Prior to that time, Montgomery Ward had been buying and giving away coloring books for Christmas, but it was decided that creating a book of its own would save money and be a nice good-will gesture. This request came at a difficult time in May's life. Evelyn was dying of cancer and he was struggling to support his family and pay for her medical treatments on a salary of $5,000/year (equivalent to $105,191 in 2022). As May would later write, "I was heavily in debt at age 35, still grinding out catalogue copy. Instead of writing the great American novel, as I'd always hoped. I was describing men's white shirts."
In writing the Christmas giveaway, May decided to make a reindeer the central character of the book because it was a Christmas animal. It had to be a sort of "ugly duckling" who had a lot of heart to make it with Santa. He "drew on memories of his own painfully shy childhood when creating his Rudolph story." He and his then four-year-old daughter Barbara, together with Montgomery Ward artist Denver Gillen, visited Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo one Saturday to get a better idea of what Rudolph might look like. May’s office at Montgomery Ward overlooked Lake Michigan, and he drew inspiration for Rudolph’s red nose from watching the fog lights from the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse seen from his window.
Working at home and in his spare time at the office, May wrote the book in about 50 hours. As he finished drafting each part, he would read it to Barbara. "She was my guinea pig" and "I ran the words on her for size." When Evelyn then died July 28, 1939, May's boss offered to relieve him of the project and have someone else finish it, but May declined and finished the poem in late August. On the day of its completion, "I called Barbara and her grandparents into the living room and read it to them. In their eyes I could see that the story accomplished what I had hoped."
Robert earlier in the process sought the assistance of his coworker Gillen to illustrate his story after several focus groups offered their concerns that the red nose was associated with alcoholics. Gillen’s wonderful illustrations sealed the deal for May, and the project moved forward.
This soft-cover Rudolph poem booklet was first distributed by Montgomery Ward during the 1939 holiday season. Shoppers loved it and 2.4 million copies were distributed. Wartime restrictions on paper use prevented a re-issue until 1946. In that year, Montgomery Ward gave away another 3.6 million soft-cover copies to its shoppers.
In 1946, May received an offer from RCA Victor, which wanted to do a spoken-word record of the poem. He could not give his approval, however, because Montgomery Ward held the
rights to his poem. At the encouragement of Wilbur H. Norton, a company vice president,
Ward's president, Sewell Avery, gave May the copyright to the poem, free and clear. The
transfer did not take effect until January 1, 1947, so that Montgomery Ward could againdistribute the book as a 1946 Christmas giveaway.
May had difficulty finding a publisher for what was now his Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer poem book. "Nobody wanted him, not with 6 million copies already distributed. Finally I found a publisher, a little guy with a big nose, who said he knew what it was like for Rudolph and was willing to take a chance on a printing” stated May in an interview. The little guy was Harry Elbaum, head of Maxton Publishers, a small New York company that he had put together in 1945. Maxton published the first commercial edition of Rudolph just in time for the 1947 Christmas season.
He printed 100,000 copies of the now hardcover book, which sold for 50 cents, and was a great success. The same was true of RCA Victor's 45-rpm spoken-word version of the poem, narrated by Paul Wing with music by George Kleinsinger.
In 1948, May persuaded his brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, to write the words and the music for a musical adaptation of Rudolph. Though the song was initially turned down by such popular vocalists as Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore, it was finally recorded in 1949 by the singing cowboy, Gene Autry, whose wife persuaded him to sing it.
The song became a phenomenal success and would be recorded by many famous artists, including Mitch Miller, Dean Martin, and Perry Como—and eventually even by Bing Crosby. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer became the second-most popular Christmas tune of all time, surpassed only by "White Christmas".
In 1964, Rankin & Bass produced a 60 minute television special introducing new characters, and this annual program has become the longest running holiday television special.