Robert May was painfully aware of the distance between his dreams and his reality.
The 34-year-old Dartmouth graduate had long fantasized about writing the great American novel. Instead, he was working a mediocre job as an ad man for Montgomery Ward, cranking out forgettable copy about silk sheets and white shirts. He lived in a tiny apartment with his ill wife and young daughter.
One day in 1939, May’s boss tapped him for an unexpected assignment. For years Montgomery Ward had bought coloring books and distributed them at stores as a Christmas giveaway. This time around executives decided to save money by creating their own booklet—and asked May to write it.
His thoughts turned to the Lincoln Park Zoo. When he took his 4-year-old, Barbara, she was drawn to the deer.
He also channeled his own childhood insecurities that remained poignant; he’d been teased as a small, shy boy. An underdog story like the Ugly Duckling appealed to him.
Then, looking out onto the flickering street lights one foggy winter night, came the inspiration: “A nose! A bright red nose that would shine through fog like a floodlight,” he said.
May wanted an alliterative name for his reindeer and considered Reginald—too British—and Rollo, which sounded too jolly for a misfit. Rudolph was still colorful but more sympathetic.
The tale had a decidedly plaintive, Depression-era tone, describing an outcast who “wept” at his peers’ taunting.
May delved into the psychology of his characters, penning a more dramatic narrative arc than we find in the famous 1949 song recorded by Gene Autry and the beloved 1964 stop-action TV special narrated by Burl Ives.
Readers see Santa’s fog-induced struggles: “He tangled in tree-tops again and again…” We also see his diplomacy, recruiting Rudolph by praising his “wonderful forehead” and proving “extra polite.”
The sweetness of Rudolph’s redemption is spooned out so liberally it reveals May’s lingering boyhood wounds. “It was his opinion of himself that gave rise to Rudolph,” his daughter, Barbara, later said.
Where Autry simply sings “then all the reindeer loved him,” May offers more detail: “The funny-faced fellow they always called names and practically never allowed in their games was now to be envied by all, far and near. For no greater honor can come to a deer…”
If that’s not enough, he lets Rudolph land his Christmas-night flight right in front of “his handsomer playmates,” noting that “those bad deer who used to do nothing but tease him would now have done anything…only to please him!”
Even more: “They felt even sorrier they had been bad when Santa said: ‘Rudolph, I never have had a deer quite so brave or so brilliant as you…’”
He is promptly declared “Commander-In-Chief,” a title May types in capital letters.
May took great care with each stanza, running them by Barbara. When his wife died in July, his boss told him to stop working on the booklet. May refused to quit. “I needed Rudolph more than ever,” he wrote.
In late August, he finished the story. Ward seized it as a lesson for his clerks, celebrating in an in-house memo Rudolph’s “service, the right attitude and a desire to do his best.”
The book was a huge hit, and the retailer printed more than 2 million copies that Christmas season 80 years ago.
May was eventually given all rights to Rudolph, which provided a good livelihood. He experienced a dramatic arc of his own with profound spiritual underpinnings: remarrying a devout Catholic, converting to Catholicism and having five more children, one of whom became a nun.
His biography can encourage anyone who feels crippled by the gap between hopes and reality. It reminds us to trust in the bigger picture, in the One who isn’t done writing your story.
Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn.