Robert L. May

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Robert L. May (July 27, 1905 – August 10, 1976) was the creator of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Life and work[edit]

Robert May grew up in an affluent, secular Jewish home in New Rochelle, New York.[1][2] He had a brother and two sisters. One of the sisters, Evelyn May, is the grandmother of the well-known economist Steven D. Levitt, who wrote the book Freakonomics.[3] The other sister, Margaret, married songwriter Johnny Marks in 1947.[1] May graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College in 1926.

May's parents were hard hit by the Great Depression (1929) and lost their wealth.[1] Sometime in the 1930s, May moved to Chicago and took a job as a low-paid in-house advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward. In early 1939, May's boss at Montgomery Ward asked him to write a "cheery" Christmas book for shoppers and suggested that an animal be the star of the book.[1] Montgomery Ward had been buying and giving away coloring books for Christmas every year and it was decided that creating their own book would save money and be a nice good-will gesture.[1]

May's wife, Evelyn, had contracted cancer in 1937 and was quite ill as he started on the book in early 1939.[1] May "drew on memories of his own painfully shy childhood when creating his Rudolph stories."[4] He decided on making a reindeer the central character of the book because his then four-year-old daughter, Barbara, loved the deer in the Chicago zoo.[1] He ran verses and chapters of the Rudolph poem by Barbara to make sure they entertained children. The final version of the poem was first read to Barbara and his wife's parents.[1]

Evelyn May died in July 1939. She is interred at Saint Joseph Cemetery, River Grove, Cook County, Illinois. His boss offered to take him off the book assignment in light of his wife's death. May refused and completed the poem in August 1939. The Rudolph poem booklet was first distributed during the 1939 holiday season. Shoppers loved the poem and 2.4 million copies were distributed.[1] War time restrictions on paper use prevented a re-issue until 1946. In that year, another 3.6 million copies were distributed to Montgomery Ward shoppers.[1]

In 1946, May received an offer from a company that wanted to do a spoken-word record of the poem.[1] May could not give his approval (and be compensated) because Montgomery Ward held the rights to the poem. In late 1946 or early 1947, Sewell Avery, the company's president, gave the copyright to the poem to May, free and clear. The spoken-word version of the poem was a sales success.[1]

In 1947, Harry Elbaum, the head of Maxton Publishers, a small New York publishing company, took a chance and put out an updated print edition of the Rudolph (poem) book. Other publishers had passed on the book, believing that the distribution of millions of free copies had ruined the market.[1] The book was a best seller.[1]

In 1948, May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote (words and music) an adaptation of Rudolph. Though the song was turned down by such popular vocalists as Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore, it was recorded by the singing cowboy Gene Autry.[1] "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was released in 1949 and became a phenomenal success, selling more records than any other Christmas song, with the exception of "White Christmas".[5]

In 1941, May married Virginia, another Ward employee, and had five children with her. She was a devout Catholic, and he converted to Catholicism during the marriage.

May wrote two sequels to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The first is mostly in prose (except that Rudolph speaks in anapestic tetrameter), written in 1947 but only published posthumously as Rudolph's Second Christmas (1992), and subsequently with the title Rudolph to the Rescue (2006). The second sequel is entirely in anapaestic tetrameter like the original: Rudolph Shines Again (1954). May also published four other children's books: Benny the Bunny Liked Beans (1940), Winking Willie (1948), The Fighting Tenderfoot (1954), and Sam the Scared-est Scarecrow (1972).[6]

May told his story of the writing of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" in his article "Robert May Tells how Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer Came into Being" from the Gettysburg Times published on December 22, 1975.[7]

May died on August 10, 1976.

May is interred at Saint Joseph Cemetery, River Grove, Cook County, IL.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Bloom, Nate (11 December 2011). "Shining a Light on the Largely Untold Story of the Origins of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer"., Inc. Archived from the original on 13 December 2019. Retrieved 13 December 2019.
  2. ^ Bloom, Nate (December 22, 2014). "All those Holiday/Christmas Songs: So Many Jewish Songwriters!". Jewish World Review.
  3. ^ The Probability that a Real-Estate Agent is Cheating You (and other riddles of modern life): Inside the curious mind of the heralded young economist Steven Levitt by Stephen J. Dubner, New York Times Magazine, August 3, 2003
  4. ^ Robert L. May, Rudolph's Second Christmas, Applewood Books, 1992, dust jacket back flap. ISBN 1-55709-192-7
  5. ^ Mikkelson, David. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer". snopes. Retrieved 2016-10-14.
  6. ^ "May, Robert L. 1905-1976 (Robert Lewis) [WorldCat Identities]".
  7. ^ "Gettysburg Times - Google News Archive Search".

External links[edit]