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The Santa Claus Man
The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York
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.
Globe Pequot Press / Lyons Press
Size: 6 3/8 x 9 3/8
978-1-4930-0844-5 • Hardback • October 2015 •
978-1-4930-1890-1 • eBook • October 2015 •
History / United States / 20th Century
Biography & Autobiography / Criminals & Outlaws
History / United States / State & Local / Middle Atlantic (DC, DE, MD, NJ, NY, PA)
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Alex Palmer is freelance writer and researcher who curated an exhibit on the Santa Claus Association for Brooklyn's City Reliquary in December 2012. It received wide press attention and was the subject of a major holiday feature for WNYC. He is the author of two previous books:
Skyhorse, 2012), for which he researched hundreds of unusual facts about everyday things from Donuts to Dogs and which has sold more than 10,000 copies to date, with special distribution in Urban Outfitters and elsewhere; and
(Skyhorse, 2010), which offers a breezy and entertaining survey of the history of literature. His writing has appeared in the NY Daily News, USA Today, The New York Post, Publishers Weekly, and many other outlets. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
"Palmer deftly weaves in other cultural touchstones such as the genesis of the Boy Scouts, Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” and the WWI Christmas Day armistice (in which opposing armies traded goods) to tell the larger story of America’s adoption and adaptation of Christmas that endures to this day. It’s a highly readable account of the evolution of one of America’s favorite holidays and traditions."
New York Post
" Miracle on 34th Street encounters the Wolf of Wall Street in this holiday biography of "the man who saved Christmas" during New York's Jazz Age. A solid read for those who enjoy Santa Claus culture, crime, and history from the streets of Manhattan."
"Fascinating and compelling – this book is sure to be a hit in the office this year for Secret-Santa gifts, something special for the boss, and even suitable as a bulk-purchase for every employee company wide. Actually, this exciting new book should be considered as a holiday corporate gift for top customers and suppliers in addition to office workers across every generation."
"Engaging...intriguing...highly recommended for history fans."
"One of 10 Favorite New York City History Books of 2015."
The Bowery Boys
Palmer takes the reader on an interesting and informative history of how Christmas has become the monster holiday that it is in New York.”
"What do you get when you cross thousands of poor children writing letters to Santa Claus with a silver-tongued con artist and his big dreams? You get a rollicking true story of Christmas in New York City in the Roaring Twenties, complete with kind-hearted millionaires, corrupt politicians, crusading reformers and a man, not entirely a crook, who wanted to make needy kids a little happier. Alex Palmer’s The Santa Claus Man is a fascinating look at how Christmas tugs at both the heart and the wallet and how a dapper advertising genius with a waxed moustache used Santa to make himself, for a moment at least, rich and famous. Lovers of the world’s favorite holiday will find enjoyment and enlightenment in this entertaining new history.”
— Gerry Bowler, author of
Santa Claus: A Biography
The World Encyclopedia of Christmas
"Gun-toting boy scouts? Baby cribs hung from skyscraper windows? A Christmas building with a giant stained-glass Santa Claus in midtown New York? Those are a few ploys of scam artist and quasi-philanthropist John Gluck, as told in Alex Palmer's lively and well-researched biography of him. The Santa Claus Man draws a picture of an era in New York when the pockets of the wealthy were open to anyone who was willing to buy into schemes with kind-hearted promises of help to the poor. Gluck's greatest success, the Santa Claus Association, attracted society ladies and movie stars by promising to fulfill the wishes of children who wrote to Santa begging for gifts, until it was investigated by an alert and suspicious public welfare official. Palmer's book is fun to read and raises questions about gullibility and fraud even more relevant today than they were in the 1920s. “
—Jean Ashton, New York Historical Society's Library Director Emerita
"Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus and his name is John Duval Gluck, Jr., the founder of the Santa Claus Association in New York City in 1913. Have yourself a very merry Christmas by picking up a copy of the heartwarming and heartbreaking story of Gluck, skillfully written by Alex Palmer in his new book,
The Santa Claus Man
. It is a true gift to anyone who ever wanted to believe in Santa, recounting Gluck’s effort to make the legend of Santa a reality to children by responding to the thousands of letters written to the North Pole that ended up in the dead letter files in the city’s post offices. Palmer superbly recounts the trials and tribulations of Gluck and his organization as well as placing the Christmas holiday and the invention of Santa Claus into historical perspective. I suggest that while you’re dashing through the snow you pick up a copy of this inspiring book as a present for you and your whole family.”
— J. North Conway, author of the New York City Gilded Age Trilogy:
King of Heists, The Big Policeman
Bag of Bones
"From the very first page the reader is immersed in a bygone New York of celebrities and debutantes, impoverished children, colorful con men, crusading politicians, crass commercialism, and, above all, outsized ambition and striving self-invention; a historical city, come to think of it, not all that different than the New York City of today. One only hopes that in a hundred years’ time we will have a chronicler as skilled and entertaining as Alex Palmer to tell our tales.“
— Stephen Duncombe, co-author of
The Bobbed-Haired Bandit: A True Story of Crime and Celebrity in 1920s New York
"The Santa Claus Man is a heartwarming story of an organization founded on altruism, but as with many tales from New York's past, it comes with a twist. This story connects to the real-life landmarks and legends of NYC's history and shows how our town served as the birthplace for the secular Santa Claus we now all know so well."
—Dave Herman, founder of the City Reliquary Museum and Civic Organization, Brooklyn, NYC
"The Santa Claus Man is a Christmas pudding of a book, studded with historical nuggets and spiced with larceny. John Duval Gluck's conniving lends new meaning to the adage ‘Charity begins at home.’”
--Gerard Helferich, author of
Theodore Roosevelt and the Assassin
"John Gluck was the near perfect mix of shrewd huckster and canny sentimentalist to turn a Santa Claus charity into a lucrative swindle. With verve and vivid detail, Alex Palmer rescues Gluck's tale of striving, duplicity, and benevolence, a Santa Claus Man who wanted both to make children happy and to line his own pockets. In the process Palmer reveals a shadowy world of ill-regulated charity operations that found the American Christmas all too ripe for exploitation. Letters to Santa will never seem quite so innocent again.”
--Leigh E. Schmidt, author of
Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays
Heaven's Bride: The Unprintable Life of Ida C. Craddock, American Mystic, Scholar, Sexologist, Martyr, and Madwoman
"Alex Palmer’s lively historical account of John Gluck, founder of the Santa Claus Association and stand-in for Santa himself, adds a new chapter to the tale of New York’s most famous saint. It’s an early 20th century true story featuring corruption, a lawsuit, civic-minded haberdashers, and the many children whose letters to Santa would have gone unanswered if it were not for Santa’s helpers. Mr. Gluck, flawed, entrepreneurial, and kind-hearted, stands at the center of this finely researched and entirely engaging work.”
—Penne Restad, author of Christmas in America: A History
"Urban historians and market enthusiasts alike will be treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the back office of Henkel's Chop House, the basement of the Hotel Astor, the aisles of Washington Market, the Knickerbocker Building, Woolworth Building, General Post Office, and Macy's, in this fantastic account of the man who put Santa Claus on the calendar and mental map for thousands of children in early twentieth-century New York."
—Helen Tangires, author of
"In his heyday, Washington Irving might have willed John D. Gluck into being. Though their antic contributions to American lore took place in different centuries, both were unreligious New York City bachelors who brought Santa Claus to life. The sprightly St. Nick whom Irving bequeathed to American literature and Gluck further popularized is putty in Alex Palmer’s clever hands. The Santa Claus Man is a warmhearted and informative history, and a luscious tale besides.”
— Andrew Burstein, author of
The Original Knickerbocker: The Life of Washington Irving
The true story of New York’s first “Santa Claus,” a con man and swindler, but also the inventor of Christmas as we know it
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