Journalist and author.

The Santa Claus Man

New York Times Best Seller
#1 Amazon Best Seller
Barnes & Noble

Posted on January 09, 2017

This is a pretty cool way to start 2017. I just learned The Santa Claus Man is a New York Times Best Seller. It hit #8 on the E-Book Nonfiction list, even edging out Bruce Springsteen and Hamilton. Sure, it's just for one week, and was helped by a Kindle promotion that I had little to do with. But getting on the NYT list has been a far-off goal of mine since I started writing for a living, so it's a bit surreal to see it on there. Feels especially cool since the book has been out for more than a year — a good reminder that stories can continue finding readers long after their initial release, and that sometimes persistence pays off. Here's to more good news in 2017!

Posted on December 30, 2016

Whitehall is a stunning mansion in West Palm Beach, FL that was formerly the estate of oil baron Henry Morrison Flagler. Originally built in 1902, it's since become a museum to Flagler's life and accomplishments and houses his vast collection of Gilded Age furnishings and objects, and is now a National Historic Landmark. They also throw quite a Christmas party. I got to experience Christmas at Whitehall first-hand as the guest lecturer. I talked about the history of Santa letters, origin of Santa Claus, and rise and fall of the Santa Claus Association. It was a packed house and a great audience, and afterwards I had the chance to wander the halls of the mansion, checking out the vintage Christmas decorations, listening to live organ and choral performances, and watching the annual Christmas Tree Lighting (done by the youngest descendants of Flagler himself). Here's video of the lecture:

Posted on December 28, 2016

I had a great time chatting about John Gluck and the shadier aspects of the Santa Claus Association with Erik Rivenes on his podcast, Most Notorious! Usually when I’ve discussed The Santa Claus Man, it’s been about the cheerier holiday aspects of the story. It was fun for this true-crime podcast to delve more into the criminal elements of the tale: How a thief stole a valuable painting from the Santa Claus Association (before returning it months later), how Gluck helped rescue a kidnapped child with the help of the Association and the Boy Scouts, and a few other fun details of the story.

Give it a listen here:

Posted on December 24, 2016

I got a chance to talk Santa Claus Man on the Art of Manliness podcast. We got into a lot more than the story itself, talking about the origins of Christmas, Boy Scout rivalries, and the craziness of the Jazz Age. It was a lot of fun, and the whole show is here or you can listen below:

Posted on December 01, 2016

Santa Claus AssociationForbes just posted a history of Santa letters, with some great tidbits, including a bit about The Santa Claus Man himself:

In 1913, customs broker John Gluck launched the Santa Claus Association, which coordinated the answering of tens of thousands of letters each year, matching children’s requests with individual New Yorkers who often hand-delivered the gifts to the letter writers. The effort earned accolades from the press, public and celebrities including John Barrymore and Mary Pickford.But over a decade later, it was learned that much of the largesse was unaccounted for. Greedy Gluck was found to have kept much of the money for himself, so the Association’s right to receive Santa’s mail was rescinded and more restrictions were placed upon the groups that could receive the letters. Thus, the Post Office Department, as it was known back then, established Operation Santa Claus, which was formalized in 2006 by the Postmaster General who set up guidelines for all post offices that took part. Gift donors now must present photo ID, and children’s names and addresses are kept private via a numbering system that assigns delivery locations.

Read the full story here.

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.

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