Robert May was born in 1905 in New York. His family was affluent and Jewish but Robert had no religious preference. He was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate from Dartmouth with a degree in psychology. He became a believer in the work of Alfred Adler, and this became an influence in his future work.
His early career was in advertising for retail stores. The depression cost him his job and he took a low-paying job at Montgomery Ward where he worked for the next 24 years. This was certainly not the career one would expect of a top graduate from an Ivy League school.
Three years into his job at Montgomery Ward, he was asked to write a children’s story that the company could give to children. The book was meant to be cheerful, but there was not much cheer in Robert’s life. His wife was dying of cancer, and he went heavily into debt to finance her medical care.
He decided to make a reindeer the main character of his story. It was to be an ugly duckling type of story where an individual’s deficiency turned into an asset. He used his daughter as a test of how well the story worked as he wrote it. When his wife died, his boss, out of compassion, asked Robert if he would like someone else to finish the story. He said no. When he finished the story and read it to his daughter and her grandparents, the tears in their eyes told him the story was finished.
When the story was produced, over 2.4 million copies were distributed to children. It became an instant success. The story went on hiatus until the end of World War II but was again distributed in 1946. Montgomery Ward gave Robert the rights to the story in 1947.
Robert hoped to find a publisher, but no one was interested. Too many of the stories were already in the public’s hands. It was a publisher with a big nose who could sympathize with Rudolph’s story and agreed to print the book. Again, the book was a great success.
Robert also published a spoken word version of the story, and, with his brother-in-law, wrote words and music for a song. None of the popular singers would touch it. It was the singing cowboy, Gene Autry, who decided to record it. The song, like the books, was a phenomenal success. It has become the second most popular Christmas song of all time.
Robert went on to publish several other children’s books. Each had the theme of overcoming adversity that he had learned from his study of psychology. Essentially Rudolph was a story of hope. And what Robert did was establish hope as a theme for many of the popular animations being produced today.
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“Rudolph, with your nose so bright, won’t you guide my sleigh tonight.” – Santa Claus