Thursday, December 17, 2015

Review: The Santa Claus Man by Alex Palmer

When my children were small, I always helped them write out their letters to Santa so I'd know what they really wanted for Christmas. We'd pop the letters in our mailbox and I'd subsequently go out and retrieve them before the mailman got here. But what about those letters that make it into the postal system? And what about the letters written by children whose parents can't afford to grant the innocent wishes painstakingly penned on grubby paper? In 1913 in New York City, those letters were actually answered and gifts provided by the Santa Claus Association, created by John Duval Gluck, Jr. but the organization wasn't as benevolent as it appeared on the surface, as Alex Palmer details in his new non-fiction release, The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York.

Prior to 1913, letters addressed to Santa Claus were sent to the dead letter office and ultimately destroyed. John Duval Gluck, Jr., a customs broker in New York City, saw an opportunity to move out of the job he didn't love into the more lucrative field of PR via a feel good charity of his own creation, the Santa Claus Association. What started out as heartwarming and altruistic on the surface, pairing the poorest of New York's children with wealthier folks wanting to play Santa Claus to them, turned into an unregulated fundraising scam. If Gluck started out with the best of intentions, rescuing these sad letters, he was soon corrupted by the desire for fame and wealth that his association with the sentimental charity afforded him. By tapping into the good feeling and Christmas cheer of the public, he was able to solicit untold funds, rub elbows with the most famous stars of the day, and even parlay this job into other mutually beneficial, highly lucrative, and unfortunately dishonest or fraudulent positions for himself for fifteen long years.

Gluck's ascent as the Santa Claus Man coincided with the development and evolution of Santa into the jolly, giving figure we know today and with the rise of the commercialization of the holiday. Palmer, who is a distant nephew of Gluck's, not only details his relative's life and dishonest practices, but he also highlights the world in which a man could become rich off the back of a children's charity. World War I was looming. The Boy Scouts of America and the United States Boy Scout organizations were developing along diverging tracks, the latter of which employed Gluck in a fundraising capacity that was morally questionable. Charities had no watchdogs making sure that funds were applied appropriately and the public was generous and patriotic feeling. Perfect conditions for a scam artist.

Palmer has done an enormous amount of research into the time itself and into his great-great uncle's dealings, as far as any records show, and he has drawn a complete picture of a past with a more innocent, less cynical populace. Gluck was clearly a charismatic man who presented a show of bonhomie to all and sundry. And even though the reader knows from the outset that Gluck's intentions were not entirely honorable, the first part of the book ends with the hope that perhaps they are mistaken about what they ultimately know to be true, which is a credit to Palmer's writing.  The rest of the book will prove the subtitle of the book to be the case and that chronicling of the underhanded, sneaky practices of Gluck's is not quite as compelling and feel-good as the creation of the Santa Claus Association is.  Some of the small details of the time, especially in this later part of the tale are a bit overwhelming and unnecessary to the story as a whole but the premise is a fascinating one, made all the more interesting for its truth.  This is a not a sweetly seasonal Christmas tale but instead a curious, unusual, and slightly sordid chapter in modern Christmas history.

Special blog tour Christmas gift: Get a free Santa bookplate signed by the author, plus two vintage Santa Claus Association holiday seals. Just email proof once you buy The Santa Claus Man (online receipt, photo of bookstore receipt, etc.) along with the mailing address where you'd like the gift sent to santaclausmanbook[at]gmail[dot]com. Email before 12/21 to guarantee delivery by Christmas.

For more information about Alex Palmer and the book, take a look at his web site, his Facebook page, or follow him on Twitter. Check out the book's Good Reads page, follow the rest of the blog tour, or look at the amazon reviews for others' thoughts and opinions on the book. The Santa Claus Man was also featured in this New York Times post: “Mama Says That Santa Claus Does Not Come to Poor People“.

Thanks to Lisa from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.


  1. I thought this one was a good addition to my Christmas themed reading this month--not as "sweet" as the others. I enjoyed it, and have to agree that sometimes it felt overwhelming with all the details. Such an interesting bit of history just the same!

  2. I LOVE this kind of read - all that historical info is so appealing to me.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!


I have had to disable the anonymous comment option to cut down on the spam and I apologize to those of you for whom this makes commenting a chore. I hope you'll still opt to leave me your thoughts. I love to hear what you think, especially so I know I'm not just whistling into the wind here at my computer.

Popular Posts