Museum tells the story of a real-life Santa

Museum tells the story of a real-life Santa
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

Many have borrowed Santa Claus’s beard — from a farcical Tim Allen to the timeless Edmund Gwen — but John Duvall Gluck actually responded to the call of “Dear Santa.”

This holiday season, a museum exhibit at Williamsburg’s City Reliquary tells the story of a young Bedford-Stuyvesant-born man who in 1913 played Santa and answered the hopeful letters of needy children — succeeding miraculously in founding the Santa Claus Association, only to fail in the end.

For decades, messages addressed to the North Pole moldered unopened in dead letter offices. But a law passed in 1912 permitted the postal service to turn children’s wish lists over to private interests — and John Gluck decided to fill the boots and red suit and buy them the gifts they wanted most.

“It’s a heartwarming story of an organization founded on altruism, but there’s a bit of a twist to it as well,” said Reliquary founder Dave Herman, who had Gluck’s great-grandnephew Alex Palmer approach him with the idea for the exhibit, which includes photos, scrapbooks, and nearly century-old hand-scrawled letters to Saint Nick.

After tracking down a long-lost relative in Florida, who kept a huge amount of newspaper clippings from the association, Palmer learned the whole story of Gluck and his amazing charity. The young man-about-town used his connections to get media attention and set up a primitive version of crowd-sourcing, convincing major names from the stage and screen to take on hundreds of letters — which asked for everything from toy soldiers and dolls to medicine, rent money, and artificial limbs.

“The real heartbreaking ones are the ones where they’re asking for bare necessities,” said Palmer, noting that the Santa Claus Association responded to tens of thousands of letters each year of its existence. “Gluck had the idea that charities could be run more efficiently, that you could do it without a lot of overhead bureaucracy, and it would be a more satisfying for the donor.”

But by the late 1920s, the novelty of the Santa Claus Association had died off, and public interest waned. To hang onto the spotlight, Gluck had the group take on dozens of public figures as “vice-presidents,” even though they had little involvement in the project. The move attracted the attention of New York’s Public Welfare commissioner Bird Coller, who had made a name for himself by busting sham charities.

Coller’s 1928 investigation revealed that, despite appearances, the Association was a one-man operation under Gluck’s control — and that chunks of its funding couldn’t be accounted for. The city never filed any charges or accusations against the would-be Kris Kringle, but Coller’s revelations were enough to deny Gluck access to the Post Office’s Santa letters — effectively killing the foundation.

The soiled Saint Nick moved to Florida and the association faded into history — until Palmer brought its story to the City Reliquary.

The Santa Claus Association at the City Reliquary [370 Metropolitan Ave., between Marcy Avenue and Havemeyer Street in Williamsburg, (718) 782–4842, www.cityreliquary.org]. Thurs.–Sun., noon–6 pm, through Feb. 10, $5.