The Real Santa Claus Was an Eccentric Millionaire Toymaker
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because who doesn’t love a nutty, generous millionaire?
By Libby Coleman
Back in the 1950s, a Santa Claus look-alike named Louis Marx visited Manhattan’s 21 Club so often that he was awarded his own table, reserved just for him.
Marx had deep pockets — but he stuffed them with toys, not so much money. Loaded with presents aimed to delight, Marx handed out penguins that walked, tiny cars and presidential statuettes to his friends, a group of people “who seem[ed] to include the entire world,” Time magazine wrote in 1955.
A venerable “toycoon,” Marx took over the kiddie scene in the 20th century. Some even say he invented the yo-yo. That’s not quite right, but he did find a way to manufacture them cheaply and at high volumes, and made big bucks on sales. From there, he popularized Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, Big Wheel tricycles, play sets and more, becoming the “Toy King” of America.
He became bigger than the industry he was in and hobnobbed with politicians and Hollywood people alike.
Todd Coopee, toy historian
Along the way, the multimillionaire made powerful friends and lived a wild life as one of the nation’s rich and famous, cut from a cloth not often seen in the toy world. Marx’s level of distinction today is reserved for tech titans, Donald Trump and the music industry’s brightest stars. “He traveled around in a very large manner, with an entourage of people,” says Todd Coopee, toy historian and award-winning author of Light Bulb Baking: A History of the Easy-Bake Oven. Even if some of the stories were embellished over time, he says, “a lot of them are real.”
Born in 1896 in Brooklyn, Marx was mostly raised by a maid rather than his two parents, who had emigrated from Berlin. Early in life, Marx’s hobbies included basketball, ice-skating and shoplifting, because “you weren’t anyone if you couldn’t steal,” he told a reporter in his later years. Still, Marx worked hard as a student and earned his high school degree in three years. Soon after, he worked for Ferdinand Strauss, who specialized in tin toys. From there he worked his way up to factory manager.
Then he broke free when he came up with a cheaper and better way to make a Strauss toy. In his 20s, Marx made his first million. “[Marx’s company] became Strauss to a greater degree,” historian Tom Johnson says. At every moment, he innovated, tinkering with materials, technology and design. But some things never changed. Marx’s toys all had the same logo — “MAR” encircled, with an “X” in the background, like a railroad crossing. A slogan emblazoned the boxes: “One of the many Marx toys, have you all of them?” Indeed, many did own a lot of them: In 1955, Marx produced roughly 10 percent of toys sold in the U.S., according to Time.
At every turn, Marx chose eccentricity over custom. At home, he’d bask in the sun in the winter, sitting in the bottom of his drained pool’s empty shell. He smoked his favorite cigars and worked on his verbiage, learning new words and turns of phrase, straight from the dictionary. When Marx worked out, he’d continue to learn vocabulary. “After a stiff workout,” a friend told Time, “Lou’s breath comes in polysyllables.”
With a party-loving spirit, Marx added the phrase Dum Vivimus, Vivamus — meaning “while we live, let us live” — to a batch of silk ties he gave away. Mostly, though, he was kind. “People in Marx factories in Erie and West Virginia loved him. They thought he was great and not a tyrant,” Johnson says.
By virtue of his personality, Marx collected powerful friends. Legend has it that young Marx met Dwight D. Eisenhower when Ike needed repairs on a couple of broken trains. At first, Marx sent Eisenhower to another shop before taking the job himself. Eisenhower sent his thanks along with an invitation to West Point football games. Later, when Marx became a toy tycoon, he had the money and influence to play a meaningful role supporting Eisenhower’s presidential bid.
But Eisenhower wasn’t his only presidential connection. On Christmas Eve in 1971, Lyndon Baines Johnson dressed himself as Santa Claus and traveled to a hangar where the families of his ranch hands stood in line to receive presents. The ones he handed out came from none other than his friend Marx, according to Texas Monthly in 1976. “In his day he became bigger than his company in terms of personality. He was like Trump,” Coopee says. “He became bigger than the industry he was in and hobnobbed with politicians and Hollywood people alike.”
The good times eventually had to end, though. In 1972, Marx sold his company, which had competed with the Mattels and Hasbros of the day, to Quaker Oats. Quaker Oats also owned Fisher-Price, and believed the pairing would go well. “It didn’t work,” Coopee says. Four years later, Quaker Oats sold Marx’s company, losing millions.
While alive, Marx wrote a Christmas list with his friends and their childrens’ names. Time reported as such: “Altogether, Marx [is] a real-life Santa to more than 100,000 children. To the children of cops and waiters and charwomen, boys and girls in orphanages and other institutions, he gives a million toys a year.”Dum vivimus, vivamus.