For years, my family told the story of how our distant relative, John Gluck Jr., became New York’s Santa Claus. He learned that the thousands of letters children wrote to St. Nick each year were sent to the Post Office Department’s Dead Letter Office and destroyed — and decided something must be done.
Instead of donating money to an established charity or government agency, he created the Santa Claus Association, which matched the letters with individuals who answered each child’s Christmas wish. This simple idea caused a sensation in the city and the country. Celebrities and politicians flocked to help Santa and the association in its mission — and Gluck even announced plans for a huge Santa Claus Building.
The donors, and the children hopeful enough to write Santa in the first place, did the real work.
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What follows is an excerpt about my relative from my new book, “The Santa Claus Man,” which takes place just as he has launched the group:
Janet Barry, a columnist for The Evening Telegraph, did not know what to expect as she walked into Santa’s Workshop in midtown Manhattan. For one thing, it was not in the North Pole. Nor was it in an actual workshop, but a restaurant — the backroom of theater district staple Henkel’s Chop House.
She wound her way through the front dining room to the back office, passing by dozens of “elves” (young secretaries on loan from their employers and a few retired matrons). She also had to fight her way through what she described as “swirls and eddies and rapids and tidal waves of Santa Claus letters,” — and finally found herself face to face with Santa.
The rather short, balding man dressed in a brown three-piece suit and tie shook the reporter’s hand and introduced himself. He was John Duval Gluck Jr., the founder and president of the Santa Claus Association, and the one man in New York City authorized to receive Santa’s mail.
While he shared little resemblance with the mythical saint, his twinkling eyes and easy laugh certainly fit the character. At Barry’s request, he picked up one of the envelopes, tore it open, and read it aloud (all original spellings and wordings are represented here):
My dear Santa
I am 7 year have two siter and brother Mother said you will not call to our house, as she has no money but try and come Margie is sending a letter to she cant write good by try and give me skates and a cow boy suit and margie a doll.
It was signed “Edward Lennan,” with a return address of 1648 Amsterdam Avenue. That was Washington Heights.
A week earlier, just 10 minutes before midnight, the Mafioso gang, the Black Hand Society, had detonated a bomb inside the shoe shop of a man named Joseph Forno just seven blocks north of Edward’s home. It blew out hundreds of nearby windows.
Despite these conditions, and even as the boy’s own mother assured him they were too poor for a visit from Santa, Edward still held out enough hope to drop this letter in the mail.
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In any earlier year, by Christmas Day, Edward Lennan’s mother would have been proven right. The boy’s scribbled expression of faith in the face of hardship would end up where it always had: the city’s Dead Letter Office, where the postmen held then destroyed it — along with the missives of any other individuals who lacked a reachable address.
But this year, the postman found Santa’s address. This year, because of Gluck, Santa would answer Edward’s Christmas wish.
“What are the most popular gifts in Santa’s pack?” Barry asked.
“The boys seem to have a run on Boy Scout suits,” said Gluck. “Another one of their particular joys is a sled. The girls ask mostly for dolls. Just to prove they do not change much, when they grow up, you will find almost every little girl asking for candy. Lots of them want roller skates.”
“Have you enough helpers to take care of these letters?” the reporter inquired.
“More than enough,” assured Gluck. “There are thousands of folk willing and anxious to help make the Yuletide happy for children, but they do not know exactly how to proceed. They want to be sure the money they give reaches its destination.”
Gluck explained that he had created the group’s exacting procedures after drawing on his own career as a businessman: He’d followed his father into customs broking, and taken the family business to far greater heights, where he’d learned the value of an enterprise approach, and the nuisance created by government overregulation. It was an unusual resume for someone running a citywide charity.
But that was a good thing, if you asked Gluck.
People from traditional charities would have devised traditional ways to answer Santa’s mail — something requiring year-round fundraisers and a huge staff and more red tape than red ribbons. Lots of overhead with only scraps left over for the poor kids. No, the Santa Claus Association worked strictly as a bottom-up operation. New Yorkers of any means could take a letter — or a hundred of them if they liked — and personally see that the child received his or her gift.
The association helped make these connections, but the donors, and the children hopeful enough to write Santa in the first place, did the real work. Gluck told Barry that this approach ensured the city’s generosity “is flung wide with a generous hand, rather than doled out with the smugness of self-satisfied benevolence.”
The association’s directors and volunteers built a list of thousands of potential donors — from New Yorkers of modest means to business executives to Astors and Vanderbilts — asking them, “Will you play Santa Claus to poor little kiddies?”
“Anybody can join. There are no initiation fees,” Gluck said. “The applicants simply express a desire to help Santa find gifts for his children, and are admitted to membership.”
A volunteer then interrupted him to drop a batch of letters onto a nearby desk.
“There will be a city full of happy children right here in New York Christmas day, and the Santa Claus pack is going to be bottomless,” he promised.
Sensing she had taken up enough of the Gluck’s time, Barry left the office impressed with the operation, and especially its leader.
In her column that evening, the reporter wrote: “I spoke with [Santa’s] personal representative this morning. He is a very wise and very kind and very busy man.”
Alex Palmer is a writer and researcher based in New York; he is John Gluck’s great-grandnephew. The above material is from “The Santa Claus Man” and is used by permission.