Journalist and author.

Out Now: The Santa Claus Man

Santa Claus
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Posted on December 29, 2015

Had a fun chat with Patrick Sauer over at Signature Reads (formerly Biographile) about The Santa Claus Man. We touched on how Gluck was a pioneer of crowdsourced fundraising, the charms of Christmas in New York, and who might play Gluck in the movie version of the book. On a separate note, Patrick wrote this excellent piece for Smithsonian about the country's first mass shooting. I'd read it ahead of our interview without realizing he was the author, so it was cool to be able to discuss it with him. Here is a chunk of our conversation about The Santa Claus Man:

SIG: Were you able to discern whether the Santa Claus Association was fraudulent from the get-go, or did Gluck have legitimate intentions in the beginning?

AP: From what I can tell, it was not a con from its conception. Gluck had motivations for starting it that were slightly selfish, but not criminal. He had been a customs broker and was against a lot of governmental interference, felt it was too bureaucratic, and wanted to show how effective his private philanthropy group could be free of red tape and oversight. The Santa Claus Association would be a direct connection between giver and recipient, which he used to promote himself as a savvy businessman. In the early press coverage, he calls himself an “efficiency expert.”

Gluck didn’t really like being a customs broker, he wanted to be involved in fun projects, which the Santa Claus Association was. It’s hard to tell if he had deviant plans from the start, but it seems like a hard way to go about it if all you want to do is steal people’s money. What he loved more than anything was the attention. He had a hunger for fame that seems to be his tragic flaw. Gluck can’t help himself in that way, but I don’t think greed for money was the driving factor.

SIG: One truism I’ve found living in New York City all these years, is that it really is amazing during the holiday season, but I was unaware at just how much of our current Christmas sensibility comes from here…

AP: Researching the Christmas history was a lot of fun, especially the early stuff, all the ways Washington Irving, John Pintard, and of course, Clement Clarke Moore helped in the evolution of Santa Claus. The modern Christmas was shaped in New York City: The first Christmas tree farm was near where the World Trade Center is now, the first public tree was lit up in Madison Square Park, the Coca-Cola Santa claus ads that came from Madison Ave…It’s fascinating and New York City has really earned its reputation as the best place for Christmas. Although it’s been a weird season, I’m flying to California and I think it’ll be colder than New York.

Read the rest at Signature Reads.

Posted on December 25, 2015

Big belly, red fur coat, beard; the image of Santa Claus has been pretty firmly set for much of the 20th century. But Santa used to look quite different from the familiar fellow we know today. He used to be skinny, then he was tiny, and in some cases he rode in a flying blimp or wore a three-cornered hat. So the next time you hear the tune “Here Comes Santa Claus,” try imagining if one of these alternative early Santas showed up instead.

This is a particularly weird example of the playful versions of Santa that would be replaced soon enough. When Swedish singer Jenny Lind toured the U.S. in 1850, her promoter, P.T. Barnum, created this pamphlet (along with a variety of other Lind-related merchandise) to help generate interest in her shows. While the pamphlet describes Santa as a fellow with pockets full of presents who flies down the chimney, little else resembles the modern version of Santa. He wears a three-cornered hat and looks like an 18th-century patriot. He rides with Lind on a broomstick and goes up to a mountaintop, declaring, “I am dancing a jig, I am having a freak.” Barnum’s Santa reflects how undefined the character remained through the mid-1800s.

Read about nine more strange Santas at Mental Floss.

Posted on December 23, 2015

For BBC History Magazine's History Extra, I told the story of John Gluck and the Santa Claus Association.

Every year throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as certain as snowflakes fell onto the city streets, a growing mountain of Santa letters ended up at post offices across America. Thanks to a change in Post Office Department policy in 1911, these letters began to be answered by charity groups approved by the local postmaster. But in New York City, the largest city in the country, Santa was nowhere to be found.

“Santa Claus is Tardy Saint,” read the front page of The Sun a week before Christmas Eve. “Mail Men Disown Santa,” read the Tribune. Two years went by with New York City’s Santa letters ending up at the dead letter office [a facility within a postal system where undeliverable mail is dealt with], and as the days of December 1913 ticked away, it began to look like Santa would again be a no-show.

But on 8 December, New York City’s postmaster, Edward M Morgan, received a call about a clever customs broker with a carefully conceived system for receiving, verifying and responding to children’s Christmas wishes. Despite the postmaster’s workload in the midst of the holiday season – or perhaps because he had too much on his mind to take extra time vetting the one man who had stepped forward to play Santa – Morgan quickly granted the man’s request. New York City now had a Santa Claus, the newspapers joyfully reported. However, it would turn out that the city had got more than it bargained for.

The customs broker-turned-Santa was John Duval Gluck, Jr – a bachelor with no children of his own. While Gluck’s imagination and abundant energy added a sense of fancy to his day-to-day life, it also created restlessness in him and a hunger to do something greater with his life. He read about the change in the US Post Office Department policy, and believed his fundraising background – and work investigating customs claims – provided him with the unique skills to effectively manage Santa’s mail.

Gluck’s idea, the Santa Claus Association, worked strictly as a bottom-up operation. New Yorkers of any means could take a letter – or 100 of them if they liked – and personally see that the child received his or her gift. The donors (and the children hopeful enough to write to Santa in the first place), did the real work. Gluck’s association just helped to connect them. From the association’s office in the back of a Manhattan steakhouse, Gluck told reporters that this approach ensured the city’s generosity “is flung wide with a generous hand, rather than doled out with the smugness of self-satisfied benevolence”.

Read the full story at History Extra.

Posted on December 23, 2015

Christmas came early for me this year. On December 23, I had the exciting experience of speaking with public-radio titan Warren Olney about historic controversies over Santa letters and the story of John Gluck. He asked some great questions and we had a fast, fun chat. Having lived for years just a few minutes from the KCRW studios, and having listened to the station while in Los Angeles, it was a particular treat. Here's the segment:

Posted on December 22, 2015

I've been an avid listener and fan of The Bowery Boys for years. If you like New York City history — from understanding the hidden stories behind familiar landmarks to some of the forgotten or quirky chapters of Gotham's history — this show is tough to beat (the ghost-story Halloween episodes remain among my favorites). So it was especially thrilling to see The Santa Claus Man featured on The Bowery Boys' list of "Ten Favorite New York City History Books for 2015," along with some other terrific books, such as Erik Larson's Dead Wake and Louis J. and John Parascandola's Coney Island Reader. Happy to be in such good company. Here's what the Bowery Boys had to say:

In 1913 John D. Gluck seemed to conjure up a genius solution for handling those piles of Santa Claus letters written by needy children. Following the Gilded Age, New York City was filled with wealthy residents interested in charitable concerns. Why not bring the two together via his very own Santa Claus Association?

But Mr. Gluck would have topped Santa’s naughty list, concocting one of the most shocking scams of the early 20th century. Palmer, the great grandnephew of Mr. Gluck, turns this surprising tale into a fast and clever romp through New York, racing from the newly built Woolworth Building to the most famous department store of its day – Macy’s. The Santa Claus Man is a rich, sensational story of holiday spirit corrupted by audacity and greed, fueled by the media at the dawning of the Jazz Age.

Read the rest of the Top 10 at the Bowery Boys.

Posted on December 22, 2015

I had a very enjoyable chat about The Santa Claus Man with Elliot Blair Smith, who's been covering business and financial malfeasance for Bloomberg, USA Today, and other outlets. For MarketWatch, we discussed what lessons The Santa Claus Man may provide for charities and would-be donors today.

Proving that human nature is all but impervious to progress, Gluck was very much a modern man, who would do well today in politics (he was a persuasive letter writer to U.S. presidents, who took him seriously) and at finance (he owned his own brokerage, at one time). From the heart of every self-promoting scheme, the Santa Claus Man followed this resonant strategy, Palmer writes:

“Draft a letter that touches a deep emotion, buttress it with a long list of impressive names and claims, send it far and wide using (a) growing list of donor names, and wait for the checks to roll in.”

What grasping public servant or money manager wouldn’t want a man like Gluck at the ready?

Never fear, Gluck—with his freshly waxed moustache, taste for high living, and lascivious taste for younger women — confronted his own scourges. They included the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving, which formed at about the same time as his Santa Claus Association did, promoting a decidedly anti-Christmas mantra; and New York City’s public welfare commissioner Bird Coler, who had no charity in his heart for Gluck’s scheme of taking from the rich, and giving to himself.

“To Coler,” Palmer writes, “the holiday season was not a time for sentimentality but for wariness. He looked out from his 10-floor office window and saw a Wild West in need of a sheriff.”

About the time Macy’s was throwing its first Christmas parades, the paths of Gluck and Coler were converging, and soon would collide. Of course, local authorities from the district attorney’s office to the U.S. Secret Service had investigated Gluck before, and never laid a glove upon him.

Coler’s shrewd financial acumen, and personal integrity, had ensured the successful integration of New York’s loose-limbed five boroughs into one city, back in 1898. But in perhaps the ultimate injustice, he was now out of political favor in Gotham City, and about to lose his job. Can you believe it?

Read the full story at MarketWatch.

Posted on December 17, 2015

The Santa Claus Man got a terrific review in Library Journal. Beth Farrell, of the Cleveland State University Law Library, had these kind words to say about the book and Eric Michael Summerer's performance on the audiobook:

Palmer (Weird-o-Pedia) offers an engaging history of early 20th-century New York City and the modern notion of Santa Claus, as well as an entertaining biography of his great-grand uncle John Duval Gluck Jr. In 1913, after learning that hundreds of letters written by New York City’s children to Santa went unanswered every year, Gluck formed the Santa Claus Association, receiving the blessing of the U.S. Postal Service. Gluck, a small-time businessman who had inherited his father’s custom brokerage firm, assembled a team of volunteers who carefully read each letter, flagging any requests that seemed to be from children of means, any repeat requests, or any accounts of starvation, homelessness, or abuse; these latter were forwarded to the Public Charities Commission for further investigation. Letters that successfully made it through the initial screening process were matched up with volunteer donors who had agreed to buy presents for needy children. It was a well-oiled philanthropic machine—until the con man in Gluck couldn’t resist using the charity to gather and promote side business opportunities, increase his standing in New York society, and, eventually, just flat-out line his pockets. Intriguing stories of stolen art, gun-toting Boy Scouts, a child’s kidnapping, Clement Clarke Moore’s writing of A Visit from St Nicholas and the World War I Christmas Day armistice are among the many stories woven into Palmer’s larger account of how Christmas evolved into the celebration we now know. Eric Michael Summerer smoothly delivers this thoroughly enjoyable work.

Verdict Highly recommended for history fans.

Posted on December 16, 2015

Ed Wilkinson, editor of The Tablet, used The Santa Claus Man as a jumping-off point to discuss charitable giving this holiday season and the importance of ensuring donations go to those who most need them. It was a treat to read and shows how these issues remain as important now as they were a century ago:

I just finished reading a book titled “The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York.”

The author is Alex Palmer and the main subject is John Duvall Gluck, Jr., a distant relative of the author.

Palmer traces the exploits of a talented public relations man of the early 20th century from his well-intentioned formation of the Santa Claus Association to his eventual exposure as a con man who is fleecing the public in the name of Christmas.

Prior to the Santa Claus Association, letters to Santa received by the main branch of the Post Office in Manhattan were discarded. Gluck took it upon himself to have the Post Office designate his group as the recipient of those letters and he then tried to match up worthy requests with well-heeled citizens.

Along the way, Palmer takes the reader on an interesting and informative history of how Christmas has become the monster holiday that it is in New York. The reader is treated to stories about bull fights in Coney Island, the origins of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, the creation of the Boy Scouts of America, the beginnings of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, originally named the Christmas Parade, and many other interesting tidbits about life in New York.

Eventually, the PR man allows greed and excess to get in the way and after about 10 years, the Santa Claus Association becomes the subject of various investigations that eventually blow the lid off the charismatic figure as a con man and paves the way for the exposure of the Santa Claus Association as a money-making scheme that mostly profits Gluck.

I was intrigued by the story because we here at The Tablet are in the midst of our Bright Christmas Campaign that seeks to ensure a Christmas celebration for the neediest kids and families in the diocese. Thank God, there has never been any question about how we use the donations sent to us by readers. We have been transparent about how we distribute the funds. The money is sent to priests, sisters and lay leaders in diocesan organizations in Brooklyn and Queens to assist those in their care at Christmas. For the past several weeks, we have been telling you about the different parties, pageants and presents that Bright Christmas sponsors.

So far this season, we have collected more than $67,000 – slightly behind last year’s pace –but we expect to be able to surpass the $100,000 mark again this year. Less than 6 percent of the amount received is used to pay for postage and printing costs. The rest goes to the parishes and agencies that are in direct touch with moms and dads and children.

While we are still in the process of sending out checks, we already are receiving thank-you notes like the one from Sister Woohee Sofie Lee, S.F.M.A., at Trinity Human Services in Williamsburg.

“Your grant will help us provide Christmas gifts for many children in our neighborhood,” she writes. “This year, we are planning to serve over 400 children at our Christmas party.”

The Santa Claus Man met his demise but fortunately, people like yourselves enable us today to brighten Christmas for many families and children in Brooklyn and Queens. We are still collecting funds. If you haven’t already contributed, send your check – made out to DeSales Media Group with a notation for Bright Christmas – to The Tablet’s Bright Christmas, 1712 Tenth Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y. 11215.

Posted on December 12, 2015

This weekend, groups of twenty- and thirtysomethings decked out in cheap Santa costumes will march drunkenly through the streets of New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other cities. These roving bands of merrymakers began as a novel distraction from the usual holiday shopping and family gatherings. But over two decades, SantaCon has morphed into something more exasperating, and the same people that once embraced the event have started calling for an end to the shenanigans.

The public’s annoyance with SantaCon is understandable. Started in San Francisco in 1994 as a one-off act of performance art meant to “take Christmas back from consumerists,” as co-creator John Law described it to the Village Voice last year, it has mutated into something much larger and louder. Where Law and his friends had dropped in on a Macy’s and high-class ball at the Fairmont Hotel, the thousands of Santas joining in the fun more recently stumble only from one bar to the next. Instead of singing carols and dancing with old ladies, like the original SantaCon crew, these dollar-store Santas must be warned not to “roam the streets urinating, littering, vomiting, and vandalizing,” as New York Police Department Lt. John Cocchi wrote in a release. It’s become a sloppier and less creative Halloween parade. St. Patrick’s Day with jingle bells.

Last year, the bars of Bushwick, Brooklyn, banned the event. A group called Boycott SantaCon launched a campaign urging local business owners to “prohibit from your bar anyone dressed as Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, sexy Claus, elves, sexy elves, reindeer, sexy reindeer, snowmen, sexy snowmen, candy canes, sexy candy canes, Krampus, sexy Krampus, or any other holiday-themed costume or sexy variant of that costume.” This year, controversy has flared in San Francisco, where bar and restaurant owners have been placing signs in their windows reading “No Love for SantaCon.”

But while these Santas clearly need some boundaries, critics go too far in pushing to ban the event altogether. Two years ago, Jason O. Gilbert wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times that, “SantaCon is distinctive, and arguably impressive, in that it contributes absolutely zero value—cultural, artistic, aesthetic, diversionary, culinary or political—to its host neighborhood. Quite simply, SantaCon is a parasite.”

This is not totally fair. In fact, the debauched idiocy of SantaCon offers spectators some surprising cultural and historic value. Specifically, it serves as a peek into how Christmas began in the United States. Despite complaints that these sloppy Santas degrade the holidays, they actually embody their original spirit in many ways.

Read the rest at Slate.

Posted on December 08, 2015

I love reading classics like A Christmas Carol or The Gift of the Magi around the holidays (not to mention watching movies like A Christmas Story or Scrooged, considered a classic among my family members). But while fictional tales of Christmas spirit go great with spiced cider and the scent of evergreen, I find that nothing beats true holiday stories. That’s what initially drew me to tell the true story in my new book The Santa Claus Man, about a clever New York publicist who created a group that answered thousands of children’s Santa letters. In researching the book, I encountered a number of other fun and fascinating true holiday stories. From tales of real-life Santas and Christmas charity, to the histories behind familiar holiday traditions, here are some nonfiction titles that will add to your holiday cheer.

General Washington’s Christmas Farewell by Stanley Weintraub

If you think you’re happy to get some time off with your family around the holidays, imagine how General George Washington felt in 1783, when he learned a peace treaty had been signed with England and that he could return home at the end of the Revolutionary War. Weintraub takes the reader back to this moment, as the war hero travels through New York City, Philadelphia, and Annapolis, bidding farewell to his soldiers and choosing not to assume a position as virtual king of the US, but instead to head to Mount Vernon for the holidays.

A Secret Gift by Ted Gup

In 1933, during the worst of the Great Depression, a Romanian immigrant living in Canton, Ohio, set out to bring some Christmas cheer to dozens of families, placing an ad in the local newspaper, offering cash to those in need. While the story would make for a touching holiday tale on its own, almost as fascinating is the family investigation the author undertakes, as the lead character is his own grandfather. Delving into aspects he never knew about his relative, and interviewing many of the descendants of those helped by the generosity, Gup offers an uplifting story ideal for when family is gathered during Christmas.

Read the rest at BookBub.

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