By Brad Dison
1939 was a hard year for Bob May, his wife Evelyn, and their four-year-old daughter Barbara. For the past two years, Evelyn had been fighting a losing battle with cancer and was now bedridden. Bob’s ambition had been to be a novelist, but, so far, his talents had only gotten him as far as creating catalogue copy for Montgomery Ward. Bob said many years later, “Instead of writing the great American novel, as I’d always hoped, I was describing men’s white shirts.”
Montgomery Ward’s salary was a steady, much needed paycheck. Evelyn’s medical expenses took all of Bob’s earnings and more. Bob was nearing bankruptcy. He was also exhausted. Day in and day out, he took care of the many needs of his wife and little Barbara while working a full-time job. Bob never once complained, but put on a brave, cheerful face for his wife and daughter.
One day in early 1939, Bob’s boss came to him with a project that seemed to fit Bob’s talent and his situation perfectly. In previous years, Montgomery Ward had purchased coloring books to give away to children during the Christmas season. The coloring books cost the company a substantial amount of money. To cut down on costs, the company decided that they wanted to create their own children’s book to give away during the 1939 Christmas season. The project fit Bob’s situation in that it allowed him to work from home so he could be available for his wife and daughter.
The company wanted the story to be a cheery tale in poem-form about an animal who was an “ugly duckling,” a misfit. Bob had a difficult time writing the cheery tale because of his concern for his wife. He could see that Evelyn was growing weaker with each passing day. Each time he finished a draft of the story, he read it to little Barbara and watched carefully for her response. In this way, he tweaked and reworked the story.
On July 28, 1939, Evelyn lost her battle with cancer. Bob and little Barbara were distraught. To ease Bob’s burden, his boss offered to transfer the project to another writer. Bob made it clear that it was his project, and he would complete it. Bob continued to write drafts and read them to little Barbara. Finally, one day in late August, Bob called little Barbara and her grandparents into the living room. He read the draft of the story and paid special attention to each of their faces. He said later, “in their eyes I could see that the story accomplished what I had hoped.” With the story completed, Bob turned it over to Montgomery Ward artist Denver Gillen for illustration.
During the holiday season of 1939, shoppers fell in love with the story. Montgomery Ward gave away 2.4 million copies that year and planned to give away at least that many the following year. With World War II on the horizon, the United States War Production Board rationed paper, which limited the number of books published in the country. Bob’s “ugly duckling” story could have fallen into obscurity.
Following the end of the war, Montgomery Ward decided to revive the book giveaway. In 1946, RCA Victor contacted Bob because they wanted to record a spoken version of Bob’s story. Unfortunately for Bob, Montgomery Ward, his employer, owned the rights to the story and declined RCA Victor’s request because they wanted to give the books away again that holiday season. That year, the company gave away 3.6 million copies of Bob’s story.
On January 1, 1947, Montgomery Ward president Sewell Avery did something shocking. Avery transferred the copyright of the story from Montgomery Ward to Bob, free and clear. Bob searched for a publisher, but none of the major publishing houses wanted to publish a story of which 6 million copies had been given away. Why, they asked, would anyone pay for a book that had previously been free. Finally, Bob spoke with Harry Elbaum, the head of Maxton Publishers in New York. Bob described Harry as being “a little guy with a big nose,” an ugly duckling of sorts. Harry printed 100,000 hardcover copies of the book for the Christmas season. The books were a success. RCA Victor also produced 45 rpm records of the story narrated by Paul Wing and music by George Kleinsinger. The spoken records were also successful. Johnny Marks turned Bob’s story into a hit record which has been recorded countless times by numerous artists. You and I know Bob’s story well. The “ugly duckling” that Bob created was not a duck, but a red-nosed reindeer named Rudolph.
1. Independent (Long Beach, California), November 19, 1939, p.13.
2. Battle Creek Enquirer, December 6, 1948, p.3.
3. Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 19, 1948, p.74.
4. “Evelyn Marks May (1905-1939)” Find a Grave, www.findagrave.com, accessed November 25, 2022, https://www.findagrave.com/