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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 of tuberculosis. 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; his first piece was a small poem entitled 'Creede,' By the age of 15 he worked for the Pueblo
and gained the status of a fully-fledged news
reporter, who, like many of his other colleagues, drank, smoked,
frequented whorehouses, and was always under the pressure of deadlines.
When a typographical slip rendered his name 'Runyon,' he
decided to keep it that way. In 1898 he enlisted for the
Spanish-American war – initially he was rejected for his youth
and small stature, but somehow he managed to talk himself into the 13th
Minnesota Volunteers – and was sent to the Philippines. When not
for the Manila Freedom and Soldier's Letter, Runyon spent his time in a "house of ill repute."
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. At that time his hands were shaking so badly that the bartender had to hold his drink. 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.
Periodically Runyon served as a Hearst foreign correspondent in Mexico. From Havana he reported on the Johnson-Willard heavyweight championship fight. His dispatches Runyon sent by airplane, and by radio. During World War I he was also in Europe. He went there in the late autumn of 1918, began to churn out articles and continued doing so until he returned to the U.S. in the early spring of 1919. Walter Winchell recalled that when a cannon exploded near the place where Runyon was writing, he continued without batting an eyelash. Upon completing his story he nonchalantly asked: "Did I hear something?" Following the liberation of Rheims at the American front, he went to the city, noting in his report that the "former German trenches were littered with thousands of empty champagne bottles, looted from the vast vaults in the surrounding countryside. The ancient cathedral was in ruins, "several souvenir hunters were already plying around among the debris, seeking bits of sapphire-like blue glass from the famous north window." (Amid the Ruins: Damon Runyon: World War I Reports from the American Trenches and Occupied Europe, October 1918-March 1919, with a Selection of his Wartime Poetry by Alan D. Gaff & Donald H. Gaff , 2019, pp. 22-23) A newspaper article on the victory parade in New York City finished Runyon's war reporting. Some of his poems, in which he praised the army, were widely published in military newspapers and magazines.
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. His articles about the boxer Jack Dempsey achieved much acclaim.
Like his father, Runyon was 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.
Runyon covered for the New York American
the 1927 Snyder-Gray murder case. It received tremendous attention.
Runyon said that "It was stupid beyond imagination, and so brutal
that the thought of it probably makes many a
peaceful, home-loving Islander of Albert Snyder type shiver in his
pajamas as he prepares for bed." (Mine Eyes Have Seen: A First-Person History of the Events That Shaped America by Richard Goldstein, 1997, p. 234 )
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!" Both were sentenced to die in the electric chair. The case became the basis of James M. Cain's novel Double Indemnity, which was made into a film by Billy Wilder in 1944.
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. Marilyn Monroe once said, that what she wanted most was to be in the film version of Guys and Dolls. She met Runyon in 1946.
Like Walt Whitman, who celebrated the energy of the city, Runyon was thrilled by the variety of New York, it was his playground. 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, 1626 Broadway. Runyon put the restaurant in his stories, where it was called Mindy's. "One evening along about seven o'clock, I am sitting in Mindy's restaurant putting on some gefilte fish, which is a dish I am very fond of, when in come three parties from Brooklyn wearing caps as follows: Harry the Horse, Little Isadore, and Spanish John." ('Butch Minds the Baby,' 1930) 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: Amid the Ruins: Damon Runyon: World War I Reports from the American Trenches and Occupied Europe, October 1918-March 1919, with a Selection of his Wartime Poetry by Alan D. Gaff & Donald H. Gaff (2019); Winchell and Runyon: the True Untold Story by Trustin Howard (2010); 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." There is a great deal of confusion surrounding Runyon's date of birth. October 3, 1880, was the date provided by the author himself on his passport application and his draft registration in 1918.