28 December 2015

A Con Man in Old New York

The Santa Claus Man, Alex Palmer
John Duval Gluck was just another businessman, toiling as the head of a importing business like his father before him, rather bored with the process. He wanted to do Something Big, and he eventually did: he made children's dreams come true for a short time in the 1920s.

Before Gluck, New York City children's letters to Santa Claus ended up in the "dead letter" office at the central post office. Gluck, bypassing the usual fundraising methods, forms "the Santa Claus Association," which takes the children's letters and matches them up with wealthy or just financially well-off contributors who will buy gifts requested in those letters after Gluck's association checks out if the children are really in need.

It sounded like a wonderful idea and indeed some children did receive "a Christmas" because of it. But as always happens when human beings are involved, human corruption reared its proverbial evil head. Was the "selfless" Gluck really as portrayed, or is he profiting from the "poor kiddies"?

The best part about this book is the portrait of New York City between 1913 and the early 1930s, and the weaving in of the role New Yorkers like Washington Irving, Clement Moore, Thomas Nast, and Francis Church had in how Christmas is celebrated today, not just in NYC, but all over the United States. The most fascinating part is the lost history of a rival group to the Boy Scouts of America, the "U S Boy Scout," an organization I had never heard about, a more militaristic group which John Duval Gluck got himself involved with, and which the BSA despised. Along the way we meet Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, end up in a classic hotel and the Woolworth Building, and make the acquaintance of the man who was Gluck's downfall, Bird Coler.

I can't say I was absolutely bowled over by Gluck's story, but I loved the historical background and all the great photographs!

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