The Santa Claus Man
by Alex Palmer
About The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York
- Hardcover: 320 pages
- Publisher: Lyons Press (October 1, 2015)
Miracle on 34th Street meets The Wolf of Wall Street in this true crime adventure, set in New York City in the Roaring Twenties.
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 Department. 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 tree lighting to 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.
Other holiday highlights found in The Santa Clause Man:
- The secret history of Santa letters, including a trove of original Santa letters and previously unpublished correspondences between the post office and charity groups arguing whether Santa’s mail should be answered.
- The surprising origins of Christmas as we celebrate it today. From “Twas the Night Before Christmas” to the image of Santa Claus popularized by Coca-Cola, this book outlines how modern Christmas came to be, and includes a standalone timeline of holiday milestones.
- The rise of modern-day charity— and charity fraud. Unchecked giving exploded after the First World War and this book follows this growth, as well as some of the most egregious exploiters of the country’s goodwill (including the Santa Claus Man himself), and how they were finally exposed.
- Dozens of original vintage holiday photos, including a sculpture of Santa Claus made of 5,000 pulped letters to Santa, and a detailed sketch of a proposed Santa Claus Building, planned but never built in midtown Manhattan.
“Highly readable” — Publishers Weekly
“Required reading” — New York Post
“A rich, sensational story of holiday spirit corrupted by audacity and greed, fueled by the media at the dawning of the Jazz Age.”— Greg Young, cohost of Bowery Boys NYC history podcast
“A Christmas pudding of a book, studded with historical nuggets and spiced with larceny.”— Gerard Helferich, author of Theodore Roosevelt and the Assassin
The Santa Claus Man was featured in this New York Times post entitled “Mama Says That Santa Claus Does Not Come to Poor People“.
I was invited to review The Santa Claus Man and I really wish I could have found time during this busy. I love all things Christmas, and this sounds like a fascinating read! It is definitely going on my list for reading next year! Meanwhile, I am able to share this excerpt with you! Excerpt 1 appeared on A Chick Who Reads yesterday. See Alex’s schedule below and be sure to visit the other blogs on the tour for additional excerpts and reviews!
On the late afternoon before Christmas Day, nine-year-old Alfred Briggs no doubt expected that this late in the season, gifts would not miraculously appear under his family’s Christmas tree. Santa had never visited his home before—perhaps because the family didn’t have a chimney, or because their doorbell didn’t work, or because they lived on the third floor of a five-story tenement apartment on Sixty-Fourth Street, where few kids seemed to get visits from Santa. But as hopes for seeing St. Nick that Christmas Eve faded away, Alfred heard a knock at the door. When his aged mother answered, he heard a woman’s voice ask, “Does Mrs. Briggs live here?”
“Yes,” said his mother.
“Well, where’s Alfred?” the woman replied in a cheery tone. As Alfred approached the door, he first saw the gift-wrapped boxes piled high in the visitor’s arms, obscuring her face as she thrust them through the doorway, offering them to the boy’s mother. He rushed to the door as his astonished mother took the presents, revealing an elegantly dressed young woman with large eyes and dark hair done in a stylish bob—she was as bizarre a sight in a gritty West Side tenement as Santa himself landing on the sidewalk outside. This was Gertrude Whitaker, assistant secretary of the Santa Claus Association. “Santa Claus received Alfred’s letter, and when he learned that the little boy was so modest in his wishes, he decided to be very generous with Alfred,” she said, smiling as the boy cautiously approached, then began to open his gifts. Santa had indeed been generous: the box included a top, a set of dominoes, a ring game, illustrated storybooks, and a pair of small gloves. One gift confused him, though—an embroidered garment for which he was sure he had not asked. A note pinned on the item explained that this was for Mrs. Briggs.
“Now, what do you think of that?” the boy’s mother exclaimed, dumbfounded and moved by the generosity. “Who would have thought Santa Claus would answer my little boy’s letter this way?”
At the bottom of the package was a handwritten note from Santa himself, which Alfred read aloud. It praised him for his modest requests and exclaimed how glad Santa was that the boy had been good to his mother. It included the name and address of a “very kind lady” who lived outside of New York and would be pleased to receive a letter from Alfred expressing his pleasure with the gifts.
This donor had sent an inquiry about the association and received Alfred’s letter in response. Since she could not herself deliver the gifts, she sent them to its headquarters for the group’s volunteers to sort and deliver. Thanks to Whitaker and the association’s more than twenty other volunteers, including Gluck himself, who spent their Christmas Eve weaving through tenement hallways and climbing up dimly lit stairwells, about one hundred of these last-minute packages reached their destinations. (Though even among a group of hardworking volunteers, Whitaker stood out. Just prior to the holiday, she reportedly worked about twenty hours a day, sleeping on a cot in the office.)
Each package was sealed with a red sticker that read, “From Santa Claus, North Pole,” followed by the child’s name. The Times reporter who watched Alfred receive his gifts noted that below the name of the Santa Claus Association and the address of Henkel’s Chop House, the association included the name of the man who made this exchange possible: “John D. Gluck, Secretary.”
About Alex Palmer
Author Alex Palmer has written for Slate, Vulture, Smithsonian Magazine, New York Daily News and many other outlets. The author of previous nonfiction books Weird-o-Pedia and Literary Miscellany, he is also the great-grandnephew of John Duval Gluck, Jr.
Alex’s Tour Stops
Monday, November 30th: A Chick Who Reads – Excerpt 1
Tuesday, December 1st: Time 2 Read – Excerpt 2
Wednesday, December 2nd: Life by Kristen – review
Thursday, December 3rd: Bibliotica – spotlight
Friday, December 4th: All Roads Lead to the Kitchen – Excerpt 3
Monday, December 7th: No More Grumpy Bookseller – author guest post
Tuesday, December 8th: BookBub – “7 True Holiday Tales to Put You in the Christmas Spirit”
Wednesday, December 9th: From the TBR Pile – Excerpt 4
Wednesday, December 9th: Buried Under Books – author guest post
Thursday, December 10th: Books on the Table – review and guest post
Thursday, December 10th: Broken Teepee – spotlight
Friday, December 11th: A Literary Vacation – author Q&A
Monday, December 14th: Musings of a Bookish Kitty – review
Tuesday, December 15th: Mom in Love with Fiction – Excerpt 5
Thursday, December 17th: Open Book Society – review
Thursday, December 17th: BookNAround – review
Friday, December 18th: Dreams, Etc. – reviewThursday, December 24th: FictionZeal – spotlight