Christmas Classics PERSON OF THE DAY: Robert Lewis May

August 10th, 2013

On this day in 1976, Robert Lewis May died. His fame rests as the author who in 1939 wrote the story of Rudolph for which his brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote a tune in 1948  titled Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. By the following year it was released as a recording, one that would become one of the most successful Christmas songs of all time.

How Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer became a huge success began as a simple request by Robert May’s boss at Montgomery Ward, the mail-order giant. The advertising executive asked May, the department’s copywriter, to write a cherry Christmas story in booklet form with an animal theme for its customers. In previous years Montgomery Ward gave away coloring books to its customers, but decided in 1939 to create its own booklet to save money.

At the time May was beset with problems at home. His wife, Evelyn, was suffering from an advanced case of cancer. His station in life was considerably less than what he had been used to. Raised in an affluent Jewish family in New Rochelle, New York, and graduating from Dartmouth College in 1926 with Phi Beta Kappa honors, his road ahead seemed quite promising. Then the stock market crashed in 1929 and with it the loss of his family’s wealth. Sometime during the 1930s he moved to Chicago, taking on a low-paying job as a copywriter for Montgomery Ward.

May took to the task and began the story of Rudolph in earnest. Drawing upon his memory as a painfully shy child, he decided to use a singular reindeer as the main character for the story. He was also mindful that his daughter Barbara loved the reindeer at the Chicago Zoo. It was during that early stage of writing Rudolph in July 1939 when Evelyn died. In light of her death, May’s boss offered him release from the story assignment, but May refused. Spurred on by grief and by his daughter’s encouragement, May wrote and rewrote the story, constantly reading it to Barbara for her approval until both agreed in late August 1939 that the final version was ready for Montgomery Ward.

The story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was first distributed to 2.4 million store customers during the 1939 Christmas season. They loved it! Due to World War II restrictions and the consequent shortage of paper, it wasn’t until 1946 when the company reissued the story to the tune of 3.6 million copies.

Although Montgomery Ward owned the copyright to the Rudolph story and despite the story’s tremendous appeal, Sewell Avery, the company president, as a gesture of eternal gratitude gave May the copyright to the story. Rudolph eventually was updated and published in 1947 as a colorfully illustrated book by a small New York publishing company.  It became an instant best-seller.

May eventually married an employee of Montgomery Ward. Her name was Virginia, a devout Catholic, and together they had five children. May was also famous for  growing the most amazing tomatoes, some of which grew to 12 feet tall. His fame,though, largely rests for penning a favorite holiday story that was borne out of grief and a sense of not belonging, ultimately becoming triumphant through the love of a child.

Robert L. May

Robert L. May