buried in the debt from his wife’s medical bills. He was living on a copy writer’s salary.
Then, after the war, Montgomery Ward’s then-CEO Sewell Avery, for reasons that aren’t exactly clear, gave May the rights to Rudolph. (His daughter tells us that the bosses never thought Rudolph had potential as more than a holiday promotion, but we’d like to think, for the sake of this cute little Christmas tale, that his humanity won him over.)
If ever there was going to be a time for May’s luck to change, this would be it.
It just so happened that May’s brother-in-law was a songwriter. He hadn’t made it big yet, but he was getting there. May talked him into writing a song about Rudolph. That song was picked up by none other than the singing cowboy, Gene Autry. The song sold more than 25 million copies and paved the way for the classic Rankin/Bass stop-animation film.
Thanks to Rudolph, Robert May’s family was taken care of financially through the end of his life and beyond. And he always delighted in being the man who introduced the oddball reindeer and his triumphant tale to the world.
And as for Rudolph, well, he, as they say, went down in history.