About Alfred Damon Runyon
Alfred Damon Runyon (October 4, 1880 – December 10, 1946) was an American newspaperman and author.
He was best known for his short stories celebrating the world of Broadway in New York City that grew out of the Prohibition era. To New Yorkers of his generation, a "Damon Runyon character" evoked a distinctive social type from the Brooklyn or Midtown demi-monde. The adjective "Runyonesque" refers to this type of character as well as to the type of situations and dialog that Runyon depicted. He spun humorous tales of gamblers, hustlers, actors, and gangsters, few of whom go by "square" names, preferring instead colorful monikers such as "Nathan Detroit," "Benny Southstreet," "Big Jule," "Harry the Horse," "Good Time Charley," "Dave the Dude," or "The Seldom Seen Kid." His distinctive vernacular style is known as "Runyonese": a mixture of formal speech and colorful slang, almost always in present tense, and always devoid of contractions.
Runyon's fictional world is also known to the general public through the musical Guys and Dolls based on two of his stories, "The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown" and "Blood Pressure". The musical additionally borrows characters and story elements from a few other Runyon stories, most notably "Pick The Winner." The film Little Miss Marker (and its remake, Sorrowful Jones) grew from his short story of the same name.
Runyon was also a newspaperman. He wrote the lead article for UP on Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Presidential inauguration in 1933.
Life and work
Damon Runyon was born as Alfred Damon Runyan to a family of newspapermen in Manhattan, Kansas. His grandfather was a newspaper printer from New Jersey who had relocated to Manhattan, Kansas in 1855, and his father was editor of his own newspaper in the town. In 1882 Runyon's father was forced to sell his newspaper, and the family moved westward. The family eventually settled in Pueblo, Colorado, in 1887, where Runyon spent the rest of his youth. He began to work in the newspaper trade under his father in Pueblo. In present-day Pueblo, Runyon Field, the Damon Runyon Repertory Theater Company and Runyon Lake are now named in his honor. He worked for various newspapers in the Rocky Mountain area; at one of those, the spelling of his last name was changed from "Runyan" to "Runyon," a change he let stand.
In 1898 Runyon enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in the Spanish-American War. While in the service, he was assigned to write for the Manila Freedom and Soldier's Letter.
After a notable failure in trying to organize a Colorado minor baseball league, Runyon moved to New York City in 1910. In his first New York byline, the American editor dropped the "Alfred," and the name "Damon Runyon" appeared for the first time. For the next ten years he covered the New York Giants and professional boxing for the New York American.
He was the Hearst newspapers' baseball columnist for many years, beginning in 1911, and his knack for spotting the eccentric and the unusual, on the field or in the stands, is credited with revolutionizing the way baseball was covered. Perhaps as confirmation, Runyon was inducted into the writers' wing (the J. G. Taylor Spink Award) of the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1967. He is also a member of the International Boxing Hall Of Fame and is known for dubbing heavyweight champion James J. Braddock, the "Cinderella Man". Runyon frequently contributed sports poems to the American on boxing and baseball themes, and also wrote numerous short stories and essays.
One year, while covering spring training in Texas, he met Pancho Villa in a bar in Texas and later accompanied the unsuccessful American expedition into Mexico searching for Villa. It was while he was in Mexico that he met the young girl that he eventually married.
Gambling, particularly on craps or horse races, was a common theme of Runyon's works, and he was a notorious gambler himself. One of his paraphrases from a well-known line in Ecclesiastes ran: "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's how the smart money bets."
A heavy drinker as a young man, he seems to have quit the bottle soon after arriving in New York, after his drinking nearly cost him the courtship of the woman who became his first wife, Ellen Egan. He remained a heavy smoker.
His best friend was mobster accountant Otto Berman, and he incorporated Berman into several of his stories under the alias "Regret, the horse player." When Berman was killed in a hit on Berman's boss, Dutch Schultz, Runyon quickly assumed the role of damage control for his deceased friend, correcting erroneous press releases (including one that stated Berman was one of Schultz's gunmen, to which Runyon replied, "Otto would have been as effective a bodyguard as a two-year-old.")
Runyon's marriage to Ellen Egan produced two children (Mary and Damon, Jr.), and broke up in 1928 over rumors that Runyon had become infatuated with a Mexican girl he had first met while covering the Pancho Villa raids in 1916 and discovered once again in New York, when she called the American seeking him out. Runyon had promised her in Mexico that, if she would complete the education he paid for her, he would find her a dancing job in New York. Her name was Patrice Amati del Grande, and she became his companion after he separated from his wife. After Ellen Runyon died of the effects of her own drinking problems, Runyon and Patrice married; that marriage ended in 1946 when Patrice left Runyon for a younger man.
Runyon died in New York City from throat cancer in late 1946, at age 66. His body was cremated, and his ashes were scattered from an airplane over Broadway in Manhattan by Captain Eddie Rickenbacker on December 18, 1946. The family plot of Damon Runyon is located at Woodlawn Cemetery in Bronx, NY.
After Runyon's death, his friend and fellow journalist, Walter Winchell, went on his radio program and appealed for contributions to help fight cancer, eventually establishing the “Damon Runyon Cancer Memorial Fund” to support scientific research into causes of, and prevention of cancer.
The first ever telethon was hosted by Milton Berle in 1949 to raise funds for the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.
Each year the Denver Press Club assigns the Damon Runyon Award to a prominent journalist. Past winners include Jimmy Breslin, Mike Royko, George Will and Bob Costas.
Damon Runyon Elementary school in Littleton, Colorado is named after him.
The Damon Runyon Stakes is a thoroughbred horse race run every December at Aqueduct Race Track. Runyon loved horse racing and ran a small stable of his own.
In the mid-1930s, Runyon persuaded promoter Leo Seltzer to formally change his Roller Derby spectacle from a marathon roller skating race into a full-contact team sport, an innovation which was eventually revived in a DIY spirit seven decades later.
One block of West 45th Street (between 8th and 9th Avenues) in Manhattan's Hell's Kitchen is named Runyon's Way.
The house in Manhattan, Kansas where Runyon was born is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 2008, The Library of America selected Runyon’s story “The Eternal Blonde” for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American Crime Writing.
Runyon almost totally avoids the past tense (it is thought to be used once, in the short story "The Lily of St Pierre", and once in "The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown"), and makes little use of the future tense, using the present for both. He also avoided the conditional, using instead the future indicative in situations that would normally require conditional. An example: "Now most any doll on Broadway will be very glad indeed to have Handsome Jack Madigan give her a tumble." (Guys and Dolls, "Social error"). There is an homage to Runyon that makes use of this peculiarity (Chronic Offender by Spider Robinson) which involves a time machine.
He uses many slang terms (which go unexplained in his stories), such as:
pineapple = pineapple grenade
roscoe/john roscoe/the old equalizer/that thing = gun
shiv = knife
noggin = head
snoot = nose
There are many recurring composite phrases such as:
ever-loving wife (occasionally "ever-loving doll")
more than somewhat (or "no little, and quite some"); this phrase was so typical that is was used as the title of one of his short story collections
loathe and despise
one and all
Runyon's stories also employ occasional rhyming slang, similar to the cockney variety but native to New York (e.g.: "Miss Missouri Martin makes the following crack one night to her: 'Well, I do not see any Simple Simon on your lean and linger.' This is Miss Missouri Martin's way of saying she sees no diamond on Miss Billy Perry’s finger." (from "Romance in the Roaring Forties").
The comic effect of his style results partly from the juxtaposition of broad slang with mock-pomposity. Women, when not "dolls", "Judies", "pancakes", "tomatoes", "broads" or what have you, may be "characters of a female nature", for example. He typically avoided contractions like "don't" in the example above, which also contributes significantly to the humorously pompous effect. In one sequence, a gangster tells another character to do as he's told, or else "find another world in which to live."
Runyon's short stories are told in the first person by a protagonist who is never named, and whose role is unclear; he knows many gangsters and does not appear to have a job, but he does not admit to any criminal involvement, and seems to be largely a bystander.