Palm Beach Santa Claus

Damon Runyon

December 24 1938

It is the afternoon of a hot day in the city of West Palm Beach, Florida, and a guy by the name of Fatso Zimpf is standing on a street corner thinking of very little and throwing so much shade that a couple of small stove lids are sitting on the curb at his feet keeping cool, for this Fatso weighs three hundred pounds if he weighs a carat and as he is only about five feet eight inches tall he is really quite a tub of blubber and casts a very wide shadow.

At that, he is somewhat undernourished at this time and in fact is maybe fifteen or twenty pounds underweight as he does not partake of food for two days, and if the small stove lids know how hungry he is the chances are they will not be sitting so close to him. To tell the truth, Fatso is so hungry that his stomach is wondering if his throat is on a vacation and what is more he does not have as much as one thin dime in his pants pockets to relieve his predicament.

This Fatso is a horse player by trade and he is en route to Miami to participate in the winter meetings at Tropical Park and Hialeah, and he leaves New York City with just enough money to get him as far as West Palm Beach by bus, but with nothing over for food and drink on the journey. However, he does not regret having to leave the bus at West Palm Beach as his strength is slowly dwindling from hunger and he figures he may be able to get something to eat there. Besides, the bus people are talking of charging him excess fare because it seems that Fatso laps over on both sides in one seat so much that they claim it is just the same as if he has three seats, and other passengers are complaining and the journey is by no means a pleasure trip for Fatso.

Well, while Fatso is standing there on the corner all of a sudden a big red roadster pulls up in the street in front of him with a good-lookmg tanned young guy in a sport shirt driving it and a skinny Judy sitting in the seat next to him and the skinny Judy motions for Fatso to come out to the car.

At first Fatso does not pay any attention to her because he does not wish to move around and take his shade away from the small stove lids. as he can see that they are very comfortable, and when it comes to children no kinder-hearted guy than Fatso ever lived no matter if they are slightly colored children. In fact, Fatso is enduring no little suffering from the heat, standing there just because he is too kindhearted to move.

The skinny Judy in the roadster keeps motioning to him and then she cries “Hey, you!” in a loud tone so finally Fatso goes out in the street to the car figuring that maybe she wishes to ask him the way to some place although of course Fatso does not know the way to any place in these parts, and he can see that she is not a bad-looking Judy, though not young, and that she has yellow hair tied back with a fancy handkerchief and a blue sweater and blue slacks and a lot of bracelets on her arms and rings on her fingers.

Fatso can see that this is a party who must be in the money and he can also see that she has hard blue eyes and a bossy way about her because as he goes up to the side of the car with the small stove lids following in his shade she speaks to him in a voice that seems to scratch on her tonsils coming up, as follows: “Look here,” she says, “are you out of a job?”

Now this Fatso is always very courteous to all female characters even when he can see that they are nothing but mountain lions and he bows and says:

“Well,” he says, “not to give you a short answer, ma’am, but who wants to know?”

“I do,” the skinny Judy says. ‘I’m Mrs. Manwaring Mimm.”

“I am Elmore Zimpf.” Fatso says, though up to this time he never before mentions his first name in public for fear of arousing criticism.

“Never mind who you are,” Mrs. Mimm says. “Do you want a job or are you on relief?”

Naturally. Fatso does not want a job, for jobs are what he is keeping away from all his life and furthermore he does not care for Mrs. Minim’s manner and he is about to back away from this situation when he gets to thinking how hungry he is. So he asks her what kind of a job she is thinking of and she says to him like this:

“I want you for my Santa Claus,” she says. “I am giving my annual Christmas Eve party at my place in Palm Beach tomorrow night and as soon as I see you I say to the count here that you are the very one for my Santa Claus. My Santa Claus suit will just fit you,” she says. “We always have to stuff it up with pillows for my butler Sparks and he never looks natural.”

At this Fatso remembers that Christmas is indeed close at hand and naturally this makes him think of Mindy’s restaurant on Broadway and the way they cook turkey there with dressing and cranberry sauce and with mashed potatoes and turnips or maybe baked squash to come along and thinking of these matters causes him to sigh heavily and to forget where he is for the moment until he is aroused by hearing the young guy driving the car speak as follows:

“This fat bum is dead from the neck up, Margaret,” he says. “You better find someone else.”

“No,” she says, “I must have this one. Why, Gregorio, he will be a sensational Santa Claus. See here,” she says to Fatso, “I will give you fifty dollars.”

Well, on hearing the young guy speak of him as a fat bum, Fatso’s thoughts return to West Palm Beach at once and he takes a good look at the young guy and he can now see that he has a piece of a mustache on his upper lip and that there is something about him that is quite familiar.

However, Fatso cannot place him as anybody he knows so he figures it is just the type that makes him seem familiar because of course there are thousands of good-looking tanned young guys with pieces of mustaches on their upper lips running around Florida at this season of the year, but he is greatly displeased with this particular young guy for calling him a fat bum.

In fact, Fatso is insulted because while he does not mind being called fat or even a bum he does not care to be called both at the same time because it sounds unrefined. He is figuring that maybe it will be an excellent idea to reach over and tag this young guy one on the chops, when he remembers hearing Mrs. Mimm mention fifty dollars.

So he takes this matter up with her to make certain his ears do not deceive him and sure enough she is willing to give him half a C to be her Santa Claus with two boffoes in advance so he can get across Lake Worth to an address she gives him without walking, provided he will proceed there at once, and Fatso accepts these terms and dismisses the small stove lids from his shade with a nickel apiece and the chances are they figure he is Santa Claus already.

Now this is how Fatso Zimpf comes to be at Pink Waters which is the name of Mrs. Manwaring Mimm’s estate in Palm Beach and this estate is about the size of Central Park and faces on the ocean and has many palm trees and fountains and statuary and a swimming pool and a house that reminds Fatso of Rockefeller Center, and with enough servants running around to form a union.

Fatso reports to the butler Sparks and it turns out that this Sparks is very glad to see him when he learns that Fatso is to be Santa Claus because it seems that Sparks always considers it most undignified for a high-class butler to go around being Santa Claus with pillows stuffed down his pants.

Furthermore, it turns out that Sparks is a horse player at heart and when he finds that Fatso is familiar with the gee-gees he becomes very friendly to be sure and supplies him with plenty of information and scandal about one and all in the best circles of Palm Beach and several surrounding spots.

He explains to Fatso that Pink Waters is one of the biggest estates in these parts and that Mrs. Manwaring Mimm is richer than six feet down in Iowa, with money that she gets off her papa, who makes it out of the oil dodge years back, and that she marries anytime she feels like it and that she feels like it three times so far and is now feeling like it again. In fact, Sparks tells Fatso that she is now feeling like marrying a young guy by the name of Johnny Relf who also has plenty of dough or will have when his parents kindly pass away.

Sparks says that personally he does not approve of this marriage because there is a slight disparity in age between the parties concerned. He says Johnny is only in his middle twenties and not too bright for his years, at that, while Mrs. Mimm is two face-liftings old that he knows of, but he says she is such a determined character that he does not think it advisable for him to mention his disapproval of her plan.

Then Fatso remembers the young guy in the roadster with Mrs. Mimm and he asks Sparks is this the party she is going to marry and Sparks says:

“Oh, no,” he says. “That is Count Gregorio Ferrone of an old Italian noble family. Mrs. Mimm meets him in New York last summer and brings him here to Pink Waters as a house guest. I understand,” Sparks says, “that he is about to contract a marriage that will be most advantageous to him. I do not think,” he says, “that the count is in funds to any extent.”

“He is very impolite,” Fatso says. “He does not talk much like a foreigner to me. He calls me a fat bum without any accent. Personally,” Fatso says, “I mark him N.G.”

“Well,” Sparks says, “to tell you the truth I second the motion. The count is indeed a little brusque at times, especially,” he says, “with the servants. He claims he lives in this country off and on for years so perhaps he loses his accent. Mrs. Mimm does not really seem to know much about him.”

Then Sparks tells Fatso that he is not expected to do anything at all until it comes time for him to be Santa Claus the next night so Fatso wanders around and about and admires the sights and scenes of Palm Beach and finally he strolls along the ocean sands and there in a lonely spot what does he behold but a beautiful young Judy of maybe eighteen crying as if her heart will break.

Now if there is one thing Fatso cannot stand it is the sight of a female character in distress, so he steps up to her and taps her on the shoulder and says to her like this:

“Little miss,” he says, “are you in trouble?”

“Yes, I am,” she says: “who are you?”

“Why,” Fatso says, “I am Santa Claus.”

“Oh, no,” she says. “There is no Santa Claus. I know it better now than anybody else in this world. Anyway,” she says, “if you are Santa Claus where are your whiskers?”

Then Fatso explains about how he is to be Santa Claus for Mrs. Mimm the next night and as soon as he mentions Mrs. Mimm’s name the beautiful young Judy starts crying harder than ever.

“Mrs. Mimm is the whole trouble,” she says. “Mrs. Mimm steals my Johnny away from me and now I must marry Count Gregorio. I hate him even if he is a count. Mrs. Mimm is an old thing and I want my Johnny.”

She continues her crying and Fatso stands there putting two and two together and he can see that he comes upon another angle of the situation that Sparks the butler describes to him.

“Tut-tut,” he says. “They tell me Johnny is a lightweight. Dry your tears and think no more of the matter.”

Well, at this she stops crying and gazes at Fatso who observes that her eyes are a soft brown and he also observes that she has a shape that is worthy of mention, for Fatso is very observing even if he is fat, and finally she says:

“Of course Johnny is a lightweight,” she says. “Everybody knows that. In fact,” she says, “everybody knows he is a complete nitwit, but,” she says, “what difference does that make? I love him. He is awfully good-looking and lots of fun. I love him a zillion dollars’ worth. If you are Santa Claus,” she says, “you give me my Johnny for my Christmas present instead of the speedboat my papa is getting me. I want my Johnny. I hope Mrs. Mimm drops dead.”

Now there are more tears and Fatso keeps patting her on the shoulder and saying now, now, now, and there, there, there, and finally she quiets down and he is able to get a better idea of her story. It is a simple love story such as Fatso often hears before, because a fat guy is always hearing love stories though he never has any to tell himself.

It seems that she and this Johnny have a big quarrel one night in New York because she wishes to go to the Stork Club and he wishes to go to El Morocco and harsh words are exchanged and they part in bitter anger and the next thing she knows he is in Palm Beach and Mrs. Mimm is taking dead aim at him and then this Count Gregorio Ferrone comes along and her papa and mama decide that it will be a great idea for her to marry him and give them an excuse to have a villa in Italy.

Well, it seems that she agrees to do same while she is still sored up at Johnny but when her papa and mama take her to their own home in Palm Beach for the winter and she learns the situation between Johnny and Mrs. Mimm is quite serious, she regrets her decision and spends all her time wandering along the sands by herself.

In fact, she says if Fatso does not happen along this particular day the chances are her remainders will now be floating out to sea, because she learns from a jeweler on Worth Avenue that Johnny just buys a square-cut diamond ring the size of a bath rug and that she knows it must be Mrs. Mimm’s Christmas present and to tell the truth she hears that Mrs. Mimm picks it out herself and tips the jeweler off to promote Johnny into buying this ring. Furthermore, she hears that Mrs. Mimm is going to announce her engagement to Johnny at the Christmas party.

“And,” she says, “I will have to be there to hear it because Count Gregorio is her house guest and my papa and mama are going and it will be considered very peculiar if I fail to be present. Anyway,” she says, “I will hate to have anyone know I am so downcast about Johnny and why I am telling you I cannot think except you are fat and have a kind face.”

By this time Fatso is becoming somewhat impatient with tears, so he changes the subject and asks her who she is and she says her name is Betty Lou Marvel and that her papa is nobody but Junius X. Marvel, the big automobile guy.

She says everybody in Palm Beach is afraid of Mrs. Mimm because she can think up very strange things to say about anybody she does not like and that nobody dare stay away from her parties if they are invited, especially her Christmas party. Betty Lou says it is years since anybody has a private Christmas in Palm Beach because Mrs. Mimm makes them bring all their presents to her party and has them given away there by her own Santa Claus and Betty Lou says she is glad they cannot take her speedboat there, and so is Fatso when he comes to think it over.

“Well, little miss,” Fatso finally says, “kindly give Count Gregorio no more thought. I am personally giving him much consideration ever since he calls me a fat bum and I will take care of him. But,” he says, “I do not see what I can do about your Johnny and Mrs. Mimm and if he is such a numskull as to prefer her to you maybe you are better off without him. Merry Christmas, little miss,” he says.

“Merry Christmas, Santa Claus,” Betty Lou says, and then Fatso goes on strolling along the sands wishing he is younger and two hundred pounds lighter.

Well, it comes on Christmas Eve and Pink Waters is all lighted up like Palisades Park with a Christmas tree as tall as a church steeple in the middle of the patio and all the fountains going with colored lights squirting on the water and two orchestras playing one after the other and long tables spread out in the open. In fact, it is as beautiful a scene as anybody could wish to see and very Christmasy-looking except it is quite hot.

When the guests are assembling, Fatso is taken in his Santa Claus suit into the library of the house which opens out into the patio by Sparks the butler and given a little final coaching there.

It seems that the first part of the party is for the neighbors’ children and the second part is for the grown-ups, male and female, and on the Christmas tree in the patio and stacked up at the foot of the tree are many packages containing the presents for the little ones and Sparks explains that it is the duty of Fatso as Santa Claus to distribute these packages.

On a table in the library is a pile of small packages and Sparks says that after he distributes the packages to the children in the patio. Fatso is to return to the library and put these small packages in his Santa Claus bag and go out and stand under the tree again and take the small packages out of the bag one by one and call off the names written on them and hand them out to the parties they are meant for.

“You will be very careful with these small packages,” Sparks says. “They contain presents from husbands to their ever-loving wives and vice versa and from one sweet pea to another, and so forth and so on. The chances are there are many valuable gewgaws in these packages,” he says.

Then Sparks leaves Fatso alone in the library while he goes out to see if everything is ready for the appearance of Santa Claus and Fatso can observe him through the tall French window that opens on the patio, bustling about through the gay scene, and with nothing else to do until Sparks’s return, Fatso takes to examining the small packages and thinking to himself that if he has the money the contents represent the chances are he will be able to retire from horse playing and perhaps find some beautiful young Judy like Betty Lou to love him.

He observes Betty Lou in the patio with the young guy that he now knows as Count Gregorio and he can see that she seems somewhat depressed and then he notices Mrs. Mimm with a tall blond young guy at her heels that he figures must be the Johnny Relf that Betty Lou is crying about and Fatso thinks to himself that from his looks this Johnny must indeed be something of a waste ball.

Finally Sparks returns and says everything is all set and out into the patio goes Fatso jingling a lot of sleigh bells and beaming on one and all and the orchestras play and the little children let out shrill cries of joy. There is no doubt but what Fatso is a wonderful success as Santa Claus with the little children and many of them wish to shake hands with him but after an hour of standing under the tree picking up packages and calling off names, Fatso commences to get a little weary.

Moreover, he commences to get a trifle vexed with the little ones, especially when some of them insist on pulling his whiskers and small boys start kicking him on the ankles to see if he is alive and by and by Fatso is thinking that maybe President Roosevelt is right about the redistribution of wealth.

In fact, Fatso becomes so vexed that he takes to quietly stepping on a few little toesies here and there accidentally on purpose and the childish cries of pain are enough to break anybody’s heart and probably many of these children stop believing in Santa Claus.

Well, he finally gets rid of all the little children and they are taken away by their nurses and only the grown-ups are left and it is a gay gathering to be sure with one and all in evening dress and drinking champagne and dancing, and Fatso retires to the library again and when Sparks comes in to help him load up with the small packages, Fatso says to him like this:

“Sparksy,” he says, “who is the most jealous married guy present at this party?”

“Why,” Sparks says, “that is an easy one. The most jealous married guy at this party or anywhere else in the world is undoubtedly old Joel Brokebaugh. He is an old walrus who is married to a young mouse, and,” Sparks says, “he thinks that every guy who says good morning to Mrs. Brokebaugh is after her, although,” he says, “this idea will make you laugh yourself sick when you see her.

“She is undoubtedly a very low score for looks,” Sparks says. “Furthermore,” he says, “she has no more spirit than a gooseberry. Old Brokebaugh is so stingy he will not let her buy a new hat or a new dress more than once every few years although he has millions. He does not wish her to dress up for fear some guy may notice her. Personally,” Sparks says, “I think old Brokebaugh is touched in the mind for figuring anybody else will ever want his wife, but he has a violent temper and often causes scenes and some say he even carries a pistol in his pocket at all times.”

“Brokebaugh, eh?” Fatso says.

“Yes,” Sparks says. “They are sitting together under the coconut palm by the big fountain, though why they come to a Christmas party nobody knows because they never give each other anything in the way of presents and take no part in the festivities. Everybody feels sorry for Mrs. Brokebaugh, but,” Sparks says, “I say what she needs is some spunk.”

Well, Fatso again goes out into the patio with his bag full of the small packages and by this time what with the champagne and the dancing and the spirit of the occasion and all this and that, everybody is in a lively mood and they give Fatso a big cheer and no one is any gayer than Mrs. Mimm.

In fact, she is practically hilarious and she gives Fatso a large smile as he goes past her and he can see that she is pleased with his efforts and he can also see that she still has this Johnny with her and that Johnny looks no brighter than before, if as bright, and then Fatso spots the couple Sparks speaks of under the coconut palm and he is somewhat surprised to note that Sparks slightly overrates Mrs. Brokebaugh’s appearance.

Even from a distance Fatso can see that she is a zero for looks but he can also see that the old guy with her seems to be about as described by Sparks, only more so. He is a tall, thin old guy with a red face and a bald head and eyes like a shark and Fatso observes that the servants tiptoe going past him.

Well, Fatso gets under the tree and starts calling out names once more and giving out packages and there is now great excitement and many oohs and ahs in female voices on all sides and finally he gets down to just a few packages and calls out the name of Johnny Relf and right away afterward the name of Miss Betty Lou Marvel and in fact Fatso calls them so close together that they meet under the tree though all they do is exchange cruel glances.

Fatso does not say anything whatever to this Johnny as he gives him his package, because Fatso feels that he already does enough talking in words of one syllable to the children, but when Miss Betty Lou steps up he gives her a smile and says:

“Merry Christmas, little miss.”

“Merry Christmas, Santa Claus,” she says, “but I still do not believe in you.”

Then she starts walking away opening her package as she goes and all of a sudden she lets out a cry and starts running toward Johnny Relf but by now Johnny opens his own package, too, and starts running toward Betty Lou.

So they meet practically head-on and start taking holds on each other in the presence of one and all, because it seems that Betty Lou’s present is a large square-cut diamond ring with a card in the box which states that it is to my beloved from Johnny and that his present is a pair of big black pearl studs with a card saying they are with all my heart to Johnny from Betty Lou.

Of course nobody bothers to look into the matter at the moment, but when somebody does so later on it is considered something of a coincidence that the writing on the two cards is exactly the same and not very neat, but one and all figure it is just an act of Providence and let it go at that, especially as an act of Providence is regarded as quite a compliment to Palm Beach.

In fact, at this particular moment nobody is paying much attention to anything much but the great happiness of Betty Lou and Johnny, except Mrs. Mimm and she is watching Fatso with keen interest, though Fatso is unaware of her attention as he walks over to where Mrs. Brokebaugh is sitting and hands her a package instead of calling out her name.

Then Fatso returns to the house figuring to get his Santa Claus suit off and collect his wages from Sparks and vanish from these parts before anybody learns that he writes these cards when he is alone in the library and swaps them for cards that will give the ring to Mrs. Mimm from Johnny and the black pearls to Johnny from Mrs. Mimm, in both cases with love.

While he is walking through a long hallway, all of a sudden Fatso gets a feeling that he is being followed, and looking around he observes Mrs. Mimm close behind him. There is something about Mrs. Mimm that causes Fatso to walk a little faster and then he notes that Mrs. Mimm is walking quite a little faster than he is.

So Fatso dodges into an open doorway that he hopes and trusts may lead him elsewhere but he forgets that when he goes through doors it is usually advisable for him to turn sideways because of his great width. He goes at this door frontways and the next thing he knows there he is stuck right in the middle of the doorway and then he becomes conscious of great discomfort to the southward as it seems that Mrs. Mimm is forgetting she is a lady and is kicking him severely and it also seems that these evening shoes that the Judys wear nowadays with their bare toes sticking out in front are capable of inflicting greater pain when used for kicking than just ordinary shoes.

In the meantime, it appears that there is some commotion in the patio because Mrs. Brokebaugh is so startled at getting any Christmas present at all that she cannot open the package Fatso gives her so old Mr. Brokebaugh opens it for her and finds a gold vanity case with a card that reads as follows:

“To my sweetest sweet from Gregorio.”

Well, of course old Mr. Brokebaugh has no way of knowing that this is Count Gregorio’s present to Betty Lou and that Fatso does not even change the card but only rubs out Betty Lou’s name on it and puts down Mrs. Brokebaugh’s, though naturally old Mr. Brokebaugh knows who Gregorio is.

In fact, he can see Gregorio at this very moment standing near by feeling of his little mustache and looking greatly bewildered at the scene that is still going on at intervals, between Betty Lou and Johnny, and all of a sudden old Mr. Brokebaugh lets out a yell and jumps up and pulls a pistol out of his pocket and starts full tilt at the count speaking in a loud tone, as follows:

“So,” he says, “you are making a play for my wife, are you, scoundrel?”

Well, of course Count Gregorio has no idea what old Mr. Brokebaugh is talking about, but he has eyes in his head and he can see that Mr. Brokebaugh is making a dead set for him and that he is hotter than a firecracker and he can also see the pistol and from the way the count turns and starts running it is plain to be seen that whatever he may be, he is no sucker.

He knocks over three débutantes and a banker worth ten million dollars making for the patio wall and trying to keep trees and bushes between him and Mr. Brokebaugh as he goes and all this time old Mr. Brokebaugh is running after him and with surprising speed for a guy his age and waving the pistol and requesting the count to stand still and be shot.

He never gets a really fair crack at the count except when Gregorio is going over the wall and then old Mr. Brokebaugh lets fly twice and misses both times and the sound of this shooting probably saves Fatso many more contusions as it brings Mrs. Mimm running into the patio to find out what is going on and in her absence Fatso wiggles on through the doorway.

So Fatso shakes the sands of Palm Beach from his feet regretting only that he never gets a chance to ask Betty Lou if she now believes in Santa Claus and he goes on down to Miami and a year later he relates the above circumstances to me one day when we are sitting in the rocking chairs on the veranda of the Hotel McAllister hoping to catch somebody going to the races with a couple of spare seats in their car, for things are by no means dinkum with Fatso and me at the moment.

“You see,” Fatso says, “tomorrow is Christmas again and this is what reminds me of these matters at this time.”

“So it is, Fatso,” I say. “It is strange how time flies. But, Fatso,” I say, “are you not most severe on Count Gregorio in not only knocking him out of a chance to pick up a few boffoes by marriage but in almost getting him plugged by a jealous husband?”

“No,” Fatso says. “By no means. You must always remember he calls me a fat bum. Besides,” he says, “old Brokebaugh just spares me the humiliation of denouncing Gregorio as a former busboy in Vincenti’s wop restaurant in West Fiftieth Street and still wanted for robbing the damper of thirty-six dollars.

“I will never forgive myself if I am compelled to holler copper on anybody whatsoever,” Fatso says, “but,” he says, “of course I will do so as a last resort to prevent Gregorio from marrying Betty Lou. It comes to me all of a sudden why his face is familiar when I am strolling on the sands the time I meet Betty Lou. I never forget a face.”

Well, at this moment a big limousine stops in front of the hotel and a small-sized lively Judy all dressed up and sparkling with jewelry hops out of the car and runs up the veranda steps with three good-looking tanned young guys with little mustaches running after her and she is laughing and gay and looks like plenty in the bank, and I am greatly surprised when she skips up to Fatso and gives him a pat on the arm and says like this:

“Merry Christmas, Santa Claus!”

Then she is gone as quick as she comes and the young guys with her and she is still laughing and Fatso is gazing at a fifty-dollar note in his hand with great pleasure and he says:

“She is from Palm Beach,” he says. “Anytime anybody from Palm Beach recognizes me they stake me to something because they remember that Mrs. Mimm never pays me the fifty she promises me for being her Santa Claus. I understand,” Fatso says, “that it is a public scandal in Palm Beach.”

“Is this one Betty Lou?” I ask.

“Oh, no,” Fatso says. “She is Mrs. Brokebaugh. I recall now I hear that ever since she gets the Christmas present that she thinks to this very day is from Count Gregorio, she decides she is a natural-born charmer and blossoms out into a life of gaiety, and,” Fatso says, “they tell me her husband cannot do a thing about it. Well, Merry Christmas to you.”

“Merry Christmas, Fatso,” I say.