May grew up in an affluent, secular Jewish home in New Rochelle, New York. He had a brother and two sisters. One of the sisters, Evelyn May, is the grandmother of the well-known economist Steven D. Levitt, of “Freakonomics” fame. Another sister, Margaret, married (Jewish) songwriter Johnny Marks in 1947. May graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth College in 1926. Both of his parents were hard hit by the Great Depression (1929) and lost their wealth. Sometime in the 1930s, he moved to Chicago and took a job as a low-paid in-house advertising copywriter for Montgomery Ward.
Because May’s (Jewish) wife, Evelyn, had contracted cancer in 1937 and was quite ill as he started on the book in early 1939, many people believe that her fragile health inspired May to base the character of Rudolph upon her. However, we do know that May "drew on memories of his own painfully shy childhood when creating his Rudolph stories." He decided on making a deer the central character of the book because his then 4-year-old daughter, Barbara, loved the deer in the Chicago zoo. He ran verses and chapters of the Rudolph poem by Barbara to make sure they entertained children. The final version of the poem was first read to Barbara and his wife’s parents.
Evelyn May died in July, 1939. His boss offered to take him off the book assignment in light of his wife’s death. May refused and completed the poem in August, 1939. The Rudolph poem booklet was first distributed during the 1939 holiday season. Shoppers loved the poem and 2.4 million copies were distributed. War time restrictions on paper use prevented a re-issue until 1946. In that year, another 3.6 million copies were distributed to Montgomery Ward shoppers.
In 1946, May received an offer from a company that wanted to do a spoken-word record of the poem. May could not give his approval (and be compensated) because Montgomery Ward held the rights to the poem. In late 1946 or early 1947, Sewell Avery, the company’s president, gave the copyright rights to the poem to May, free and clear. The spoken-word version of the poem was a big sales success.
In 1947, Harry Elbaum, the head of a small New York publishing company, took a chance and put out an updated print edition of the Rudolph (poem) book. Other publishers had passed on the book, believing that the distribution of millions of free copies had ruined the market. The book was a best seller.
In 1948, May’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, wrote (words and music) an adaptation of Rudolph. Though the song was turned down by such popular vocalists as Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore, it was recorded by the singing cowboy Gene Autry. "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was released in 1949 and became a phenomenal success, selling more records than any other Christmas song, with the exception of "White Christmas".
In 1941, May married another Ward employee, Virginia, and had five children with her. She was a devout Catholic, and Robert May was converted to Catholicism during the marriage. He is buried in Saint Joseph Cemetery in River Grove, Illinois.
May wrote two sequels to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The first is mostly in prose (except that Rudolph speaks in anapaestic tetrameter), written in 1947 but only published posthumously as Rudolph's Second Christmas (1992), and subsequently with the title Rudolph to the Rescue (2006). The second sequel is entirely in anapaestic tetrameter like the original: Rudolph Shines Again (1954). May also published four other children's books: Benny the Bunny Liked Beans (1940), Winking Willie (1948), The Fighting Tenderfoot (1954), and Sam the Scared-est Scarecrow (1972).
- Shining a Light on the Largely Untold Story of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer
- The copywriter who wrote Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer
- Do You Know The Real History of 'Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer'?
- Rudolph's Second Christmas and Rudolph to the Rescue and Rudolph Shines Again
"Adapted and Directed by Jon Ludwig Based on the classic television special 2011-12 Family Series It's back! You won't want to miss this faithful adaptation of the wonderful holiday tradition that speaks to the misfit in all of us. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and all elements from the 1964 television special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer © and ™ under license to Character Arts, LLC." Center for Puppetry Arts