Dames and dice, hustlers and horses: That was the world of Alfred Damon Runyan in his journey through life. It was a life he chose, but maybe it was one he couldn’t have avoided had he wanted to.
Al Runyan (he was not known as Damon Runyon until later in life) was born in Manhattan, Kan., on Oct. 8, 1880, the son of a struggling, hot-tempered publisher of small-town newspapers, A. L. Runyan. When doctors in Kansas recommended that the boy’s mother, Libbie, move to Colorado where the dry air would ease her consumption, Runyon’s father sold his elegant home in Wellington, Kansas, and made plans to move his wife and family to Pueblo. There is some discrepancy in the details among Runyon’s biographers, but Alfred’s three sisters were left in the care of either their maternal grandmother or foster families. There is also disagreement whether this split in the family occurred before they left Kansas or upon the death of their mother in Colorado shortly after. Either way, young Al would not see any of them again for thirty years, and then, only briefly.
When he reached Pueblo, A. L. gave up his former status as a publisher and went to work as a printer for The Pueblo Chieftain. After the death of Libbie later that year, young Al was left to his own mischievous devices while his father worked and frequented the Arkansas Saloon, trying to soothe the pain of the many setbacks that had led him there.
Following the family tradition, Runyon signed on as a cub reporter for the Pueblo Evening Press where at the advanced age of fifteen he cut his journalistic teeth while developing a taste for nightlife and alcohol. That was also where he changed his last name from Runyan to Runyon, due to a typographical error that he chose to embrace.
At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War early in 1898, young Al lied about his age and enlisted in the army as a bugler. After initially being left behind in San Francisco because of his diminutive stature, he was sent to the Philippines, where he spent most of his spare time in Manila’s red-light district. When he recovered from a mustering-out binge in San Francisco on his return stateside, Runyon worked his way back to Colorado in the company of hobos and drifters with whom he rode the rails as a non-paying passenger. After brief stints at papers in Pueblo and Colorado Springs (where he was always one step ahead of editors who were ready to fire him for his scandalous habits), he followed his idol, Bat Masterson, to Denver and settled into a reporting job at The Denver Post.
The Denver Years
Under no circumstances does he get good natured until noon. If he has to get up early in the morning you have to converse with him in signs most of the day because he pants so hard that his mouth cannot open in conversation. He is a lovely travelling companion, if he happens to be in the next coach.— Frank Finch, quoted in A Gentleman of Broadway by E.P. Hoyt3
The Post was an upstart paper that was causing a great stir in local circles due to its successful use of outrageous competitive tactics, and it threatened to grow into the city’s circulation leader against the three established papers, The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Times and The Republican. Post co-publisher Harry Tammen was an ex-bartender with a showman’s instincts. In one quote that was sure to warm the hearts of both “Yellow Journalists” and P.T. Barnum, Tammen exhorted his editors to “Give ’em a show! Laughs, tears, thrills, tragedy, comedy, love and hate.”4 Failing to deliver according to his publisher’s wishes, Runyon was fired from the Post in early 1906.
After a brief and unsuccessful try at the San Francisco Post, Runyon returned to Denver in the summer of ’06 to work at The Rocky Mountain News, which had decided to fight back against the Post with some guerilla tactics of its own. He initially paired with News photographer Ralph Baird and, to the pleasure of his new employer, wrote copy to accompany Baird’s satiric and irreverent use of the emerging medium of news photography5.
As early as 1905, Runyon had settled into The Denver Press Club, where he was on its board of directors for a number of years before he left the city. Although written records of Runyon’s official duties for the Press Club are hard to find, there is no doubt that he was among its better customers.
In the latter part of 1907, Runyon teamed up with a cartoonist at The Rocky Mountain News by the name of Frank Finch. Finch was known as “Doc Bird” from the way in which he signed his cartoons, which was a caricature of a chubby bird with a large beak. It was the zenith of the Denver newspaper war. Rocky owner, state senator and millionaire Thomas MacDonald Patterson was regularly reviled in the pages of the Post. Patterson struck back with headlines proclaiming Post founders Frederick G. Bonfils and Harry H. Tammen as vilifying blackmailers and swindlers. Finch and Runyon followed the Rocky’s statewide dog-and-pony shows, quickly becoming part of the entertainment. “Bird” would sketch and Al would write about the locals, delighting the outlanders who were only too happy to sign up for a subscription to Doc and Al’s newspaper.
Given the success of Finch and Runyon’s efforts on behalf of the paper, their editors didn’t demand a strict accounting of their time. The twosome soon had their act down to a science and could complete most assignments in a matter of a few hours. After the art and stories were filed, they would repair to the cozy confines of The Denver Press Club where they held forth on all manner of subjects to anyone who would listen.6 It became a Press Club tradition that has been carried forward to this day by many of the writers and artists who have followed in their footsteps.
Runyon’s writing wasn’t confined to his travels with Doc Bird. He covered sports (especially baseball), crime and court stories, and he engaged in plenty of muckraking, exposing sweetheart land deals and other shady financial transactions that were common during Colorado’s boom years after the turn of the century. In addition to working for the News and keeping the Press Club in business, Runyon also wrote verses and short stories for national journals, some of which were later published in his first book, The Tents of Trouble, released in 1911. He was twenty-seven, he was an undisciplined alcoholic mess and he was good.
Runyon in New York
“…more than anybody else I’ve ever heard of, he beat the New York newspaper business. Beat it to a pulp.
“He did something practically nobody else could do. He put a smile into a newspaper, which usually has as much humor as a bus accident.”— Jimmy Breslin in Damon Runyon … A Life7
Encouraged by former Denver friend Charley Van Loan, who had become successful in New York, Al Runyon left the Rocky in the fall of 1910 and headed east. Through the good offices of his former colleague at the Post, he found a position as a sportswriter with the New York American, a Hearst paper in New York City, a move that would augur well for the man who would eventually remake the city in the minds of America through his vivid accounts of the shady characters who haunted its streets, arenas, racetracks and speakeasies.
Early in 1911 while looking over some copy Runyon had written, American sports editor Harry Cashman decided that “Alfred Damon Runyon” was too long and formal a name for his new breed of sportswriters. “Only Protestants have three names,” Cashman announced gruffly, and with one stroke of his editor’s pencil, he shortened it to “Damon Runyon.”8
Four years earlier, back in Denver, Runyon had fallen in love with an attractive society reporter by the name of Ellen Egan. His drinking and philandering presented a serious obstacle to the resolution of that romance, however, even though it was an interest shared by Miss Egan.9 Now, though, Alfred (the name she insisted on calling him) had settled into a steady job and had given up drinking for health reasons. With the help of Gertrude Van Loan, Charles’s wife, Ellen was persuaded to come east, and in May 1911, Alfred and Ellen were married.
Runyon met the characters who eventually would be immortalized as Nicely-Nicely Johnson and Nathan Detroit in the pool halls of Denver10, but his duties for the American brought him face to face with a whole new group of men and women. Initially assigned to cover the city’s baseball teams, Runyon’s assignments turned him into a regular at places like The Polo Grounds (he covered the Giants for the American for several years), Yankee Stadium, Ebbets Field, Madison Square Garden and the racetrack at Saratoga. That is where he met the touts, shills, boosters, crooks and evangelists who came to be known as The Lemon Drop Kid, Last Card Louie, Harry the Horse, Dave the Dude and Miss Sarah Brown. Employing the distinctive style he had developed in his Denver days, Runyon focused on the people who played, promoted and attended the games, rather than the games themselves. He was a Midwesterner with a keen ear for the strange dialects of his new hometown, and he was well-tuned to the patois of the New York underclass that became a hallmark of his writing soon after his arrival in the city. His use of the peculiarly lower-class style of referring to past events in the present tense, first evident in some of his Denver writing, so permeated his stories that it eventually received a label of its own, ‘the historic present.”11
As he pursued tales of the characters who inhabited the sports world, he was inevitably led to the nightclubs, betting parlors and other favorite hangouts they frequented. Runyon faintly disguised the identities of the subjects to protect the guilty, and this discretion earned him the trust of many a citizen who would otherwise have been upset “more than somewhat” to see themselves portrayed in the press. In fact, many of them, once sufficiently masked, found his romanticized stories of underworld life so much to their liking that they would invite him to sit in on tales of the hijinks in which they regularly engaged. He was eventually featured in the first of many columns he would write for the American, titled “As I See It,” which became so popular it was syndicated to Hearst papers nationwide.
By 1925, his marriage was on the rocks, both literally and figuratively. Damon had given up drinking when he made the New York move. The habit that earned him the nickname “Demon” during his days (mostly nights, to be more accurate) at The Denver Press Club had threatened to turn his career and his life into mere footnotes. His impaired judgement nearly cost him the affections of Ellen when they first courted in Denver,12 and his wanderlust and roving eye remained even when the booze was put behind him after he left Colorado.
By any contemporary standards, Runyon was at best a marginal husband and father. His work took him from the family for long periods, and most of the time he was in New York was spent working or hanging out at the tracks, the fights or on his beloved Broadway, where he was a regular at Lindy’s, The Friars’ Club and any number of nightspots.
Ellen fought back by developing her own circle of friends considerably higher up the New York social ladder and becoming a tippler herself. In 1928, when rumors were flying about Damon’s attentions toward a dancer, Ellen separated from him permanently and moved to Bronxville with their children, Mary and Damon Jr.
The rumors were, of course, true. The Silver Slipper, one of the many clubs Runyon frequented, employed a sultry “Spanish” dancer by the name of Patrice Amati del Grande, and she had caught Damon’s eye years earlier.
Runyon had been covering the border raids of the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa in 1916 for Hearst’s American. When he went to the racetrack one afternoon in Juárez, there was Villa sitting in the same box with several American gamblers to watch the races. In attendance with Villa was a very young blond girl who had joined the bandits as a messenger. Runyon asked her to place a bet for him, which she did, but not on the horse he had chosen. Her pick won. He was convinced she was his Lady Luck.13
Later that day he went to a nightclub/gambling hall for the evening’s entertainment. There, imitating the dancers, was the little girl. He found out that she wanted to be a dancer when she was old enough. Her name was Patrice. Runyon told her that if she would go to school and learn to read and write, she could come to New York and he would get her a job dancing. He paid for her enrollment in a convent school in Juárez.14
One afternoon in 1925, Runyon was sitting in Lindy’s with Walter Winchell’s press agent, Jay Fagan, having breakfast when he got a call from the American’s receptionist. It seems that a young lady from Mexico was in town asking for him. Patrice had kept her end of the bargain. Now it was up to Runyon to keep his.15
He tucked the young woman away in a Times Square hotel and set about to find her work at one of the speakeasies where he had connections. She looked at Runyon as her benefactor and was more than willing to show her gratitude. He was helpless to resist her youth and beauty, and they became nearly inseparable. After the separation from Ellen, Damon and Patrice were no longer obligated to keep their romance hidden, and they became a couple along Broadway.
Tucked away in the quiet Bronxville home, Ellen’s drinking took over her life. By 1931, she had destroyed her health and was on her deathbed. Damon went to her to comfort her and the children, but on November 9, 1931, Ellen died moments before he arrived.
The children were sent to Washington to live with relatives, and a few months later Damon and Patrice were married by his friend and Tammany Hall alumnus, Mayor Jimmy Walker. In his own, flawed way Runyon did care about his children, as did Patrice, and the kids seemed to get along with her, so to celebrate his wedding in 1932, he gathered them up along with some friends and headed for California to visit Hollywood, a place that was beginning to take a liking to Runyon and his tales.
The Man Who Invented Broadway
“He practically invented at least two entire decades of his times, and had everybody believing that his street, Broadway, actually existed.”— Jimmy Breslin in Damon Runyon … A Life16
By the early ’30s, Runyon’s stories were gaining commercial success and his fame was growing. This was the most productive period of Runyon’s story writing. Dozens of his tales were published in popular magazines, principally Cosmopolitan and Collier’s. In 1931, Runyon’s collection Guys and Dolls gained him fame on both sides of the Atlantic. He and his new wife settled into fine digs in both New York and Miami. Runyon had taken to wintering in Florida and built a retreat on Hibiscus Island in Miami Bay. He was on the “A” list for invitations to social events thrown by nearly every shady character and gangster groupie in any East Coast city with a racetrack. Not the least of these, by far, was Runyon’s Palm Island, Florida neighbor, a Chicago businessman who called himself Mr. Brown to deflect attention away from the publicity he would draw had he used his real name, Alphonse Capone.
The income from the paper and his stories was good and it allowed Runyon to live like a king at a time when the rest of the nation was mired in the Great Depression. But when Hollywood came calling, the money was even bigger and, in many ways, easier.
In 1933, Colombia Pictures chief Harry Cohn reminded director Frank Capra that they had taken an option the year before on a Runyon story called Madame La Gimp. Capra enlisted writer Bob Riskin to work on a screen adaptation and Riskin suggested they change the title to Lady for a Day.17
The movie opened at Radio City Music Hall on September 7, 1933. The romantic comedy is about a Broadway dowager known by the nickname Apple Annie (played by stage actress May Robson) who needs a cover story for her daughter who is coming to town with a Spanish count she hopes to marry. Dave the Dude is a gangster who has a soft spot in his heart for Annie and considers her a good luck charm. He sets Annie up in an elegant hotel, finds her a suitable temporary mate from among the underworld, and sets about to pull off a ruse the likes of which wouldn’t be seen on screen again until Henry Higgins tried to transform Liza Doolittle.
For their efforts, Robson, Capra and Riskin were nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actress, Best Picture, Best Director and Best Adaptation for the Screen, respectively. Robson lost to Katherine Hepburn for Morning Glory, Best Picture went to Cavalcade, an adaptation of Noel Coward’s play about life in England during the first third of the century, Best Director to Frank Lloyd (Cavalcade), and Adapted Screenplay to Little Women, but Runyon’s status as a Hollywood favorite was secured.18
Cavalcade may have won the Oscar, but Lady for a Day won the hearts of America. It was a sentimental favorite that is still shown today in its original version and in its 1961 remake, Pocketful of Miracles, with Bette Davis in the Apple Annie role. Miracles received Oscar nominations for costumes (Edith Head and Walter Plunkett), song (Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen for the title song) and a supporting nod to Peter Falk in his role as Joy Boy. In the face of stiff competition from the likes of Judgement at Nuremberg, West Side Story, Splendor in the Grass, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Hustler, the film didn’t do that well on Oscar night, but Glenn Ford won a Golden Globe that year for his portrayal of Dave the Dude.
The following year, four more of Runyon’s stories hit the screen, two of which are still remembered today. The Lemon Drop Kid starred William Frawley as a racetrack tout. It was a success at the box office, but it couldn’t hold a candle to what became Runyon’s magnum opus for the screen, the movie that made Shirley Temple a star, Little Miss Marker.
Clear back in 1914, Runyon had his first inkling of the plot when he left his newborn daughter in her carriage in a pool hall while he went into the backroom to place a bet with the bookies who officed there. When one of the pool players inquired of another about the presence of such an unusual patron, the man replied, “Runyon’s marker.” Runyon overheard the remark and filed it in the back of his mind for future reference.19
In 1932, Runyon flashed back to that day at the pool hall and a story broke through. He sold Little Miss Marker that year to Collier’s, where it was read in California by a stage mother with an adorable daughter named Shirley. She burst onto the lot at Paramount, which owned the movie rights to the story, and nearly held the studio executives hostage until her daughter got the part. The movie was a huge hit and Shirley Temple became the biggest box office draw in the land, snatching the crown from Greta Garbo.20 As testament to its staying power, the story was redone three more times. It appeared in 1949 as Sorrowful Jones starring Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, in 1963 as the Tony Curtis movie Forty Pounds of Trouble, and once again under its own name in 1980 with the all-star cast of Walter Matthau, Julie Andrews, Bob Newhart and Tony Curtis.
A Slight Case of Murder (1938) starred Edward G. Robinson in the tale of a gangster who tries his best to go straight after the end of Prohibition. Runyon’s story The Little Pinks hit the screen in 1942 under the title The Big Street. It starred Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball in what Leonard Maltin calls a “treacly, but oddly watchable” tearjerker about a dancer (Ball) who is secretly admired by a busboy (Fonda).21 That same year Butch Minds the Baby was also in movie houses. Broderick Crawford is Butch, a likable safecracker who is persuaded to do an urgent job for a couple of old friends. Unfortunately, Butch has gotten all married up and now is papa to Butch Jr., who has been left in his care for the evening. Not wanting to miss such a fine opportunity, Butch and his friends decide to take the kid along on the job. This amusing, well-done film includes a character not in the original story by the name of Squinty Sweeney who is played by Shemp Howard in one of the roles he had during his hiatus from The Three Stooges.22
The final Runyon movie of the ’40s was a better-than-average Abbott and Costello farce, It Ain’t Hay, an adaptation of “Princess O’Hara,” the complicated story of a pretty horse cab driver and an adventurous group of well-meaning hoodlums.
All of life is six to five against.— Damon Runyon
Damon Runyon was not, by most accounts, what you would call a likeable man. Interesting, yes. But his shyness and cynicism made him come across as standoffish and cold. There were a handful of people who would argue with that, though. Gene Fowler, Charlie Van Loan, Walter Winchell, all probably would have told you that all you had to do was get to know him to see a totally different Runyon.
He lost faith in humanity as early as the Pueblo days, a feeling that kept being reconfirmed as he went through life. But he was also a sentimentalist (perhaps because those stories sold better), a hardworking and loyal employee (perhaps out of economic insecurity), and a man who wouldn’t hesitate to give a promising writer a leg up (even though his professional jealousies might cause him to reconsider it later). He was a patriot who mistrusted politicians and money men but admired the military. He was Puritanical, but held fast to a double standard for the behavior of men and women. In short, he was very much a man of his times, and kinder historians will take that into account.
By 1938, Runyon’s lifetime of smoking Turkish Ovals had led to throat cancer, and in 1944 an operation left him unable to speak. His friend Walter Winchell was his constant companion, and Runyon always had a notepad at the ready for the times he felt the need to say something. Herb Caen, the renowned San Francisco Chronicle columnist, commented on this many years later when, in 1996, The Denver Press Club presented him with its Damon Runyon Award for excellence in journalism.
“I met Damon Runyon,” Caen commented in his acceptance speech. “I went to the Stork Club just after the war…and there was Damon Runyon in his last days. He was having a drink with Walter Winchell, who was his buddy. By then, Runyon had lost his voice … he’d just write two words on a pad he kept with him at all times.”
Caen continued, “Winchell was the perfect companion for Runyon because he never stopped talking. Winchell interrupted himself long enough to say, ‘Damon, this is a kid from San Francisco who imitates me better than anybody in the business.’
“And Runyon thought about that for a second and wrote, ‘Faint Praise.'”
On December 10, 1946, Runyon lost his battle with cancer. His son spread his ashes from a plane flown over Broadway by Runyon’s old friend, First World War air ace Eddie Rickenbacker.23
His legacy to Patrice, who had left him earlier that year for a younger man, was the Florida house, his racing stables, his insurance and half the royalties from his works.24 The other half went to his children and grandchild. His daughter Mary had succumbed to her mother’s illness and was institutionalized for alcoholism.25 Damon Jr. worked for a time as a journalist in Washington, D.C., until his alleged suicide in 1968.
History’s first telethon was hosted in 1949 by Mr. Television, Milton Berle, to raise funds for the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Fund. That organization continues its work today, having added his friend Walter Winchell’s name to the masthead.
Runyon’s works have continued to entertain long after his death. The Damon Runyon Theatre was on the radio for 52 performances between 1949 and 1951, reprising on television in 1955. In 1950, Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows and Jo Swerling adapted two stories, The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown and Blood Pressure, for Broadway under the title of one of Runyon’s first collections, Guys and Dolls. It ran over 1,200 performances and was revived in 1976 and 1992. It remains one of the most-performed productions in repertory theatre today. In 1955 the play was rewritten for the screen by Joseph Mankewicz and Abe Burrows. The movie starred Frank Sinatra as Nathan Detroit, Marlon Brando (in his only singing role) as Sky Masterson, Jean Simmons as Miss Sarah Brown and Vivian Blaine as Miss Adelaide. Stubby Kaye reprised a memorable supporting role from the Broadway production as Nicely-Nicely Johnson. Loesser’s tunes “Bushel and a Peck” (Broadway only) and “Luck Be a Lady” (sung in the movie by Brando, but later one of Sinatra’s signature songs) were at the top of the pop charts. The movie was nominated for four Academy Awards (none won) and received a Golden Globe as the Best Musical/Comedy, as did Jean Simmons for her lead role.
The 1951 Bob Hope comedy The Lemon Drop Kid included the immortal Christmas tune “Silver Bells.” Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis cut up in 1953’s Money from Home, originally released in 3-D.
As recently as 1989, the star-packed Bloodhounds of Broadway used Madonna, Jennifer Gray, Rutger Hauer, Matt Dillon, Randy Quaid, Julie Haggerty, Esai Morales and Steve Buscemi to introduce a new generation to Runyon’s work. Madonna was even “honored” with a nomination for a “Razzie” for “Worst Supporting Actress” for her tongue-in-cheek, scenery-chewing performance.
And Runyon’s legacy lives on today. From Roller Derby (Runyon suggested to promoter Lou Seltzer in 1937 that more physical contact might spice up his women’s roller skating races26) to Jackie Chan movies (Mr. Canton and Lady Rose was yet another remake of Lady for a Day27), Runyon’s influences are still felt in any medium that uses the spoken word. There are few writers today who don’t have at least some inkling of what being “Runyonesque” means. And even if his stories seem a little sappy and his prose a little outdated to the critical ear in the new millennium, a slight nod to their time and its mores will allow a contemporary reader to take the same joy from them that has delighted readers for nearly a hundred years.
For further biographical information on Damon Runyon:
A Gentleman of Broadway by E.P. Hoyt (1964)
Damon Runyon by Jimmy Breslin (1991)
- A Gentleman of Broadway, Edwin Palmer Hoyt, Little, Brown & Co., Boston, 1964, p. 21.
- Damon Runyon, Jimmy Breslin, Ticknor and Fields, New York, 1991, p. 55.
- A Gentleman of Broadway, p. 50.
- Ibid., p. 39.
- Ibid., pp. 41-42.
- Ibid., pp. 44-45.
- Damon Runyon, pp. 3-4.
- Ibid., p. 78.
- A Gentleman of Broadway, Chapter 6.
- Ibid., p. 78.
- Breslin suggests that this style was copied from Coleridge, but that Runyon’s unique contribution was the lack of contractions in his writing. Damon Runyon, p. 3.
- A Gentleman of Broadway, pp. 82-83.
- Damon Runyon, pp. 131-134.
- Ibid., pp. 135-136.
- Ibid., p. 233.
- Ibid., p. 4.
- Ibid., p. 318.
- Much information about Runyon’s films is from the Internet Movie Database, www.imdb.com.
- Damon Runyon, p. 148
- Ibid., pp. 325-326.
- Internet Movie Database, The Big Street, Maltin Summary.
- Internet Movie Database.
- Damon Runyon, p. 398.
- A Gentleman of Broadway, p. 301.
- Damon Runyon, pp.393-394.
- Metro Pulse Online, Coury Turczyn, Knoxville, Tenn., www.metropulse.com/dir_zine/dir_1999/904/t_cover.html, and other sources.
- Stephen Rowley, Cinephobia Movie Guide, Melbourne University, Melbourne, Australia. Internet link no longer functional.