This is a true story of a quiet, shy little boy of four children, whose Jewish parents lived in an upscale New York village. Born in 1905, Robert L. May was a loner who stayed to himself and considered himself a loser. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1926. In 1937, Bob moved to Chicago and took a pittance of a job – a copywriter – for the store chain, Montgomery Ward.
Every night, his terminally ill wife, Evelyn, would lie on the couch and listen to Bob as he told an ongoing story of a shy, red-nosed reindeer, to their four year old daughter, Barbara. He also included the eight other reindeer who accompanied Santa – Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen. He found these names based on the poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas”. Bob could certainly associate with Rudolph’s glowing red nose which made him a social outcast!
After his daughter’s bedtime, Bob would sit with his wife and write down what he had told his little girl. In July of ’39, Evelyn passed. The store manager insisted Bob take some time off to work on his picture book. Christmas came and the only gift he could afford to give Barbara was the storybook she dearly loved, as he had become inundated with his late wife’s medical debt.
He was invited to a business Christmas party at Montgomery Ward’s but he wasn’t interested in going. His cohorts insisted and they asked him to bring his book and read it to them. Astonished by his accomplishments, the employees cheered and applauded.
The manager of Montgomery Ward’s bought the rights for a promotional gig and sold 2.4 million story books the first year in publication in 1939. Bob, a mere writer, had struck gold!
May persuaded Montgomery Ward’s corporate president, Sewell Avery, to turn the copyright over to him in January 1947. It’s popularity could help him to pay for his medical debt. At the time, he lived in a two room apartment with his daughter and now he had fame as well as fortune.
In 1948 , Bob’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks wrote the song, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”, hoping Bing Cosby or Dina Shore would record it but they, and many others, turned it down. Finally, Gene Autry accepted the song. Within a few years, it was the second best-selling Christmas song ever!
In 1964, a television special about Rudolph produced by Rankin/Bass and narrated by Burl Ives, aired, and today it remains a popular perennial holiday favorite in the U.S. It is a classic children’s book of timeless proportions… a bedtime story of biblical proportions.
Barbara May was interviewed about her father by the Lakeland Ledger newspaper on December 26, 1981. A statement she made, describes her father’s fortitude yet complexity of his personality:
“He felt that Rudolph was something like him as a little boy, sort of scrawny and not quite accepted by the other kids on the block…. But he knew that a person had to keep going and that, somehow, perseverance and tolerance would win out.”
Truly a rags to riches story!
Enjoy this video of the original book of “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer”: