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 Midtowndemi-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 and sentimental 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. He is credited with coining the phrase "Hooray Henry", a term now used in British English to describe an upper-class, loud-mouthed, arrogant twit.
Boyhood home of Damon Runyon in Manhattan, Kansas.
Damon Runyon was born 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.
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.
If I have all the tears that are shed on Broadway by guys in love, I will have enough salt water to start an opposition ocean to the Atlantic and Pacific, with enough left over to run the Great Salt Lake out of business. But I wish to say I never shed any of these tears personally, because I am never in love, and furthermore, barring a bad break, I never expect to be in love, for the way I look at it love is strictly the old phedinkus, and I tell the little guy as much.
from "Tobias the Terrible," collected in More than Somewhat (1937)
One year, while covering spring training in Texas, he met Pancho Villa in a bar 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 whom 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 drinking 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.), but broke up in 1928 over rumors that Runyon had become infatuated with Patrice Amati del Grande, a Mexican woman 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. 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.
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.
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 that 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.
In 2008, The Library of America selected “The Eternal Blonde”, Runyon's account of a 1927 murder trial, for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American Crime Writing.
An illustration from "Breach of Promise" showing Spanish John and Harry the Horse
Frank Muir comments that Runyon's plots were, in the manner of O. Henry, neatly constructed with professionally wrought endings, but their distinction lay in the manner of their telling, as the author invented a peculiar argot for his characters to speak. Runyon almost totally avoids the past tense (English humourist E.C. Bentley thought there was only one instance, and was willing to "lay plenty of 6 to 5 that it is nothing but a misprint" but "was" appears in the short stories "The Lily of St Pierre" and "A Piece of Pie"; "had" appears in "The Lily of St Pierre", "Undertaker Song" and "Bloodhounds of Broadway"), 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"). E. C. Bentley comments that "there is a sort of ungrammatical purity about it [Runyon's resolute avoidance of the past tense], an almost religious exactitude." 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:
more than somewhat (or "no little, and quite some"); this phrase was so typical that it was used as the title of one of his short story collections
loathe and despise
one and all
E. C. Bentley notes that Runyon's "telling use of the recurrent phrase and fixed epithet" demonstrates a debt to Homer.
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", or "broads", may be "characters of a female nature", for example. He typically avoided contractions such as "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. He describes himself as "being known to one and all as a guy who is just around".
The Tents of Trouble (poems; 1911)
Rhymes of the Firing Line (poems; 1912)
Guys and Dolls (1932)
Damon Runyon's Blue Plate Special (1934)
Money From Home (1935)
More Than Somewhat (1937)
Take It Easy (1938)
My Wife Ethel (1939)
My Old Man (1939)
The Best of Runyon (1940)
A Slight Case of Murder (play; with Howard Lindsay, 1940)
Damon Runyon Favorites (1942)
Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker (with W. Kiernan, 1942)
Runyon à la Carte (1944)
The Damon Runyon Omnibus (1944)
Short Takes (1946)
In Our Town (1946)
The Three Wise Guys and Other Stories (1946)
Trials and Other Tribulations (1947)
Poems for Men (Poems; 1947)
Runyon First and Last (1949)
Runyon on Broadway (1950; introduction by E. C. Bentley), Constable
More Guys and Dolls (1950)
The Turps (1951)
Damon Runyon from First to Last (1954), Constable
A Treasury of Damon Runyon (1958)
The Bloodhounds of Broadway and Other Stories (1985)
Romance in the Roaring Forties and other stories (1986)
On Broadway (1990)
Guys, Dolls, and Curveballs: Damon Runyon on Baseball (2005; Jim Reisler, editor)
Guys and Dolls and Other Writings (2008; introduction by Pete Hamill)
A Dangerous Guy Indeed (unknown)
There are many collections of Runyon's stories: in particular Runyon on Broadway and Runyon from First to Last between them provide extensive coverage. The latter is claimed to contain all of Runyon's stories (i.e. fiction) not included in Runyon on Broadway. In fact, there are two Broadway stories not included in either collection: "Maybe a Queen" and "Leopard's Spots", both collected in More Guys And Dolls (1950).
Runyon on Broadway contains the following stories, all of which are Broadway stories written in Runyonese:
More Than Somewhat
Breach of Promise
Romance in the Roaring Forties
Dream Street Rose
The Old Doll's House
The Bloodhounds of Broadway
Tobias the Terrible
The Snatching of Bookie Bob
The Lily of St. Pierre
Hold 'em, Yale
'Gentlemen, the King!'
A Nice Price
The Brain Goes Home
Madame La Gimp
Dancing Dan's Christmas
Sense of Humour
Little Miss Marker
Pick the Winner
Butch Minds the Baby
The Hottest Guy in the World
The Lemon Drop Kid
What, No Butler?
The Three Wise Guys
A Very Honourable Guy
The Brakeman's Daughter
It Comes Up Mud
The Big Umbrella
For a Pal
That Ever-Loving Wife of Hymie's
Bred for Battle
Too Much Pep
A Piece of Pie
A Job for the Macarone
All Horse Players Die Broke
Runyon from First to Last includes the following stories and sketches:
The First Stories (early non-Broadway stories):
The Defence of Strikerville
Two Men Named Collins
As Between Friends
The Informal Execution of Soupbone Pew
Stories à la Carte (Broadway stories written in Runyonese):
Money from Home
A Story Goes With It
So You Won't Talk!
Delegates at Large
A Light in France
Old Em's Kentucky Home
The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown
The Melancholy Dane
Palm Beach Santa Claus
The Lacework Kid
The Last Stories (Broadway stories written in Runyonese):
Lady for a Day (1933)—Adapted by Robert Riskin, who suggested the name change from Runyon's title "Madame La Gimp," the film garnered Academy Award nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Frank Capra), Best Actress (May Robson), and Best Adaptation for the Screen (Riskin). It was remade as Pocketful of Miracles in 1961, with Bette Davis in the Apple Annie role (fused with the "raggedy doll" from Runyon's short story "The Brain Goes Home"); Frank Sinatra recorded the upbeat title song (his rendition is not used in the film). The film received Oscar nominations for composers Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen and for co-star Peter Falk (Best Supporting Actor). In 1989, Jackie Chan adapted the story yet again for the Hong Kong action film Miracles, adding several of his trademark stunt sequences.
"Broadway's New York had a crisis each week, though the streets had a rose-tinged aura", wrote radio historian John Dunning. "The sad shows then were all the sadder; plays like For a Pal had a special poignance. The bulk of Runyon's work had been untapped by radio, and the well was deep.":189
^Turczyn, Coury (January 28, 1999). "Blood on the Tracks". Metro Pulse. Retrieved February 11, 2008. (link points to the archived article in the Spring 2000 edition of the author's own PopCult Magazine website): “The faster skaters would break out and try and get laps so they would get ahead in the race, and some of the slower skaters started to band together to try and hold them back,” says Seltzer. “And at first, they didn’t want to let them do that–but then the people liked it so much, they kind of allowed blocking. Then they came down to Miami – I think it was 1936, early ’37 – and Damon Runyon, a very famous sports writer, saw it and he sat down with my father and hammered out the rules, almost exactly as they are today.”