Friday, December 11, 2015

Q & A with Alex Palmer, Author of The Santa Claus Man

Alex Palmer is the author of the new history book The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York, which tells the story of a dapper con artist who used a Santa letter–answering scheme to make himself rich and famous. It’s a rollicking holiday caper that includes a kidnapping, stolen art, pursuit by the FBI, and the celebrities and famous NYC landmarks of the era. It is hard to believe the story hasn’t been told until now. I spoke with Alex about how he stumbled onto this forgotten chapter of Gotham’s Christmas past, and what inspired him to tell it. Enjoy and be sure to read on after the Q & A for more information on the book, the author, the blog tour and a special blog tour Christmas gift!
New York City and Christmas go so well together, it’s hard to believe the story of how its Santa letters came to be answered has never been told before. How did you uncover this story?
I know! I couldn’t believe it had not been told either. I first learned about the story because John Duval Gluck—the title character—is my great granduncle. On Christmas Eve in 2010, a family member mentioned the story but had only the sketchiest details. I started digging into it and found there was much more than any of us realized.
The Santa Claus Man tells how Gluck started the Santa Claus Association in 1913, gathering together volunteers to answer letters to Santa that would otherwise go to the Dead Letter Office, and this really turned into a pretty big deal.
Yeah, the group became this phenomenon—tons of articles were written about them, celebrities like John Barrymore and Mary Pickford held benefits and did publicity stunts for them, politicians like Jimmy Walker and Al Smith supported them, and the group even made plans to build a huge Santa Claus Building in the center of Manhattan. Every year, the group answered tens of thousands of letters, matching kids who wrote to Santa with generous New Yorkers who would donate gifts to answer their Christmas wishes.
And weaved through all of this is the much larger tale of how Christmas came to be the holiday we celebrate today. A few major moments in Christmas history happen during the 15 years the Santa Claus Association was operating—the first citywide Christmas tree, the World War I Christmas truce, and the inaugural Macy’s Christmas Parade. But you go further into how the holiday was really created in New York. Were you surprised about some of what you learned about the holiday’s origins?
I always thought Christmas was this European tradition that we imported directly to the U.S., but what I learned while researching was that Christmas as we celebrate it today is really a New York invention. Santa Claus (the one with a big belly, red fur coat, and jolly laugh) was devised by Clement Clarke Moore at his Chelsea estate; Santa’s workshop was created by Harper’s illustrator Thomas Nast, drawing on his own cluttered Manhattan home; even the country’s first Christmas tree farm was in Manhattan.
All that, and the many touching Santa letters you quote from, make this a fun holiday read. But you also delve into some darker territory, particularly around the main character. As the title says, he’s a con artist.

That’s right. While the Santa Claus Association began innocent enough, once Gluck found himself at the center of the city’s attention and donations began to roll in, some darker aspects of his character surfaced. I won’t spoil exactly where things go, but will just say that once Gluck dedicates himself to keeping belief in the myth of Santa alive, he is soon spinning even more elaborate fictions of his own invention—and for his own enrichment. But Gluck is wily. While his schemes catch the attention of everyone from the district attorney to the FBI, he manages to stay a step ahead of the authorities—for awhile at least.
Was that hard to investigate, the darker aspects of your own relative?
Yeah, I felt a bit guilty about taking this idealized figure that embodied “Christmas spirit,” then pulling him apart and exposing all these darker schemes and lies he told. But in the process, he became a more sympathetic and interesting character to me—not a simple hero or villain, but a real person; an ambitious guy who used the tools available to him to improve his station in life. I found I could relate to that person much more than I could the simpler, purely good figure he began as. And the more complicated character is also a lot more fun.
Publisher: Lyons Press
Publication Date: October 1st, 2015
Pages: 320
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.

Praise for The Santa Claus Man

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 entitledMama Says That Santa Claus Does Not Come to Poor People“.

Buy the Book


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. 

About the Author

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.
You can learn more about Alex Palmer on his website and connect with him on Facebook and Twitter.

TLC Book Tour for The Santa Claus Man

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. – review
Thursday, December 24th: FictionZeal – spotlight


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