“The Santa Claus Association’s business was not to distribute necessities, but to spread Christmas cheer; not to rescue poor children, but to protect their belief in Santa Claus. The idea that the holiday spirit was in danger and needed protection went back to the earliest days of Santa Claus in America.”
John Gluck Jr. was born on Christmas Day, so perhaps it was his destiny to mastermind the Santa Claus Association. He founded the charity in 1913 to ensure the letters of New York City’s children would reach the Big Man and that their wishes for a top, or some jacks, or a stick, or whatever urchins played with back then would come true. It was a noble venture. Gluck was also a conman who filled his stocking Sally Brown-style, with tens and twenties, and presumably, hundreds. The organization, and the scam, is the subject of the rollicking new yule book Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York.
Alex Palmer came across the story after finding out he was related to Gluck, a true Christmas miracle for a writer if there ever was one. He’s become an expert on the holiday season here in New York City — he wrote a spirited defense of SantaCon based on our debauched ancestral American merrymakers, for goodness sake — and Santa Claus Man is a worthy addition to the festive Gotham cacophony. It’s perfect for the person in your life who loves gifts and grifts in equal measure. Merry, merry.
Signature: Tell us about your writing career, what your focus has been…
Alex Palmer: Travel, culture, and art as general topics. Specifically, I have an interest in the hidden stories behind familiar things. I previously wrote two gift books, both were fun fact books. Literary Miscellany was about the surprising backstory of well-known books and authors, and Weird-o-pedia is the same kind of book about things like coffee or Valentine’s Day. Santa Claus Man was doubly fun because I got to look into some of the lesser-known darker elements of the history of Christmas, and because John Gluck is a relative of mine.
SIG: Did you know much about John Gluck through your family connections? Or was there more of a Eureka! moment when you realized who he was?
AP: It was actually on Christmas Day in 2010. My uncle mentioned Gluck, who was my grandma’s uncle, and she had kept in touch with him. She passed away a few years back and I’d never talked to her about Gluck, so it was the first I’d heard of him. My uncle had a 1976 Seagram’s ad that featured Clement Clark Moore, the guy who invented the Christmas card, and John Gluck. We kept it because he was a family member, but all my uncle knew is we have a relative who answered kids’ letters to Santa.
I thought that was a fun holiday story, so I looked up the Santa Claus Association and found a few articles with a positive bent. Then these other stories about how Gluck was running a potential scam appeared. I knew there was a lot there.
SIG: So nobody in your family knew the conman side of Gluck?
AP: Exactly. It was a funny project because it led me to seek out other extended family members I hadn’t previously known. I tracked down a couple of Gluck’s nieces, but neither of them knew anything about the dark side of the Santa Claus Association either. One of them remembered him from when she was a child, that Gluck was a lot of fun, made a big deal out of Halloween, and loved the holidays. But she also said you never knew what he was up to… She had a lot of affection for him, but she also recognized he wasn’t on the level and she didn’t even know about the Santa Claus Association. This was after Gluck had left New York for Miami and didn’t talk about it much.
SIG: Please explain what the Santa Claus Association was…
AP: During the early 20th-century, letters to Santa were mounting, especially in New York City where the post office would receive thousands. There was no policy, so they would end up being destroyed at the Dead Letter Office. They changed the rules to allow charities to come in and answer the letters. This is when Gluck came up with the idea for the Santa Claus Association. They would rescue the letters, send the kids a response, and match them up with New Yorkers who could get the gifts they’d requested from Santa. It was meant to keep the spirit of Christmas alive, to continue the white lie of Santa Claus for as long as possible. Gluck launched the Santa Claus Association in 1913 and it lasted fifteen years. It attracted celebrities, politicians, society ladies, etc. who helped promote it and made donations, it became a popular New York City charity.
SIG: Were you able to discern whether the Santa Claus Association was fraudulent from the get-go, or did Gluck have legitimate intentions in the beginning?
AP: From what I can tell, it was not a con from its conception. Gluck had motivations for starting it that were slightly selfish, but not criminal. He had been a customs broker and was against a lot of governmental interference, felt it was too bureaucratic, and wanted to show how effective his private philanthropy group could be free of red tape and oversight. The Santa Claus Association would be a direct connection between giver and recipient, which he used to promote himself as a savvy businessman. In the early press coverage, he calls himself an “efficiency expert.”
Gluck didn’t really like being a customs broker, he wanted to be involved in fun projects, which the Santa Claus Association was. It’s hard to tell if he had deviant plans from the start, but it seems like a hard way to go about it if all you want to do is steal people’s money. What he loved more than anything was the attention. He had a hunger for fame that seems to be his tragic flaw. Gluck can’t help himself in that way, but I don’t think greed for money was the driving factor.
SIG: Do you have any idea how much money he scammed running the Santa Claus Association?
AP: It’s hard to come up with an exact figure because he was so unreliable in reporting of the money they brought in. The annual donations were in the tens of thousands, particularly in the later years, so I’d say Gluck probably pocketed $100,000. It wasn’t a huge amount. There were men raking in millions pretending to do good, it was the age of Charles Ponzi after all. Comparatively, Gluck’s sum was modest.
SIG: The Santa Claus Association, at least early on, was successful in its mission, right?
AP: Absolutely. Every kid who wrote in got an answer, and thousands of gifts were delivered. Gluck preyed on people’s generosity and holiday spirit, but his charity was never an entirely negative thing. Even in the later years, when the Santa Claus Association became more of a fund-raising scheme, letters were answered, and presents were dispensed.
Interestingly, Gluck basically provided the blueprint for Operation Santa Claus, which was set up in New York City in 1962 and went national in 2006. The Postal Service basically plays the role of air traffic controller, directing letters and gifts to recipients, but all the work is done by volunteers. Something good and lasting came out of Gluck’s con.
SIG: One truism I’ve found living in New York City all these years, is that it really is amazing during the holiday season, but I was unaware at just how much of our current Christmas sensibility comes from here…
AP: Researching the Christmas history was a lot of fun, especially the early stuff, all the ways Washington Irving, John Pintard, and of course, Clement Clarke Moore helped in the evolution of Santa Claus. The modern Christmas was shaped in New York City: The first Christmas tree farm was near where the World Trade Center is now, the first public tree was lit up in Madison Square Park, the Coca-Cola Santa claus ads that came from Madison Ave…It’s fascinating and New York City has really earned its reputation as the best place for Christmas. Although it’s been a weird season, I’m flying to California and I think it’ll be colder than New York.
SIG: Another 21st-century resonance in Santa Claus Man is how direct internet charities like GoFundMe harken back to Gluck’s vision…
AP: Gluck was crowdsourcing charity before that was a thing with microloans. The genius of the Santa Claus Association was that it tapped into the satisfaction you get when you see who you’re helping. It’s a timeless truth of philanthropy and goodwill, you’re more motivated if you can see the results of your money. Gluck cut out the middleman, but also the oversight. On Facebook, I’ll see naked appeals for money, and I’d like to believe they’re legit, but researching Santa Claus Man has made me much more skeptical.
SIG: On the other hand, you have large established charitable organizations that are suppose to be trustworthy, but then you find out the Red Cross wasted half a billion dollars in Haiti…
AP: It remains a relevant question. Oversight is important, but is it to the level where all the money is going to overhead? There is also the old question of how much are we helping people. Back in Gluck’s day, the groups opposed to writing letters to Santa Claus — yes, they existed — felt that it wasn’t verified whether the kids needed gifts bought for them. Or even worse, that this was begging and encouraged bad habits that will stick with the kids into their adulthood, the “takers versus makers” argument you hear today.
SIG: Speaking of interesting groups of the Jazz Age, enlighten us about SPUG…
AP: The Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving. The members of SPUG, including Teddy Roosevelt, felt that Christmas had gotten out of hand. People were expected to give gifts to everybody, colleagues, friends, etc. They encouraged people not to give, that it was more noble to opt-out of exchanging presents. It’s telling that SPUG was founded in 1912, and then in 1913, the U.S. Postal Service started its parcel post offering. People could mail packages more cheaply than ever before all across the country. Suddenly, it was easier than ever to send gifts. SPUG kept up the fight for another decade or so, but they definitely lost in the end. It was the original War on Christmas.
SIG: Did writing Santa Claus Man make you appreciate Christmas in any new ways?
AP: Now when I see a Santa, I see the whole evolution and complexity of the character. I like the variety of Santas, especially ones that are out of the norm. I was at Rolf’s recently, which is a German restaurant in Manhattan that’s known for its really elaborate Christmas decorations, and they have all these vintage Santas. I saw one wearing a green robe and I wanted to know what era it was from, try to identify its history. Before the book, it would have all just been generic holiday decorations to me.
SIG: If you could ask John Gluck a question or two, what would it be?
AP: I would want to know, if in the end, does he feel proud of the Santa Claus Association? Was the good he did worth the humiliation? Did The Santa Claus Association fulfill his original goals for starting it?
SIG: Lastly, if Santa Claus gives you the gift of a movie version of your book, who would you want to play John Gluck?
AP: Gluck would want someone super charming, a guy with a big smile, so I’m sure he’d choose George Clooney. I lean more toward a comedic figure with delusions of grandeur, so I’ll go with Paul Giamatti.