Everybody knows Rudolph was the last reindeer to join Santa's crew, but few people know about the department store copywriter who brought his story to the world.
The year was 1939, the Great Depression was waning and a manager at Montgomery Ward in Chicago decided that the store should create its own children's book for the annual holiday promotion.
The boss tapped Robert L. May, an ad man for the store, to take a crack at a story. May was a hit at holiday parties for his way with limericks and parodies. But May didn't see himself as a winner. He had always felt like a bit of an outcast, and, at 35, he felt he was far from reaching his potential, pounding out catalog copy instead of writing the Great American Novel as he had always dreamed he would.
He came back with the story of an underdog, red-nosed reindeer who was in the right place at the right time — just when Santa needed a reindeer with exceptional skills. (Click to see Robert May's original Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer manuscript.)
"Can't you come up with anything better?" the boss asked, according to a May's 1975 telling in a story published in the Gettysburg Times.
But May believed in the story. He got his buddy in the art department to draw up some sketches and, together, they convinced the boss.
Months into the project, May's wife died from cancer. Robert became a widower and a single father. His boss offered to take the reindeer project off this plate. But May refused. "I needed Rudolph now more than ever," he later wrote.
The book was a hit. Montgomery Ward's printed and distributed more than 2 million copies that year at branches across the country.
While Rudolph was hitting it big, things grew worse for May. He was living on a copywriter's salary and spent years buried in debt from his wife's medical bills.
After World War II, Montgomery Ward's then-CEO Sewell Avery, for reasons that aren't exactly clear, gave May the rights to Rudolph. (His daughter tells us that the bosses never thought Rudolph had potential as more than a holiday promotion, but we'd like to think, for the sake of this cute little Christmas tale, that his humanity won him over.)
If ever there was going to be a time for May's luck to change, this would be it.
It just so happened that May's brother-in-law was a songwriter. He hadn't made it big yet, but he was getting there. May talked him into writing a song about Rudolph. That song was picked up by none other than the singing cowboy, Gene Autry. It sold more than 25 million copies and paved the way for the classic Rankin/Bass stop-animation film.
Thanks to Rudolph, Robert May's family was taken care of financially through the end of his life and beyond. And he always delighted in being the man who introduced the oddball reindeer and his triumphant tale to the world.
And as for Rudolph, well, he, as they say, went down in history.
Learn more about these archival materials from the Dartmouth Rauner Special Collections Library.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "RUDOLPH, THE RED-NOSED REINDEER")
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen. They've been hauling Santa's sleigh forever. But Rudolph, it turns out, didn't come along until 1939.
BARBARA MAY LEWIS: Rudolph was born when I was five, so I'm his big sister.
GREENE: That's Barbara May Lewis. She says sister because it was her father, Robert L. May, who introduced the world to Rudolph when she was just a little girl. Robert was a bit of an outcast, just like Rudolph. He skipped a grade or two and so was younger and smaller than his classmates. He was a nerdy kid who saw himself as a loser.
LEWIS: It was his opinion of himself that gave rise to Rudolph, I think, so all the better.
GREENE: Robert L. May always wanted to write the great American novel. As life would have it, he wound up being a catalog writer at Montgomery Ward in Chicago. The department store used to give away free books to kids each Christmas and May thought Rudolph would be a great character in one. His daughter remembers her dad laboring over words, many of which would never make it into the song we now know.
LEWIS: My father read me the manuscript of Rudolph, and what I remember was not liking the word stomach. It seemed really icky so he changed it to tummy.
GREENE: Montgomery Ward printed more than two million copies of Robert L. May's book that year. He got letters from children, teachers and store managers from across the country. Nearly a decade later, the bosses gave May the rights to the story. Barbara May Lewis said they must not have known what her dad had created.
LEWIS: They didn't know. They didn't know. It was just this silly little almost booklet.
GREENE: With help from his brother-in-law, who just happened to be a songwriter, May eventually turned that silly little booklet into a song, one picked up by a very famous cowboy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "RUDOLPH, THE RED-NOSED REINDEER")
LEWIS: Isn't it funny, with Gene Autry of all people?
GREENE: The song blew up in the charts in 1949. Next came the classic holiday film, "Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer."
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "RUDOLPH, THE RED-NOSED REINDEER")
GREENE: All together, "Rudolph" earned Robert L. May enough money to keep him and his family comfortable through the end of his life and beyond. Although the author passed away in 1976, the story of Rudolph, well, it went down in history. It continues to bring wonder and joy to children everywhere, especially those who identify with that oddball reindeer.
And Barbara gets a little twinkle in her eye at holiday time when she sees other people embracing Rudolph, people who know nothing about her connection to the reindeer.
LEWIS: I feel a little bit smug and think nobody knows who I am.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUDOLPH, THE RED-NOSED REINDEER")
GREENE: I'm looking at sketch right now from Robert L. May's original Rudolph book. It says the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and there's a drawing of this little reindeer with big ears, blue eyes, and yup, a really big red nose. You can see it at our website, NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.