Writing 'Rudolph': The Original Red-Nosed Manuscript

In 1939, Montgomery Ward in Chicago asked one of its admen to write a story for the department store's own children's book. i i

In 1939, Montgomery Ward in Chicago asked one of its admen to write a story for the department store's own children's book. Rauner Special Collections Library/Dartmouth College hide caption

itoggle caption Rauner Special Collections Library/Dartmouth College
In 1939, Montgomery Ward in Chicago asked one of its admen to write a story for the department store's own children's book.

In 1939, Montgomery Ward in Chicago asked one of its admen to write a story for the department store's own children's book.

Rauner Special Collections Library/Dartmouth College
Author Robert May considered other names before settling on Rudolph. Imagine: We could be singing instead about the very shiny nose on Reginald, Rollo or Romeo. i i

Author Robert May considered other names before settling on Rudolph. Imagine: We could be singing instead about the very shiny nose on Reginald, Rollo or Romeo. Courtesy of Rauner Special Collections Library/Dartmouth College hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Rauner Special Collections Library/Dartmouth College
Author Robert May considered other names before settling on Rudolph. Imagine: We could be singing instead about the very shiny nose on Reginald, Rollo or Romeo.

Author Robert May considered other names before settling on Rudolph. Imagine: We could be singing instead about the very shiny nose on Reginald, Rollo or Romeo.

Courtesy of Rauner Special Collections Library/Dartmouth College

Everybody knows Rudolph was the last reindeer to join Santa's crew, but few people know about the department store copywriter who brought his story to the world.

The year was 1939, the Great Depression was waning and a manager at Montgomery Ward in Chicago decided that the store should create its own children's book for the annual holiday promotion.

The boss tapped Robert L. May, an ad man for the store, to take a crack at a story. May was a hit at holiday parties for his way with limericks and parodies. But May didn't see himself as a winner. He had always felt like a bit of an outcast, and, at 35, he felt he was far from reaching his potential, pounding out catalog copy instead of writing the Great American Novel as he had always dreamed he would.

He came back with the story of an underdog, red-nosed reindeer who was in the right place at the right time — just when Santa needed a reindeer with exceptional skills. (Click to see Robert May's original Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer manuscript.)

"Can't you come up with anything better?" the boss asked, according to a May's 1975 telling in a story published in the Gettysburg Times.

But May believed in the story. He got his buddy in the art department to draw up some sketches and, together, they convinced the boss.

Months into the project, May's wife died from cancer. Robert became a widower and a single father. His boss offered to take the reindeer project off this plate. But May refused. "I needed Rudolph now more than ever," he later wrote.

As shown in this map, copies of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were shipped to Montgomery Ward stores across the country. i i

As shown in this map, copies of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were shipped to Montgomery Ward stores across the country. Rauner Special Collections Library/Dartmouth College hide caption

itoggle caption Rauner Special Collections Library/Dartmouth College
As shown in this map, copies of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were shipped to Montgomery Ward stores across the country.

As shown in this map, copies of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer were shipped to Montgomery Ward stores across the country.

Rauner Special Collections Library/Dartmouth College

The book was a hit. Montgomery Ward's printed and distributed more than 2 million copies that year at branches across the country.

While Rudolph was hitting it big, things grew worse for May. He was living on a copywriter's salary and spent years buried in debt from his wife's medical bills.

After World War II, Montgomery Ward's then-CEO Sewell Avery, for reasons that aren't exactly clear, gave May the rights to Rudolph. (His daughter tells us that the bosses never thought Rudolph had potential as more than a holiday promotion, but we'd like to think, for the sake of this cute little Christmas tale, that his humanity won him over.)

If ever there was going to be a time for May's luck to change, this would be it.

It just so happened that May's brother-in-law was a songwriter. He hadn't made it big yet, but he was getting there. May talked him into writing a song about Rudolph. That song was picked up by none other than the singing cowboy, Gene Autry. It sold more than 25 million copies and paved the way for the classic Rankin/Bass stop-animation film.

Thanks to Rudolph, Robert May's family was taken care of financially through the end of his life and beyond. And he always delighted in being the man who introduced the oddball reindeer and his triumphant tale to the world.

And as for Rudolph, well, he, as they say, went down in history.

Learn more about these archival materials from the Dartmouth Rauner Special Collections Library.

Read The Original Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer

Below, the original sketches and layout for Robert May's Christmas story featuring the now-iconic red-nosed reindeer. Click the audio button here to hear May's daughter, Barbara May Lewis, read from the original publication of the famous book. You'll notice there are a few small differences between the final printed version May reads from and the draft version, shown below.

Courtesy of Rauner Special Collections Library/Dartmouth College

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