Today is the birthday (1880) of Alfred Damon Runyon a New York newspaperman and author who is most well 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. For years an omnibus volume of Runyon’s stories sat on my bedside table, along with the complete works of e. e. cummings, a Sherlock Holmes compendium, as well as other assorted reading material that came and went. I like to read just for pleasure, but I always have an eye out for certain kinds of writing style which I suppose influences me in a way when I write. Runyon I could never imitate; wouldn’t even try. I do very much like a writer whose style is immediately recognizable.
Runyon was born Alfred Damon Runyan to Alfred Lee and Elizabeth (Damon) Runyan. His relatives in Manhattan, Kansas included several newspapermen. 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. By most accounts, he only attended school through the fourth grade. He began to work in the newspaper trade under his father in Pueblo.
In 1898, when still in his early teens, 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 his military service, he worked for various Colorado newspapers, beginning in Pueblo. His first job as a reporter began in September 1900, when he was hired by the Pueblo Star; he then worked in the Rocky Mountain area during the first decade of the 1900s: at the Denver Daily News, he served as “sporting editor” and then worked as a staff writer. His expertise was in covering the semi-professional teams in Colorado; he even briefly managed a semi-pro team in Trinidad, CO. At one of the newspapers where he worked, the spelling of his last name was changed from “Runyan” to “Runyon,” a change he let stand.
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. Runyon was inducted into the writers’ wing 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.
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 another, 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 illegally scattered from a DC-3 airplane over Broadway in Manhattan by Captain Eddie Rickenbacker on December 18, 1946.
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 humorist 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”) 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 a conditional. For example: “Now most any doll on Broadway will be very glad indeed to have Handsome Jack Madigan give her a tumble.”
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”.
Here’s a couple of short excerpts just for the hell of it.
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.
One of these days … a guy is going to come up to you and show you a nice brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken, and this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the Jack of Spades jump out of the deck and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not bet this man, for as sure as you are standing there, you are going to end up with an earful of cider.
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 two remakes, Sorrowful Jones and the 1980 Little Miss Marker) grew from his short story of the same name. All told there are 20 plays and movies based on Runyon’s stories. Here’s my favorite number from Guys and Dolls:
Let’s start the recipe section with this advertisement for hot dogs supposedly served at Runyon’s table. If you click to enlarge you can read the advertising copy.
I have no doubt that this story is disconnected from reality. I would certainly hope that Runyon would not have a dinner of franks with onion cups stuffed with creamed, diced carrots followed by butterscotch pudding. It sounds revolting. However, Runyon did apparently have a liking for tripe. This from the start of the story “Blonde Mink”:
Now of course there are many different ways of cooking tripe but personally I prefer it stewed with tomatoes and mushrooms and a bit of garlic and in fact I am partaking of a portion in this form in Mindy’s restaurant on Broadway one evening in January when a personality by the name of Julie the Starker sits down at my table and leans over and sniffs my dish and says to me like this:
“Tripe,” he says. “With garlic,” he says. “Why, this is according to the recipe of the late Slats Slavin, who obtains it from his old Aunt Margaret in Troy. Waiter,” he says, “bring me an order of this delicious concoction only with more garlic. It is getting colder outside and a guy needs garlic in his system to thicken his blood. Well,” he says, “this is indeed a coincidence because I just come from visiting the late Slats and having a small chat with him.”
And this from the middle of “Pick the Winner,”
Now what happens one evening, but Hot Horse Herbie and his ever-loving fiancée, Miss Cutie Singleton, and me are in a little grease joint on Second Street putting on the old hot tripe à la Creole, which is a very pleasant dish, and by no means expensive, when who wanders in but Professor Woodhead.
Naturally Herbie calls him over to our table and introduces Professor Woodhead to Miss Cutie Singleton, and Professor Woodhead sits there with us looking at Miss Cutie Singleton with great interest, although Miss Cutie Singleton is at this time feeling somewhat peevish because it is the fourth evening hand running she has to eat tripe à la Creole, and Miss Cutie Singleton does not care for tripe under any circumstances.
Italian and Italian-American cuisine features tripe in tomato sauce with various additions and flavorings. I’ve had all manner of different styles in both New York and Italy. Tripe with tomatoes, mushrooms and garlic sounds fine. Tripe à la Creole is a well known, slightly more complicated dish.
Tripe à la Creole
2 lbs cooked tripe cut in strips
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
2 onions, sliced
2 tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
3 tbsp chopped ham
1 tsp thyme
2 bay leaves
1 14 oz can diced plum tomatoes
1 green pepper, sliced
salt, pepper and cayenne pepper to taste
Heat the olive oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat and gently sauté the garlic, onion. ham and green pepper, until the onion is translucent. Add the plum tomatoes and bring the mixture to a simmer. Add the lemon juice, thyme, and bay leaves, and season to taste with salt, pepper and cayenne. Cover and simmer gently for about 30 minutes. Add water or light stock if the sauce starts to dry out. Add in the tripe and heat through. Serve over spaghetti or linguine. You can grate Romano or Parmesan cheese over the top if you like, but it is not to my taste. I do, however, sometimes sprinkle red pepper flakes on top.