Robert May worked for the Montgomery Ward company as an ad man who wrote promotional material for the chain. For those of you who don’t know, “Monkey Ward” was a chain of department stores somewhat akin to Target today. Anyway, the store brass asked May to produce a story they could pass out to customers, something that would be light and entertaining and that would give the clientele a positive feeling about the company. If May could somehow tie the story into one of the holiday seasons–so much the better.
So, May began to brainstorm ideas. Easter had an appeal, and he toyed with that for a bit, but May knew that if he wanted to really tap into holiday time, his story would have to something to do with Christmas. It was the late 1930s, and May and the rest of the United States were only then beginning to emerge from the economic bombshell that was the Great Depression. Sales were increasing nationwide, people were starting to work again, and promotional items like May was asked to create were becoming more and more popular.
Well, when Robert May submitted his first story idea, his boss hated it. “Can’t you think of something better?” the boss asked. May went home that day severely depressed. He liked his story, and, when he read it to his wife, she concurred. It was a child’s tale about an animal who had been an outcast. You see, in many ways, that was Robert May’s story as well.
Born to a Jewish family on Long Island, May had first-hand experience on what it was like to be different. He managed to survive high school and win a place at Dartmouth College. His major, perhaps surprisingly, was psychology. He grew particularly interested in the psychological theories of Alfred Adler, a man who had proposed that much of human motivation stemmed from the strong desire to overcome perceived inferiority.
May had achieved success working for various department stores after his graduation from Dartmouth. He worked for Rich’s in Atlanta, Gimbel’s and Macy’s in New York City, and, finally, he and his wife moved to Chicago where he worked for Montgomery Ward. However, in almost every place he had worked, May encountered some form of prejudice because of his background, even though he was not a particularly observant practitioner of Judaism.
Adding to May’s life situation was that, in 1939, his wife, Evelyn, was diagnosed with cancer. Life had not turned out the way he had hoped. He later said that he found himself in his mid-30s, heavily in debt due to the mounting hospital bills for Evelyn, and, instead of writing the Great American Novel, he was instead writing advertising for cheap clothing and now, a promotional pamphlet for the holidays.
Turns out that May’s boss was wrong. The story was a huge success. Almost three million copies were handed out to Ward customers, and the stores couldn’t keep the little booklet in stock. World War 2 paper rationing slowed the distribution of the story somewhat, but, after the war, the holiday tale became even more popular. May even got his brother-in-law, a singer/songwriter named Johnny Marks, to pen a version of the story for a song. A huge singing and motion picture star, Gene Autry, “The Singing Cowboy,” cut the record, and it, too, became a huge success. The story has taken on a life of its own.
Couldn’t have happened to a better guy than Robert May, everyone said. If anyone deserved the success after so much adversity in his life, it was he.
Yes, and we can reasonably say that Robert May’s creation, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, would heartily agree.