Book Review: The Santa Claus Man
One of my most beloved books that I own is Yes, Virginia There is a Santa Claus. I think “Santa” probably brought it when I was beginning to question his existence and this small book included the original 1897 letter in the New York Sun, the editor’s response, and various other bits of historic Christmas stories to prove Santa Claus was a real thing ( guess the historian in me started early!)
So when I saw the book The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York by Alex Palmer, I was definitely intrigued for much the same reasons the Virginia book still appeals to me. It was perfect timing in my reading cycle too because I was on the hunt for some interesting nonfiction.
The book centers around the dynamic personality of John Duval Gluck, Jr., an enterprising businessman ( really he was a con!) who, after learning in the 1910s that the Post Office threw away letters to Santa, founded the Santa Claus Association. This group read every letter and then worked to find ways, through donations and kind members of society, to provide some of these gifts to less fortunate children. Sounds like an amazing, altruistic endeavor, right?
Of course, the truth was that Gluck’s organization was not exactly doing as much amazing work as they claimed. Gluck used a lot of the donated funds for his own purposes and led quite a celebrity, high-class lifestyle. Various authorities became involved and the fraud of the Santa Claus Association was revealed.
I highly recommend the book, even though I’m still about 75 pages from being done! My lack of completion for the review is actually because I’m enjoying the book so much, I’ve been taking notes and doing research on names and events that I didn’t know much about– even though I’ve studied the “Jazz Age” and 1920s New York, this book’s focus on cultural and social history bits of that time period was just as fascinating as the actual Gluck story, particularly about the commercialization/popularization of Christmas and the origins of many things that still occur today like Christmas parades. I found myself stopping to read many things to Q, which definitely slowed down my reading too.
It’s fascinating/mind boggling to me that before Gluck came around to find a home for all these letters to Santa that they went in the trash– how sad! Even though Gluck was not the most honest guy, it seems clear from the stories the family has that he wasn’t an entirely horrible person. I think his intentions were admirable in the beginning of the Santa Claus Association, but fame and success clouded his judgement and business practices.
Palmer is related to the late Gluck which gave him access to family members and personal stories that may have not been revealed if another writer undertook this project. I appreciated the readable narrative- often times when I’m reading a nonfiction book, I find myself skimming a lot of the contextual information because it’s too dry or verbose, but I think Palmer did a great job of making the facts interesting, relevant, and accessible. There were some great vintage photographs that were interspersed with the text; I appreciate that as a reader and historian since I like to see the people/places I’m reading about as it happens instead of always flipping to a middle or back of the book photo section.
I think a person who likes a more popular history, nonfiction read will enjoy this book or even someone who has an interest in reading in about lesser known people of history. Here’s a brief review in the NY Times of the book too!
If the book description or my review make you want to buy this book for someone on your shopping list this holiday season, a free Santa bookplate signed by the author, plus two vintage Santa Claus Association holiday seals are available with book purchase. Just email proof of purchase (online receipt, photo of bookstore receipt, etc.) along with the mailing address where you’d like the gift sent to firstname.lastname@example.org before December 21 to guarantee delivery by Christmas.
As part of the TLC Book Tour of this book, I was provided an advanced copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. All opinions are my own.