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Monday, October 4, 2010

Damon Runyon: the man who invented Broadway

Damon Runyon, the writer who, in Jimmy Breslin’s words, “practically invented at least two entire decades of his times, and had everybody believing that his street, Broadway, actually existed,” was born 130 years ago today in Manhattan—the one in Kansas.

Runyon didn’t move to the other Manhattan until he had turned thirty. William Randolph Hearst, another interloper from the west, hired him to cover baseball and boxing for Hearst’s New York American. Soon after his arrival, as The Writer’s Almanac describes:
Runyon became a legend of baseball writing. When he wrote about baseball, he wrote about the game, but he mixed in gossip, the latest women's fashion, weather, funny quotes, gambling advice, and his opinions about other sports (or anything else, for that matter). Once, he wrote from the perspective of a small boy — another time, from the perspective of a baseball.
Baseball: A Literary Anthology includes two of his “digressive, irreverent, energetically facetious” pieces from this period. As Runyon became more popular his assignments changed. He was dispatched to Mexico to cover Pershing’s pursuit of Pancho Villa, overseas for the war in France, back to New York for Prohibition and murder trials. Harold Schechter writes, “Of the countless accounts of the 1927 Snyder-Gray murder trial [the inspiration for the James M. Cain novella and later the Billy Wilder movie Double Indemnity] . . . the most detailed and memorable coverage was provided by Damon Runyon.”

Runyon spent the better part of the twenties gathering the material for the stories for which he is best known. As Adam Gopnik writes in a lengthy appreciation in The New Yorker:
His method was a simple form of Broadway Zen: he went to Lindy’s, then an all-night Jewish deli on Broadway, and sat. “I am the sedentary champion of the city,” he explained. “In order to learn anything of importance, I must remain seated. Why I am the best is that I can last an entire day without causing a chair to squeak.”
Gangsters, prostitutes, con men, hit men, gamblers—Runyon inhaled their tales. The first of Runyon’s stories, “Romance in the Roaring Forties”appeared in Cosmopolitan in July 1929 and, as its first lines show, Runyonesque was born:
Only a rank sucker will think of taking two peeks at Dave the Dude’s doll, because while Dave may stand for the first peek, figuring it is a mistake, it is a sure thing he will get sored up at the second peek, and Dave the Dude is certainly not a man to have sored up at you.
Eighty stories followed featuring characters with names like Nathan Detroit, Feed Samuels, Sky Masterson, Big Jule, Nicely-Nicely Jones, Madame La Gimp, and scores more. “The voice of those stories is usually the ‘historical present’,” Pete Hamill notes, “The simple device gives the stories a kind of energy that would be absent in most uses of the past tense. It looks easy, until you try to do it. The voice was above all urban, drawing on Yiddish, which in the 1920s was New York’s second language.”

Twenty movies were made from these stories (including Little Miss Marker, which made Shirley Temple a star) and several of his characters reappear in the 1950 Frank Loesser musical Guys and Dolls, which opened on Broadway four years after Runyon’s death. “I took one little section of New York,“ Runyon once said, “and made half a million dollars writing about it.”

Of related interest:
  • On Scholars & Rogues, Terry Hargrove’s appreciation of Runyon and one of his inventions: Roller Derby
  • The Somebody Dies blog on the Runyon story “Sense of Humor”

Related LOA works: Baseball: A Literary Anthology; True Crime: An American Anthology (includes “The Eternal Blonde,” Runyon’s account of the Snyder-Gray murder trial); Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (includes “Sense of Humor”)

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