A legendary chronicler of the denizens of New York's Great White Way for over four decades, Damon Runyon was a newspaper columnist and author whose stories about the hoods and heroes of Broadway made him one of America's most popular writers from the 1920s through the late 1940s. Runyon began as a sports writer who focused on the game's human element rather than the statistics; his democratic approach to his subjects translated well to his Broadway stories, which viewed sinner and saint alike as citizens trying to make their own way in one of the world's biggest and most complex cities. Key to Runyon's popularity was his idiosyncratic style, which lent a mock courtliness to his underworld figures that elevated them beyond their social positions. His stories later served as the inspiration for countless Hollywood films, including Frank Capra's "Lady for a Day" (1933), "Little Miss Marker" (1934) with Shirley Temple, and the blockbuster musical "Guys and Dolls" (1955), based on the Tony-winning Broadway musical. His unique approach to storytelling eventually became its own genre, with the term "Runyonesque" describing a colorful take on eclectic characters of ill repute. The humor and humanity of his stories and the adaptations they inspired made Damon Runyon one of the 20th century's most enduring authors.
Born Alfred Damon Runyan on Oct. 4, 1880 in Manhattan, KS, he was the son of newspaper publisher Alfred Lee Runyan and his wife, Elizabeth. After his father was forced to sell his newspaper in 1882, the family moved West before settling in Pueblo, CO in 1887. Elizabeth Runyan passed away shortly after arriving in Pueblo, and Runyon's father washed away his grief in bars, leaving his son to largely fend for himself. While his self-reliance did not help his academic life - he was expelled from public school while in the sixth grade - it did instill in him an understanding for the social intricacies of street life, which would greatly influence his writing career. By his teenaged years, Runyon was working fulltime as a reporter for his father's newspaper, as well as at other Rocky Mountain area papers. A misprint of his surname in a byline gave him the "Runyon" moniker, which he retained for the rest of his life.
At 19, Runyon enlisted in the Army to fight in the Spanish-American War. He was sent to the Philippines, where he wrote for both the Manila Freedom and Soldier's Letter. After the war, he worked for a variety of dailies before settling into a sportswriter position at the Denver Post. Runyon eventually added crime and political beats to his coverage, and by 1908 was the head of the Denver Press Club. He also began publishing verse and short stories during this period, which were published in national magazines like Harper's Weekly. In 1910, Runyon moved to New York City to work for a Hearst daily, the New York American, where he was billed as Damon Runyon. For the next decade, he covered the New York Giants and professional boxing while penning a daily column, "The Mornin's Mornin'," which covered the colorful figures that populated Broadway. Having sworn off alcohol, he developed a prodigious appetite for coffee and cigarettes, consuming some 40 to 60 cups a day, each with a cigarette, in order to maintain the stamina required to descend into Manhattan's night life every evening, where he hobnobbed with celebrities, gangsters and socialites, all of whom would find their way - frequently under noirish nicknames - into his columns and short stories.
After meeting Pancho Villa in a Texas bar while at spring training, he became a Hearst foreign correspondent in Mexico before adding Europe to his résumé during World War I. It was during this period that Runyon developed his particular style, which was often described as the "historical present." His news coverage favored human interest over straight factual reporting, which would have a major influence on the way sports would be covered in future generations. And his short stories, which were compiled in 1932's Guys and Dolls, featured a curious blend of elaborate slang and mock formality - his gunsels and flappers spoke only in the present tense and avoided contractions while spraying the reader with a pungent array of street verbiage that lent a heightened sense of authenticity to the stories.
By the time Guys and Dolls was released to critical acclaim and strong sales, Runyon was largely considered to be one of America's premier journalists. His column, "As I See It," was syndicated throughout the country via the Hearst empire, and followed daily by millions of readers. He was soon courted by Hollywood, which began adapting his short stories into features beginning in 1933 with "Lady for a Day," Frank Capra's Oscar-nominated story of a fruit seller whose daughter believed her mother to be a society matron. It was soon followed by a string of popular comedies, including "Little Miss Marker" (1934), which helped to make Shirley Temple a star, and "The Lemon Drop Kid" (1934), which introduced the song "Silver Bells" to the public. Runyon himself would eventually find steady work in Hollywood, where he contributed to several feature scripts, including an uncredited turn for "George White's 1935 Scandals" in 1935 and the prologue to "Pride of the Yankees" (1942). He also produced a pair of features based on his works, including "The Big Street" (1942), with Henry Fonda and Lucille Ball.
In all, 16 of Runyon's stories would be adapted into feature films, but this period of personal triumph would also be marked by the beginning of a serious illness that would eventually claim his life. In 1938, Runyon was diagnosed with throat cancer, which would worsen over the next decade. A 1944 operation would leave him unable to speak, but he still maintained his busy schedule of meeting with the famous and infamous, conducting interviews via written notes. Runyon died on Dec. 10, 1946; he was cremated and his ashes were spread over Broadway by his friend, famed pilot Eddie Rickenbacker. That same year, columnist Walter Winchell established the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Memorial Fund, which eventually contributed some $240 million to combating the disease.
Runyon's work remained exceptionally popular in the years following his death. His stories were adapted for radio on "The Damon Runyon Theater," which ran well into the 1950s. Two of his stories later served as the basis for the Tony-winning musical "Guys and Dolls," which was made into a 1955 feature starring Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando before enjoying decades of revivals on Broadway and regional theater around the world. From 1955 to 1956, "Damon Runyon Theatre" aired on the CBS network, and his stories continued to provide the basis for popular films, including "A Pocketful of Miracles" (1961), Frank Capra's remake of "Lady for a Day" with Bette Davis and Peter Falk, and the anthology film "Bloodhounds of Broadway" (1989) with Matt Dillon and Madonna. In 1989, action star Jackie Chan transported "Madame La Gimp" to Hong Kong in the 1930s for the award-winning "Miracles," which in turn was remade as "Singh is Kinng" (2008), a Hindi vehicle for leading man Akshay Kumar.
By Paul Gaita