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Monday, December 5, 2016

Book Review: The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York by Alex Palmer

I had a rather unusual experience with this book in that it wasn't exactly what I was expecting (and I think the copy on the book's cover is somewhat misleading) and yet I enjoyed it nonetheless. Normally when I'm expecting one kind of book and I don't get it, that negatively impacts my reading experience, but not as much this time.

John Gluck started The Santa Claus Association in 1913 to answer the letters to Santa that normally were destroyed by the Dead Letter Office of the post office every year. He had high standards initially--eschewing cash donations and instead hooking up a needy child directly with a wealthy donor who then could directly experience the joy of giving and experiencing the impact, in a way that writing a check just does not accomplish. This also gave him a high and mighty position from which to look down on other charities which Gluck found corrupt and wasteful. He used an army of boys from the United States Boy Scouts (NOT the Boy Scouts of America, this was a competing organization where the boys were armed with guns) to investigate every letter to be sure the family was in fact needy and not a wealthy greedy kid or a grifter or some other undeserving sort. It was glamorous and Gluck appeared in the papers a lot and eventually even married an actress, vaulting into the upper echelons of society.

But his non-Santa related work was not as successful. He was arrested for promoting a bullfight in Coney Island where the bull was hurt. He got into a massive battle with the head of the BSA as he promoted the USBS (and along the way, skimmed a great deal off the donations he brought in). Eventually he ticked off a lot of people in high places and he ended up being targeted by investigation for the shady fundraising tactics he was using in his once-vaunted Santa Claus Association.

I was expecting more of a con man story like in Titanic Thompson (who would have mopped the floor with Gluck.) Gluck dreamed he was that charming and smart and tricky, but he wasn't at all. He was a guy who tried hard in the wrong ways, was moderately successful at times, and ultimately a failure, but at least he was an amusing one with a good story. I did learn along the way about the evolution of the character of Santa Claus and the Macy's parade and other Christmas traditions, although I was expecting a bit more in this area. but upon reflection, maybe that would have been too much. I did like learning about the USBS which I'd never heard of before and that was a fun bit of trivia. Overall the book was a fast read with a large helping of holiday cheer and the story of a mildly reprobate huckster who in the end was fairly harmless.

Interestingly enough, the subject of this biography is a relative of the author's. It does make one wonder if we all looked back into our family trees, what interesting characters we might shake out.

I got this book at a WNBA book swap last year in Charlotte. 

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