DG MARTIN COLUMN: Rudolph’s little brother
Published 10:29 am Wednesday, December 30, 2020
I know Rudolph’s little brother.
And now that Rudolph and the other reindeer are safely back at the North Pole, I can tell you the mostly unknown story of where the Rudolph tale came from and why that story may tug at your heartstrings more than other holiday stories.
I have known for years that Robert May, father of my law school classmate Chris, wrote the book about Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. But I did not know the details.
Last week Chris gathered some details and shared them with me.
He wrote, “I grew up as the younger brother of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, a character that my father, Robert L. May, created in 1939 in his children’s book by that title. When I popped into the world in 1943, Rudolph was already four years old.”
The storybook Rudolph was rejected by his peers because he looked different from them and didn’t quite fit in. Chris explains, “One day he is blessed when Santa Claus realizes that Rudolph’s apparent infirmity would be invaluable in helping to guide his sleigh on even the foggiest of nights. The odd little guy whose difference made him an outcast suddenly became a hero!”
Chris says that Rudolph was modelled on his father’s life. “He grew up in New York as a smart little ethnic Jew who didn’t quite fit in. Part of the problem was that he was, at least early on, quite small.”
He weighed less than 100 pounds until he was a high school senior.
“Dad’s life in some ways resembled Rudolph’s in terms of his growing up as a sort of underdog, when and how did he finally get ‘discovered’ by Santa and suddenly become a much more accepted hero.”
After graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth in 1926, Robert worked in advertising for several large catalogue firms. At Montgomery Ward in 1939, he was asked to create a children’s book to give to customers.
Chris explains that Robert’s 4-year-old daughter, Barbara, helped.
“Dad would read her passages and then gauge her reaction to different word selections.”
Montgomery Ward published and gave away 2.4 million soft cover copies of the Rudolph book in 1939 and another 3.6 million in 1946.
The company held the copyright. So at first Robert got no money from the project. “But that didn’t really matter to him,” Chris says, “And this gets to the heart of what I want to say about my Dad, something that I deeply admire him for. His own childhood experiences, coupled with the then state of his life, made it easy for him to identify with the character he was bringing into the world.”
Chris says his dad sought to convey a “message of hope,” to tell the story of “an underdog” who was “yet triumphant in the end.” He hoped that children who heard or read the story of Rudolph would, in his words, be inspired by “the little deer who started out life as a loser, just as I did.”
If there is a message in Rudolph, Chris said, it is that “tolerance and perseverance can overcome adversity. It is a story of acceptance.”
Rudolph’s fame erased whatever doubts his dad may have had about himself. “In this way, what he got out of Rudolph was far more valuable than money, something that money could never buy.”
“But for Dad, it was never about the money. What mattered was that every December, he could literally dress up and step out into the world again as the proud father of Rudolph. Rudolph’s success never turned his head. He was and remained a humble man to the very end. I think he saw Rudolph as a blessing, rather than as something he could take full credit for.”
Note: Chris tells his dad’s story in more detail on a new podcast available at: https://irregularpeople.show
And the complete original manuscript can be read at: https://www.npr.org/2013/12/25/256579598/writing-rudolph-the-original-red-nosed-manuscript
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” Sunday 3:30 p.m. and Tuesday at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV. The program also airs on the North Carolina Channel Tuesday at 8 p.m. and other times.