The City’s Letters to Santa

City Desk IconThis week, the Journal-Clarion will mail, free to its subscribers, a small soft-cover book entitled The Kringle Memoranda. The book is a handpicked collection of children’s letters to Santa, which the newspaper has been printing in a special supplement in the week before Christmas since 1922 (when it was still the Journal-American).

The volume, with art by Journal-Clarion editorial cartoonist Jack Belinsky, will no doubt appeal to the children and parents who are its primary target, but to long-time connoisseurs of urban strangeness, it’s more noteworthy for what it omits than what it includes. The letters bound within the red-and-green covers alternate between po-faced sincerity and kids-say-the-darndest-things humor, and entirely ignore the fact that, for almost seventy years, the letters-to-Santa supplement of the newspaper was where one could find some of the city’s strangest manifestations of subversive art and unexpurgated oddness.

In 1926, Journal-American publisher R. Darren Mingers’ 6-year-old granddaughter Claire (who would later rise to fame as a director of sentimental melodramatic films in Hollywood, and who organized the first Founders Day Film Festival in 1972) wrote a letter to Santa, which was not published in the supplement. (Though no reason was ever given – the editor in charge of selecting material for the section was immediately fired – the original letter survives, and presumably its banality and numerous spelling errors were the cause.) Outraged that his favorite grandchild had been snubbed, Mingers declared that, from that point forward, all letters to Santa would run unedited, and, with the exception of removing intentional vulgarities (a policy that began in 1933, when members of a hobo gang known as the Landon Avenue Bonus Army inundated the paper’s offices with profanity-laden missives), unexpurgated.

Naturally, a major metropolitan newspaper announcing a policy that once a year, it would run any letter anyone cared to send in unexpurgated brought out the cranks in full force. Each supplement would feature dozens of letters of the ‘Dear Santa, why won’t our government admit that the moon landing was fake?’ or ‘Dear Santa, camper for sale, $300 or best offer’ variety. More interesting, however, were those who used it as an opportunity to produce a strange sort of public art. A number of people (including Ben Kliegman, who would be named the city’s Poet Laureate in 1966) submitted short stories, poetry, and, in one memorable case in 1957, a full-length novel in the form of a letter to Santa. In 1954, Michèle Bernstein of the French avant-garde Lettrist International used it as a platform for some anti-Papist ranting and a demand that the city embrace “a new psychogeography”; and Raymond Queneau, who first learned of the letters-to-Santa section in 1960, when he attended the local premiere of Zazie dans le Métro, declared it to be “a new communal art form, full of delightful possibility”, and for nine years after sent whimsical formalist fiction to Santa via the paper’s editorial office.

Perhaps the oddest manifestation of the non-child usage of the Children’s Letters to Santa supplement was in 1947, when members of the Tucetti Mob sent out a series of coded instructions for carrying out a major armored car heist in the form of letters asking for various popular toys of the day. The robbery, which took place on January 4, 1948, netted nearly $2 million and was never solved until 1979, when Charlie Hesselman, a local junior high school math teacher and amateur cryptographer, noticed an unusual pattern in some of the letters. By the time he cracked the code, the statute of limitations on the crime had passed, and Jimmy ‘Olives’ Tucetti, the only member of the heist gang still living, was feted on local talk shows telling the story.

Unfortunately, in 1991, citing the city’s growing population and the cost of printing such an increasingly large supplement, the Journal-Clairon suspended the practice of printing essentially anything people sent them with the words “Dear Santa” at the beginning. It now exists only in crumbling newsprint, dusty microfiche, and the memories of a stranger time.
- Leonard Pierce

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