The "True" Story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

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Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Rudolph and Santa Claus. Alex Wong / Getty Images

Who really wrote Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and why? According to a widely circulated story, the character was created by Montgomery Ward copywriter Bob May to console his 4-year-old daughter after her mother died of cancer. Here's what I found when I investigated.


Description: Forwarded email / Viral anecdote
Circulating since: 2007 (this version)
Status: Partly true (see details below)

Example:
Email text contributed by Jeanine P., Dec.

22, 2007:

THE TRUE STORY OF RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER

A guy named Bob May, depressed and brokenhearted, stared out his drafty apartment window into the chilling December night. His 4-year-old daughter Barbara sat on his lap quietly sobbing.

Bobs wife, Evelyn, was dying of cancer. Little Barbara couldn't understand why her mommy could never come home. Barbara looked up into her dads eyes and asked, "Why isn't Mommy just like everybody else's Mommy?"

Bob's jaw tightened and his eyes welled with tears. Her question brought waves of grief, but also of anger. It had been the story of Bob's life. Life always had to be different for Bob. Small when he was a kid, Bob was often bullied by other boys. He was too little at the time to compete in sports. He was often called names he'd rather not remember . From childhood, Bob was different and never seemed to fit in.

Bob did complete college, married his loving wife and was grateful to get his job as a copywriter at Montgomery Ward during the Great Depression.

Then he was blessed with his little girl. But it was all short-lived. Evelyn's bout with cancer stripped them of all their savings and now Bob and his daughter were forced to live in a two-room apartment in the Chicago slums.

Evelyn died just days before Christmas in 1938. Bob struggled to give hope to his child, for whom he couldn't even afford to buy a Christmas gift. But if he couldn't buy a gift, he was determined a make one - a storybook! Bob had created an animal character in his own mind and told the animals story to little Barbara to give her comfort and hope.

Again and again Bob told the story, embellishing it more with each telling. Who was the character? What was the story all about? The story Bob May created was his own autobiography in fable form. The character he created was a misfit outcast like he was. The name of the character? A little reindeer named Rudolph, with a big shiny nose.

Bob finished the book just in time to give it to his little girl on Christmas Day. But the story doesn't end there. The general manager of Montgomery Ward caught wind of the little storybook and offered Bob May a nominal fee to purchase the rights to print the book. Wards went on to print, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and distribute it to children visiting Santa Claus in their stores. By 1946 Wards had printed and distributed more than six million copies of Rudolph. That same year, a major publisher wanted to purchase the rights from Wards to print an updated version of the book. In an unprecedented gesture of kindness, the CEO of Wards returned all rights back to Bob May. The book became a best seller. Many toy and marketing deals followed and Bob May, now remarried with a growing family, became wealthy from the story he created to comfort his grieving daughter.

But the story doesn't end there either. Bob's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, made a song adaptation to 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. "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." The gift of love that Bob May create d for his daughter so long ago kept on returning back to bless him again and again. And Bob May learned the lesson, just like his dear friend Rudolph, that being different isn't so bad. In fact, being different can be a blessing.


Analysis: There are two versions of the origin of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" — the "official" one, as told in innumerable news articles over the past 50 years (including one penned by Bob May himself in 1975), and the one retold above, which has circulated on and off the Internet since the early 2000s.

The main difference between the two is how they explain what prompted May to create the character of Rudolph in the first place. According to the official version he did it at the behest of his supervisor in the catalog copy department of Montgomery Ward. According to the popular version he did so to comfort and console his 4-year-old daughter, Barbara, whose mother was dying of cancer.

There's a glaring factual error to clear up at the outset, namely the claim that May's first wife Evelyn died just before Christmas in 1938. According to May's own account, she didn't succumb to cancer until July of 1939, well after he had begun working on "Rudolph."

May told his story in an article for the Gettysburg Times in 1975. It all began, he wrote, on a cold January morning in 1939 when he was called into his supervisor's office and asked to come up with a concept for a Christmas promotion aimed at children — "an animal story," his boss suggested, "with a main character like Ferdinand the Bull." May agreed to give it a try.

Inspired in part by his daughter's fascination with the deer at the local zoo, he invented a tale about an outcast reindeer with a shiny, red nose who dreamed of pulling Santa's sleigh.

His supervisor rejected the idea at first, but May kept working on it, and in August 1939, barely a month after his wife had passed away, finished the final draft of the story that had come to be called "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

"I called Barbara and her grandparents into the living room and read it to them," he later wrote. "In their eyes I could see that the story accomplished what I had hoped."

The rest is history. Sort of.

The alternate version

The alternate version of events in which May makes up the story to help his daughter cope with her mother's terminal illness appears to have originated in a book published in 2001 called Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas by Ace Collins. In Collins' rendering, the moment of creation took place on a bleak December night in 1938 when 4-year-old Barbara May turned to her father and asked, "Why isn't my mommy just like everybody else's mommy?"

May was at a loss. Collins continues:

But on that cold, windy night, even with every reason to cry and complain, Bob wanted his daughter to somehow understand that there was hope ... and that being different didn't mean you had to be ashamed. Most of all, he wanted her to know she was loved. Drawing from his own life experiences, the copywriter made up a story about a reindeer with a large, bright red nose. As as little Barbara listened, May described in story form not only the pain felt by those who were different but also the joy that can be found when someone discovers his special place in the world.

Which, while I'm sure it accurately portrays some of the emotions in play, directly contradicts Bob May's own account of what transpired. I contacted Ace Collins and asked him where he had gotten his information. He replied that it had come to him in the form of letters and documents supplied by a Montgomery Ward PR person just before the company went out of business in 2001. Collins said his informant claimed this was the "real" Rudolph story, as opposed to the "legend" pushed by the company over the years. For his own part, Collins feels the account is "as truthful as there is."

I suspect Bob May's children would disagree, seeing as how they, too, have been called upon to tell the story of Rudolph's origin again and again over the years, and their accounts — even Barbara's — have always matched their father's to a T. We can't ask Bob May for clarification, unfortunately. The creator of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" passed away at the age of 71 in 1976.

Rudolph himself turns 75 in January 2014.

Christmas folklore:
Santa's Seventh Reindeer: Donner or Donder?
Are All of Santa's Reindeer Female?
"12 Days of Christmas" a Secret Catechism Song?
Are Poinsettias Poisonous?
"The Night Before Christmas" Parodies

Sources and further reading:

Rudolph Didn't Get Off to Flying Start
Gainesville Sun, 14 December 1982

Rudolph's Older Sister Wants Reindeer's Creator Remembered
Lakeland Ledger, 26 December 1981

May, Creator of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Dead
Associated Press, 12 August 1976

Robert May Tells the Story of How Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer Came into Being
Gettysburg Times, 22 December 1975

Rudolph Creator Happy but Harried
Associated Press, 18 December 1948

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Chicago Tribune, 17 December 1950

Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas
By Ace Collins (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001)