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(Alfred) Damon Runyon (1884-1946) - original surname Runyan

 

American short-story writer and humorist, companion to Al Capone, Jack Dempsey, Babe Ruth, Arnold Rothstein and Walter Winchell – a legendary reporter who established his reputation with his stories of horse racing, gambling, and the criminal underworld. Among Runyon's best-known work is Guys and Dolls (1931), based on 'The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown.' Runyon's style relied on Broadway slang, outrageous metaphors, diverse ethnic discourses, and constant use of the present tense.

"Always try to rub against money, for if you rub against money long enough, some of it may rub off on you." (from 'A Very Honourable Guy')

Damon Runyon was born in Manhattan, Kansas, but he grew up in Pueblo, Colorado. His mother was Elizabeth (Damon) Runyan and father Alfred Lee Runyan, a storyteller, itinerant printer, and publisher of smalltown newspapers. When Runyon was nine his mother died. While his father spent his free time in bars, Runyon was left on his own, getting 'street wise' quickly. One of his heroes was gunman-sheriff Bat Masterson, whom he would later meet in Colorado.

Runyon was educated in public schools before being expelled from the sixth grade. At an early age he had followed his father into the newspaper business. By the age of 15 he worked for the Pueblo Evening Press, and gained the status of a fully-fledged news reporter. When a typographical slip rendered his name 'Runyon,' he decided to keep it that way. In 1898 he enlisted for the Spanish-American war and was sent to the Philippines. There he wrote for the Manila Freedom and Soldier's Letter.

After leaving the army he worked as a journalist on small dailies. In his thirties, when his body couldn't handle alcohol anymore, he stopped drinking cold turkey. After working as a sportswriter for the Denver Post, he became a director of the Denver Press Club in 1908. Runyon began publishing verses and short stories in national magazines such as McClure's and Harper's Weekly. His first book, The Tents of Trouble (1911), was a collection of poems. In 1910 he went to New York City to work for the Hearst daily, the New York American. To get material for his column, 'The Mornin's Mornin', he spent much time with the colorful characters of Broadway. A nighthawk, he rarely woke up before three in the afternoon. Several of his 'Broadway Stories' appeared in book form in the 1930s.

In 1912 and 1916 Runyon served as a Hearst foreign correspondent in Mexico. During World War I he was also in Europe. In the 1920s Runyon had developed his recognizable stylistic peculiarity, narrating in the 'historical present.' He was especially adept at describing small details and angles that other reporters did not observe. Though Hearst's American was national and international in coverage, the vibrant, frivolous, and pleasure-seeking New York was the city of all cities. Runyon covered the New York baseball clubs for many years, as well as various other sports venues, focusing on human interest rather than strict facts. Like his father, he was also a gambler, whose famous saying was: "I long ago came to the conclusion that all life is 6 to 5 against." (from 'A Nice Price') Runyon's underworld stories became popular and his feature 'As I See It' was syndicated in the Hearst newspapers across the country. At the peak of his career, Runyon had a daily readership of over ten million – he was called America's premier journalist, but at the same time he was despised by elitist critics.

In the 1920s Runyon covered for the New York American the infamous Snyder/Gray murder. It became the basis of James M. Cain's novel Double Indemnity, which was made into a film by Billy Wilder in 1944. Ruth Snyder was a housewife, who had tried to kill her husband Albert and failed. Then she met a corset salesman, Judd Gray. They whacked, poisoned, and choked Albert to death. Runyon described the two killers: "A chilly-looking blonde with frosty eyes and one of those marble you-bet-you-will chins, and an inert, scare-drunk fellow that you couldn't miss among any hundred men as a dead set-up for a blonde, or the shell game, or maybe a gold brick – on trial for what might be called for want of a better name: the Dumb-bell Murder. It was so dumb!"

In 1932 Runyon's collection Guys and Dolls became commercially successful. The work took the reader on a journey through the world of gamblers, bookies and petty criminals. 'Little Miss Marker' told of a little girl, "Marky," who is abandoned by her father, a delinquent bettor, and who is then spoiled by gangsters who adopt her as their own. Runyon avoids the temptation of making story too realistic or too sweet, except at the end, where Marky dies of pneumonia and tough guys cry at her bedside. 'Little Miss Marker' was first time adapted to the screen in 1934 by Alexander Hall, starring Shirley Temple and Adolphe Menjou. Sidney Lanfield remade the film under the title Sorrowful Jones (1949), with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball in the leading roles. He also directed another Damon Runyon film, The Lemon-Drop Kid (1951), starring Bob Hope, and written by Edmund Hartman, Frank Tashlin, and Robert O'Brien.

Frank Loesser and Abe Burrows made 'The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown,' about a Salvation Army "doll" who worked in Times Square, and 'Blood Pressure' into a musical (1950), which opened at the 46th Street Theater on November 24, 1950. One of Broadway's greatest successes at that time, it ran for over 1,200 performances and has been frequently revived ever since around the world. Runyon based the zealous heroine on the real-life Captain Rheba Crawford, known as "The Angel of Broadway" who led midnight open-air meetings during the Twenties. When she was arrested for obstructing the traffic, a crowd crashed through the door of a local police station to release her. Runyon heard of the incident and created the pure-hearted Sister Sarah; in the show she was reduced to a dupe. Loesser, a fast-talking New Yorker, was almost a Runyon character himself; before starting to write songs at 3:00 AM, he mixed himself a double martini.

The show was adapted for screen in 1955, starring Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, and Frank Sinatra. Sam Goldwyn wanted Gene Kelly for the role of Sky Masterson, but he got Brando. Sinatra refused to act his role as written: he liked to shoot scenes with a minimum number of takes, whereas Brando liked to experiment. The best scene between Brando and Simmons is in the Havana nightclub, but otherwise the film lacked the spontaneity of the stage version. In the early 1940s Runyon also worked in Hollywood as a writer and producer. Frank Capra and Raymond Chandler used variants of his idiom, and actors like William Bendix and Mike Mazurki drew on his types to build their characterizations.

Like Walt Whitman, who celebrated the energy of the city, Runyon was thrilled by the variety of New York. His focus was on Broadway, beginning in the financial district, and ending at 59th Street. The archetype of tough, cynical reporter, who mingled with gangster and show people, became part of Runyon's public image. He parodied such issues as police corruption and organized crime, and managed to avoid the criticism easily prompted by realistic writing with a message. His characters, Lemon Drop Kid, Dave the Dude, Harry the Horse, Dream Street Rose, Izzy Cheesecake reflected the colorful side of urban life. According to an anecdote, Runyon himself had "dozens of suits color-coordinated not only down to his socs but even to his typewriters." Runyon's fiction was natural for the big screen: sixteen stories and one play were turned into movies.

The story 'Madame La Gimp,' about Apple Annie, who gets help from gangsters to pose as a rich woman, for the sake of her daughter, was filmed twice, by Frank Capra in 1933 as The Lady for a Day, and by Capra again in Pocketful of Miracles (1961), with Bette Davis as Apple Annie and Glenn Ford as Dave. A Slight Case of Murder (1938), directed by Lloyd Bacon, starring Edward G. Robinson, Ruth Donnelly, Allen Jenkins, and Edward Brophy, was based on a play by Runyon and Howard Lindsay. In the story one-time bootlegger tries to go legitimate but his house-party is intruded upon by the bodies of four late enemies.

By the end of the 1930s, Runyon had become a national celebrity. He held nightly meetings with friends and colleagues at Lindy's restaurant. In 1938 Runyon developed throat cancer and in 1944 an operation left him unable to speak. However, Runyon continued his meetings, communicating by written notes. He died two years later on December 10, 1946. His ashes were scattered out of a plane over Broadway, by the First World War air ace Eddie Rickenbacker. Runyon was married twice. His first wife was Ellen Egan, a society reporter on the Rocky Mountain News; they had two children. After separating from her in 1928, Runyon's companion was Patrice Amati, whom he had met in Mexico while searching for Pancho Villa. Runyon build for her an all-white mansion on Hibiscus Island in Florida. Their marriage was dissolved in June 1946.

For further reading: Broadway Boogie Woogie: Damon Runyon and the Making of New York City Culture by Daniel R. Schwarz (2003); Gangsters & Gold Diggers: Old New York, the Jazz Age, and the Birth of Broadway by Jerome Charyn (2003); Damon Runyon: A Life by Jimmy Breslin (1991); The Men Who Invented Broadway: Damon Runyon, Walter Winchell & Their World by John Mosedale (1980); The World of Damon Runyon by T. Clark (1978); Runonese by J. Wagner (1965); A Gentleman of Broadway by E.P. Hoyt (1964); Father's Footsteps by D. Runyon (1953) - Note: the Oxford English Dictionary describes "Runyonese" as "slang or underworld jargon characteristic or suggestive of that used in the short stories on Runyon."

Selected works:

  • The Tents of Trouble, 1911
  • Rhymes of the Firing Line, 1912
  • Guys and Dolls, 1931 (with an introduction by Heywood Broun) - film 1955, written and directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, starring Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Vivian Blaine, Stubby Kaye. "Nathan Detroit (Sinatra) needs a location for his floating crap game – the cops are on his tail. In order to get the money to rent somewhere he bets that Sky Masterson (Brando) can seduce Salvation Army worker Jean Simmons into an assignation in Havana. Sky gets her to to Cuba by promising to rustle up sinners for salvation... While the lines remain true to Runyon ('This is no way for a gentleman to act and could lead to irritation on the part of Harry the Horse.') the film remains static, almost set-led rather than script-led." (from The BFI Companion to Crime, ed. by Phil Hardy, 1997)
  • Damon Runyon's Blue Plate Special, 1934 (with a foreword by Walter Winchell)
  • Money from Home, 1935
  • More Than Somewhat..., 1937
  • Furthermore, 1938 (USA, 1941)
  • The Best of Runyon, 1938 (selected by E. C. Bentley, pictures by Nicolas Bentley)
  • Take It Easy, 1938
  • My Old Man, 1939
  • My Wife Ethel, 1939
  • The Damon Runyon Omnibus, 1939 (3 vols.)
  • The Best of Runyon, 1940
  • A Slight Case of Murder: A Comedy in Three Acts, 1940 (with Howard Lindsay)
  • Damon Runyon Favorites, 1942
  • Capt. APT. Eddie Rickenbacker, 1942 (with W. Kiernan)
  • Runyon à la Carte, 1944
  • The Damon Runyon Omnibus, 1944
  • Ten Stories, 1945
  • Short Takes: Readers’ Choice of the Best Columns of America’s Favorite Newspaperman, Damon Runyon, 1946
  • In Our Town, 1946 (illustrations by Garth Williams)
  • The Three Wise Guys, and Other Stories, 1946
  • Poems for Men, 1947
  • Trials and Other Tribulations, 1948
  • Runyon First and Last, 1949 (foreword by Clark Kinnaird)
  • Runyon on Broadway, 1950 (introduction by E.C. Bentley)
  • More Guys and Dolls: Thirty-Four of the Best Short Stories by Damon Runyon, 1950 (with an introd. by Clark Kinnaird)
  • "The Turps", 1951
  • A Treasury of Damon Runyon, 1958 (selected, with an introd. by Clark Kinnaird)
  • The Best of Damon Runyon, 1966 (with an introd. by Damon Runyon, Jr.)
  • The Bloodhounds of Broadway and Other Stories, 1985 (introduction by Tom Clark)
  • Romance in the Roaring Forties and Other Stories, 1985 (introduction by Tom Clark)
  • Guys and Dolls: The Stories of Damon Runyon, 1992 (introduction by William Kennedy)
  • Guys, Dolls, and Curveballs: Damon Runyon on Baseball, 2005 (edited by Jim Reisler)
  • Guys and Dolls and Other Writings, 2008 (introduction by Pete Hamill; essay and annotations by Daniel R. Schwarz)


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