Send to Friend  Bookmark  Print

Shining a Light on the Largely Untold Story of the Origins of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer

December 20, 2011

Author's note: This article was put together with the help of persons related to the late Johnny Marks, the composer of "Rudolph, the Red Nosed Reindeer," and the late Robert May, the brother-in-law of Marks. May wrote the poem on which the Rudolph song was largely based. I have also consulted many other sources, including census records and old newspaper articles.

Both Marks and May put out some contradictory or incomplete stories about the Rudolph song/poem and about their respective personal biographies. Therefore, it is hard to tell "the whole story" at this time. There are some family members I would like to talk to that I have not been able reach; I am sure they could fill in some gaps in the story.

"Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer"

Words and Music by Johnny Marks (1949)

Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer TV special originally aired in 1963.
You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen,
Comet and Cupid and Donder and Blitzen,
But do you recall
The most famous reindeer of all?

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Had a very shiny nose,
And if you ever saw it,
You would even say it glows.
All of the other reindeer
Used to laugh and call him names;
They never let poor Rudolph
Join in any reindeer games.

Then one foggy Christmas Eve,
Santa came to say:
"Rudolph, with your nose so bright,
Won't you guide my sleigh tonight?"

Then how the reindeer loved him,
As they shouted out with glee,
"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,
You'll go down in history!"

The sociologist James Barnett has observed that the character Rudolph is the twentieth century Christmas symbol "most likely to become a lasting addition" to Christmas celebrations.

Marks Before Rudolph

Johnny Marks was born on November 10, 1909 in Mount Vernon, New York, a nice suburb of New York City. His father, Louis B. Marks (1869-1939), an electrical engineer, was famous enough to merit a full column obituary in the New York Times. His uncle, Marcus M. Marks (1858-1934), was also quite famous in his day.

Louis and Marcus Marks' father, David Marks, was an important wholesale clothing manufacturer. Marcus Marks joined David Marks in the clothing business, later heading-up a national association of clothing manufacturers.

After leaving that post, Marcus became a strong advocate for labor peace between garment factory owners and garment unions and he advocated regulations to eliminate sweatshops. In 1914, he was elected borough president of Manhattan and served one term. He was supported by a "fusion" coalition of Republicans and labor unions who were equally appalled by Tammany Hall, the city's corrupt Democratic political machine.

Born in New York City (I believe of German Jewish ancestry), Louis Marks graduated from City College in 1888 and got a Master's in the emerging field of electrical engineering from Cornell. He was an expert in illuminating buildings and he planned the lighting for many important government buildings.

Louis was a founder and the first president of the Illuminating Engineering Society. The Society is still in existence. It gives its "Louis B. Marks Award" to a member of the Society who renders exceptional service to the Society of a non-technical nature.

Robert May with Rudolph.

Sadly, the Illuminating Society's website provides virtually no biographical material on Louis B. Marks. Nor does it say a word about his famous son, Johnny Marks.

I will note — tongue-in-cheek — that this is especially a shame as Johnny Marks helped popularize the most "illuminating" animal ever. Has anyone ever considered the massive wattage of Rudolph's nose?

Johnny Marks' mother, Sadie Van Praag Marks, was also born (1864) in New York City. It appears that her parents, of Dutch Jewish ancestry, were also born in New York. Her father was a hosiery manufacturer. Sadie's brother took over the hosiery business, which was a very big company at the time of her brother's death in 1946.

Sadie Marks, who graduated from the predecessor of Hunter College, lived long enough to see the big songwriting success of her son; her son's most famous song ("Rudolph") is noted in her 1966 New York Times obituary.

I spoke about Johnny Marks with a friend of mine, (Jewish) songwriter Ervin Drake, now 92. Like Marks, he is a member of the prestigious Songwriters Hall of Fame.

Drake knew Marks, but didn't know him that well. He told me he was surprised when he found out, back in the 1940s or '50s, that Marks was Jewish. He told me that Johnny Marks didn't "seem Jewish" by any stereotypical "thing" associated with Jews.

This is understandable because Marks was at least a third generation American who grew up in a secular Jewish home.

Johnny Marks went to the Ethical Culture Society School in Manhattan for his primary education. Ethical Culture, a philosophical, "non-religious religious movement," which still exists, emphasizes humanistic moral values and has often been called the "quasi-religion" of choice of secular Jews.

Family members confirmed that Johnny Mark's parents were secular Jews and Johnny Marks, himself, was secular his whole life.

Johnny Marks, who had two brothers, went to Colgate University in upstate New York, and graduated with a B.A. in English in 1935. He was Phi Beta Kappa. He later studied music at Columbia and in Paris, but earned no further degrees. He said, in a 1969 interview, that he had been writing songs since he was 13 and knew then that songwriting was what he wanted to do with his life.

In the mid-1930s, Marks turned to songwriting almost full time. He paid the rent by producing radio shows and coaching singers.

According to a 1969 New York Times profile of Mr. Marks, he volunteered for service in the United States Army near the start of America's entry into the war (1942) and he served for four years. The Times noted he was an infantry captain and was awarded the Bronze Star for leading in the capture of 100 German troops. (The source for this information was obviously Johnny Marks, who was interviewed in connection with this profile.)

However, according to Marks' 1947 newspaper wedding announcement, he was the commanding officer (captain) of the Twenty Sixth Special Services Company in Europe. Special Services Companies were usually made up of entertainers, famous athletes and the like, and they rarely saw combat, although they received basic combat training.

Clearly, there is a story here: either Marks transferred to the infantry or his Special Services unit saw combat — which was certainly possible — especially during the chaotic conditions associated with the Battle of the Bulge (1944-45), when the Germans overran Allied front line positions.

I hope that the Bronze Medal/heroism story was not a made-up tale. It has been quite difficult to prove either way. The United States Department of Defense does not give out information on the winners of the Bronze Medal (they do not verify or deny that a particular individual won this medal).

In 1947, Marks married Margaret H. May, who had a very similar background. She grew up in a once affluent household in New Rochelle, New York (the suburb where Dick Van Dyke and his family supposedly lived in The Dick Van Dyke Show), which is close to Marks' hometown of Mount Vernon.

Margaret May's parents were American-born, secular Jews. Her father, Milton, a lumber merchant, was born in Georgia. Her maternal grandfather was born in Germany.

Unlike the Marks family, the May household was hit very hard by the Great Depression and lost virtually all their wealth. There were two sons, Richard and Robert, and two daughters, Evelyn[1] and Margaret, in the May household.

Robert May, who was born in 1905, was old enough to have completed college (Dartmouth, 1926) before the Depression hit in 1929. However, when Margaret was old enough to go to college, the family wealth was gone and her parents couldn't afford to send her to college. She became a Macy's sales clerk.

None of my sources seem to know how Johnny Marks met Margaret May. In any event, they were married in 1947 in a service presided over by an Ethical Culture clergyman.

All my sources agree that Johnny Marks was a kind, urbane man, with a dry sense of humor. I am informed he loved to play checkers at the Manhattan Chess Club. On the other hand, it appears that Johnny Marks had something of a problem with alcohol. But it isn't clear whether he simply indulged more than most people thought prudent or, more seriously, that he was an alcoholic.

Enter Robert May

The Rudolph story begins with Robert Lewis May, the brother of Johnny Marks' Jewish wife, Margaret May Marks.

The Rudolph booklet published by the Montgomery Ward Company and distributed for free to their shoppers.

Sometime in the 1930s, Robert May moved from New York to Chicago and took a fairly lowly and low-paid position as an "in-house" advertising copywriter for the Montgomery Ward Company, then only second to Sears as the country's largest retailer.

His first wife, Evelyn, was Jewish, but I don't know much more about her. Evelyn and Robert had a daughter, Barbara, who was born in 1934 or 1935. Evelyn contracted cancer in 1937 and Robert May's life became something of a living hell as he spent his meager salary on cancer treatments as his wife was dying in their small Chicago apartment.

In early 1939, the Montgomery Ward advertising department asked May to write a "cheery Christmas story" that Ward could give away to shoppers for good will and to help spur Christmas sales.

From here, the story gets a little confused. The fairly important role of his daughter, Barbara, in the creation of the Rudolph poem, is found in articles from 1948 and 1949 about May. Barbara is also given a big role in a 1975 article about the writing of Rudolph. This last article was written by Robert May, himself.

However, Barbara is not mentioned or is given a bare mention in virtually every other newspaper piece about Rudolph's creation between these dates, including one written by May, himself, in 1963.

The 1975 piece, "Rudolph Created in a Time of Sadness," provides some details not in any other written account. First, May says that his Montgomery Ward boss suggested a Christmas tale about an animal. That suggestion, May said, got him thinking and he remembered his daughter Barbara loved the deer at the Chicago Lincoln Park Zoo. (I found this article in the Bedford, PA Gazette.)

In the 1949 piece, May mentioned that he ran names for the "star deer" of his story by Barbara and she picked Rudolph. In the 1975 piece, this fact is left out. In other accounts, May is reported to have "just considered" a number of names.

In his 1975 article, May writes that after he decided on a deer, and named him Rudolph, he asked an artist in the Montgomery Ward art department, Denver Gillen, to sketch a deer with a big red nose. Gillen, May writes, then accompanied him and Barbara to the zoo to check out actual deer. These became the models for his artwork.

After the zoo visit, May worked on his poem. Meanwhile, his wife, Evelyn, continued her battle with cancer. May wrote in 1973, "Spring [1939] slipped into summer. My wife's parents came to stay with us to help. Suddenly her condition grew worse. Then in July [1939] she was gone."

After his wife's death from cancer, May writes, his boss at Montgomery Ward took pity on him and told him to just turn in what he had already done on the proposed Christmas booklet and not work on it anymore.

However, May rejected his boss's suggestion that he quit. May wrote in 1975,

I needed Rudolph now more than ever. Gratefully, I buried myself in the writing. Finally, in late August [1939] it was done. I called Barbara and her grandparents into the living room and read it to them. In their eyes, I could see that the story accomplished what I hoped.

In at least one other article, May says he ran some of the Rudolph poem's couplets and chapters by Barbara even before the book was completed. An Associated Press article from 1948 says,

Working at home and in spare time at the office — 50 hours in all — [Robert May] put it into rhyme. After he finished each part, he read it to his daughter, Barbara, four. "She was my guinea pig," May said, "I ran the words on her for size."

If you think about what I just wrote, the irony in this story is even greater than Irving Berlin, the son of a Jewish cantor, writing "White Christmas."

A secular Jewish guy, Robert May, while mourning his dead Jewish wife, creates a mythical Christmas figure. A figure that is now only second to Santa Claus as the most popular mythical Christmas figure in the whole Christmas canon.

On top of this, he makes sure his work entertains children by running it past his 4-year-old Jewish daughter. He also solicits the opinion of his Jewish in-laws.

Montgomery Ward did give credit to May and the Rudolph story illustrator, Denver Gillen, when it issued May's Rudolph booklet during the 1939 Christmas holiday season. But, so far as I can tell, May got no substantial bonus, even though the booklet was enormously popular. Shoppers demanded copies and Ward gave out 2.4 million booklets. Wartime restrictions on paper use prevented Ward from re-issuing Rudolph until 1946. The 1946 re-issue numbered 3.6 million copies.

Then a miracle happened for May and his family. In late 1946 or early 1947, the head of Montgomery Ward, Sewell Avery, a hard nosed businessman, gave the rights to the Rudolph poem to Robert May, free and clear. It was the first time Montgomery Ward had ever done this.

According to a 1963 article about Rudolph, written by Robert May himself, he had received an offer in 1946 to record the whole poem as a spoken-word record, but couldn't do so because the Montgomery Ward company held the rights. He says that persons in the company went to bat for him and got the company to turn over the rights to him. A spoken word record of the poem came out in1947.

The record of the poem was a hit, but no major book publisher would put the booklet out in hardcover because they thought the market was dead after Ward had distributed over six million free booklet copies of the poem. Then Harry Elbaum, the head of a small New York publishing house (who I suspect was Jewish), took a chance and put out 100,000 copies, which sold quickly.

Robert May wrote that Elbaum explained that he (Elbaum) took a chance on Rudolph because he was always kidded about his large nose.

May explained in the 1963 article that Rudolph was inspired by the tale of the ugly duckling, which he felt himself to be. May wrote in 1963 that he related to the duckling tale because he was small and shy throughout childhood and "knew what it was like to be the underdog." Other sources tell me that May was, in fact, bullied during childhood and that his sisters often had to step in and protect him.

In the 1963 article, May did not mention his first wife, his daughter's role or the input of his former in-laws in the creation of Rudolph.

In 1941, May re-married Virginia Newton, another Ward employee. She was a devout Catholic; with May, she had five children. The post-war success of the Rudolph book, spoken word record and the 1949 Rudolph song finally brought financial prosperity to Robert May and his growing family. In 1951, he left Ward's employ to manage his Rudolph revenues full-time.

They moved out of a cramped Chicago apartment to a home in the affluent Chicago suburb of Evanston. One of his daughters later said, "Rudolph kept the wolf away from the May family door."

"Rudolph" made Robert May comfortable, but not really rich. By 1958, he had to end his six-year hiatus from a day job and went back to work for Ward. He retired for good in 1971.

Throughout the '50s and '60s, Robert May put up a huge Rudolph statue on his suburban Chicago front lawn during the holiday season. It was donated to Dartmouth after his death.

The Rudolph statue, that Robert May had put out on his lawn each year, was donated to Dartmouth College after May's death.

May's five children with Virginia were raised in their mother's Catholic faith and, I'm informed, they did not even know that their father was Jewish until they were adults. One of Robert's daughters with Virginia became a nun.

Robert married Virginia's sister after Virginia's death in 1971. He died in 1976.

He was buried in a Catholic cemetery near Chicago. It is unclear whether he converted to Catholicism before his death. (The prominent cross on his headstone makes me think this is more likely than not.)

It seems pretty clear to me that Robert May wanted to completely bury his Jewish origins. By the 1950s, he wanted to, or was persuaded to, overwrite the existence of his first wife and the role of his daughter Barbara in the creation of Rudolph.

I found it interesting that May just didn't talk about his first wife or Barbara for decades (c. 1950-1973). Then his wife, Virginia, died in 1971. Perhaps with her death, May felt comfortable enough to partially set the record straight for posterity. Without a second spouse looking over his shoulder, in 1975 May authored a new article that gave more detail about the place of his daughter Barbara in Rudolph's creation than any other piece about Rudolph.

May even mentioned, for the first time, the help that his Jewish former in-laws provided during Evelyn May's illness and the help they him gave as sounding boards for his Rudolph poem.

To be clear: May never mentioned in any interview he gave or article he authored that he was born Jewish, that his first wife was Jewish or that his daughter Barbara had two Jewish parents.

Yes, Robert May hid his Jewish background. Still, I think it is fair to say that he drew on his status as a member of an ethnic/religious minority to create Rudolph.

Rudolph is, after all, a tale well within the humanist literary tradition of teaching tolerance. Someone is despised or persecuted for an accident of birth like their race, religion, ethnicity or apparent physical disability, then the absurdity and cruelty of discrimination is thwarted when that person (or in the case of Rudolph, an animal) shows his worth when a kindly soul gives him a chance to shine. Rudolph was ahead of its time as an after school special.

I, therefore, was not that surprised when I learned that Robert May was Jewish (at least by birth). More than once I have thought how funny it was that May made Rudolph's nose the feature that singled out Rudolph for discrimination. I need hardly point out that Jews are stereotypically depicted as having large noses. This stereotype is a long-standing theme in anti-Semitic jokes.

There is no doubt that May also drew upon his history of childhood bullying in creating Rudolph. While these two strands are certainly not mutually exclusive, I was not able to find out if May was ever bullied specifically for being Jewish.

It seems to me that Robert May could be added to the many American Jews who have created a superhero character with a superpower that stays hidden until great need arises. When May was creating Rudolph, other Jews had recently created, or were soon to create, such mythical heroes as Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Iron-Man and Captain America.

Reams of articles, many scholarly, have been written about why the vast majority of superheroes were created by Jewish writers. A convincing case has been made that the Jewish historical/cultural experience factored heavily into why Jews created these superheroes and how the superhero's character, itself, reflects the Jewish experience. A strong argument could be made that May's Jewish background, despite being secular, led him to create an illustrated "superhero" reindeer as opposed to many other types of animal characters that appeal to children.

I do find it sad that for his entire adult life May didn't want the public to know that Rudolph's creator was a Jewish guy from New York. As I said above, even his five children with his second wife didn't know he was Jewish until they were adults.

I find it equally sad that for a very long time he misled the press and the public. For decades, he gave interviews and wrote pieces that virtually erased from the Rudolph creation story the existence of his first wife and the aid of his (Jewish) daughter.

I am not making a value judgment on May's possible embrace of Catholicism. Heartfelt conversion to another religion is a very individual choice that I respect. But I have enough background in Jewish history, and have read enough about and by Robert May, to say that May and his second wife believed that being born Jewish was something "lesser" and it should be kept hidden. (This was also the opinion of at least one family member.)

I have to come to believe that May thought it would be "awkward" and "off-putting" to tell the world that Rudolph's creator was born Jewish. Perhaps if he had grown-up after WWII, when America was a lot more "Jewish-friendly" than it was before the war, he would have been more forthcoming about his Jewish background. One can only speculate.

I know many will say that May's Jewish birth was his business, a fact to be shared with others only if he wanted to share it. One half of me agrees with this sentiment.

The other half of me says that May never stopped being the shy, bullied person he was as a child. He invented a reindeer who proudly proclaimed, in effect, "this is what I am and isn't it great!"

In some sense, this was a statement that Robert May never felt comfortable making himself; there is more going on here than a truly freewill decision to either share something personal or not.

Johnny Writes the Song

Well, back to Johnny Marks. In 1966, Johnny Marks said, in an interview, that he first became aware of Robert May's poem about Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1939 and jotted notes about it in a notebook along with 200 other possible songs.

In 1969, Marks told the New York Times that he put a few notes to the Rudolph poem in 1948. Curiously, Marks didn't tell the Times that the author of the Rudolph poem was his brother-in-law. He had married Robert May's sister in 1947.

Gene Autry's 1949 recording of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

Marks did tell the Times that one day in 1948, while he was walking in Greenwich Village, he decided that he should exchange a low note on the word "nose" for a high note, and everything clicked into place. He felt sure the "Rudolph" song would be a hit and he spent $25,000 to create a music publishing company so that he would own, lock-stock-and-barrel, the rights to his song.

He asked several big-name singers to record the song, including Gene Autry, the famous Singing Cowboy of radio, movies and television. Autry didn't like "Rudolph," but his wife did. She persuaded her husband to record it as a "B" side to a record single. The "B" side, "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer," was an major hit in 1949.

The Autry version of "Rudolph" went on to sell an astonishing 15 million copies.

There are many minor differences in the Rudolph tale as conveyed in the lyrics which Marks penned for his song and the story in the Robert May poem. But they are, ultimately, not that far apart. Though some critics consider the poem a superior work to the song, there is no doubt that without the popularity of the song, the poem would now be virtually forgotten. [2]

Coda

Marks went on to compose two other huge Christmas hits: "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" in 1958 and "A Holly Jolly Christmas" in 1963. He also scored the animated "Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer" TV special which originally aired in 1963. When it was re-broadcast on network TV this year, it beat out the new offerings on all the other stations!

Marks' wife, Margaret, predeceased him. Johnny Marks died in 1985, age 75, of diabetic complications.

Johnny and Margaret had two sons and a daughter. Sadly, their daughter, Laura, and their son, attorney David Van Praag Marks, both died of natural causes within the last five years. Their son, attorney Michael Van Praag Marks, and his children, survive.

I believe that Barbara May, Robert May's daughter with his first wife, is still alive.

The adult children of Johnny Marks and Robert May long ago entered into a legal agreement to share Rudolph-related revenues.


[1] Margaret and Robert May's sister, Evelyn, is the mother of Dr. Michael D. Levitt, described in many articles as the world's leading expert on the problems associated with flatulence. Dr. Levitt's son is the well-known economist Steven D. Levitt, of Freakonomics fame. I might note, in light of Robert May's possible conversion to Catholicism, it is interesting that his great-nephew Steven Levitt's writing partner is Stephen J. Dubner.

Dubner's parents, born Jewish, converted to Catholicism. Dubner, raised a Catholic, decided to embrace Judaism as an adult and chronicled his religious and family odyssey in the book, Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son's Return to His Jewish Family (1998).

 

Dr. Levitt is the nephew of both Robert May and Johnny Marks. May was his "blood" uncle, being the brother of his mother. Marks is his uncle by marriage, being the husband of his mother's sister. Steven Levitt is Marks' and May's great nephew in the same way.

[2] In 1990, Cullen Murphy, writing for the Atlantic magazine, said this about the original poem book, which had just been re-issued:

The sociologist James Barnett has observed that the character Rudolph is the twentieth century Christmas symbol "most likely to become a lasting addition" to Christmas celebrations?. Robert L. May's original story, in contrast [to the song], is full and rich and written in clunky homespun couplets. Rudolph is still a reindeer, of course, but he's not one of Santa's and he doesn't live at the North Pole. His peers do make fun of his nose, but we learn that Rudolph is a responsible and well-brought-up animal who has a sense of his intrinsic worth and enjoys the support of loving parents. When Santa discovers Rudolph, it is completely by chance — he sees a glow emanating from Rudolph's room when delivering presents to his house. By then it is deep in the night on Christmas Eve, and Santa has begun to worry that the worsening fog, which has already caused accidents and delays, will prevent him from completing his rounds before dawn. Rudolph is eager to help. Once in harness, Rudolph is no passive point of light. He takes command of Santa's team — proud, mature reindeer he has met for the first time — and skillfully navigates from house to house. As Santa observes publicly upon their return, "By YOU last night's journey was actually bossed./Without you, I'm certain we'd all have been lost!" The young reindeer (not Santa's) who had been so cruel to Rudolph express genuine sorrow for their behavior, and Santa (who always refers to Rudolph's nose tactfully as his "forehead") announces that Rudolph henceforward will be a regular member of his team. There is no doubt in one's mind, by the end of May's book, that Rudolph despite his nose, will weather adolescence with ease and enjoy a happy and secure future.
A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.)

Nate Bloom writes a weekly column on Jewish celebrities, broadly defined, that appears in the Cleveland Jewish News, the American Israelite of Cincinnati, the Detroit Jewish News, and the New Jersey Jewish Standard. It also appears bi-weekly in j., the Jewish news weekly of northern California. Starting April 2012, a monthly version of his column (featuring relevant "oldies but goodies") will appear in the following Florida newspapers: the Jewish News (Sarasota and Manatee County), the Federation Star (Collier County) and L'Chayim (Lee and Charlotte counties).

The author welcomes questions and celebrity "tips," especially about people you personally know. Write him at middleoftheroad1@aol.com. And feel free to comment below.

Send to Friend  Bookmark  Print

Welcome to InterfaithFamily!

We depend on readers like you to support the work we do online and in the community.