If you only know Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer from the 1964 television special you don’t know what’s in the original children’s book. I’ll tell you the gist of that story, but not until you learn how the book came into being.
During the 1930s Montgomery Ward & Company was one of the country’s leading store chains, but what with the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl many families had limited money to spend. To encourage Christmas shopping Wards gave away coloring books to those who came to their stores. In early 1939 the company decided to save money by creating and printing a small children’s book as their next Christmas promotional gift, and they asked 34-year-old Robert L. May to write an animal story in verse.
May was a copywriter who spent most of his workdays writing descriptions of products for Montgomery Ward mail-order catalogs, but he also wrote amusing rhymes that he shared with coworkers. He was a gentle man who liked helping others and, though his wife was dying of cancer, he agreed to write a Christmas story.
As a child May had been taunted for being a shy weakling, so he wanted to write about an outcast animal who triumphed in the end. He decided on a young reindeer who was teased and excluded from games because he had a big glowing red nose. He wrote and rewrote verses, which he read to his four-year-old daughter to see if she liked them.
It was slow going, because May had catalog deadlines to meet. When his wife died he was told the company could find someone else to write their giveaway book, but May said he wanted his book printed.
Summer came and he continued to work on his story about a lonely reindeer ridiculed because of his red nose. Rudolph tried to be a good reindeer, and always obeyed his parents, so he hoped Santa would bring him presents for Christmas. (Yes, Santa brings presents to all good animal children who happen to live in people-style houses, and sleep in people-style beds.)
Alas, it was such a foggy Christmas Eve that Santa had trouble guiding his sleigh, and he feared he wouldn’t finish his gift-giving rounds before morning. Then he stopped at a house and discovered a sleeping reindeer with a glowing nose. If he woke up that youngster and asked nicely, would the reindeer be willing to lead his sleigh through the fog? Spoiler alert – Rudolph helped out Santa.
May finished his story, showed it to his supervisors – and they rejected it. Drunkards were depicted as having big red noses, and Montgomery Ward did not want a book about a red-nosed reindeer. But May had worked through heartache to write his tale, and he believed children would like it. He had an artist make some drawings of a lovable young reindeer with a shiny red nose, and convinced those in charge to allow the book to be printed.
During the 1939 Christmas shopping season Montgomery Ward gave away more than two million copies of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and nary a person associated that red nose with hard drinking. No books were distributed during World War II, but by 1946 six million copies had been given away, and Rudolph was becoming an important part of the American Christmas celebration.
May began receiving offers for licensing rights on his creation, but his story belonged to Montgomery Ward & Company, for it had been written as part of his work duties. May needed extra money, for he had remarried, his family was growing, but he faced a lifetime of making payments on his deceased wife’s medical bills. He asked for all rights to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and they were given to him.
I’ve read two versions on why May received the right to make money from his Rudolph character. One is that he was a good and loyal employee, and his supervisors wanted to help him out. The other is that company officials felt that after six million copies of a dinky little book had been given away there wasn’t much chance of anyone making a profit on the story. I prefer the first version.
May’s brother-in-law Johnny Marks wrote a song about Rudolph. It was recorded by Gene Autry, who sold two million copies in 1949. Commercial publishers reprinted the book, Christmas ornaments and toys were manufactured and, starting in the 1960s, Rudolph became a holiday television superstar.
Medical debts were paid off, and May saved enough money to send his children to college. In 1951 he quit his job and spent seven years managing his Rudolph franchise, then he returned to working at Montgomery Ward until his retirement in 1971. When he died in 1976 his family inherited all rights to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which is still reaping profits.
Now you know the story behind the story of a young reindeer who overcame hardships – both his own and his creator’s – and won not only Santa’s praise, but the admiration of generations of children.