Damon Runyon: from baseball to Broadway

The Guardian has an interesting series in which their writers fill in the blank to  “I wish more people would read . . . ” Sam Leith’s blank-filler is Damon Runyan, and he could not have made a better choice.

Runyan was a New York City newspaperman in the first decades of the 20th century who is best remembered for the musical Guys and Dolls.

But Leith says that his short stories, not the musical, are the pinnacle of his creative genius.

No musical can capture their special quality, for they are magical to the sentence level. I don’t think there’s anyone who wouldn’t benefit from reading him. He’s as funny as PG Wodehouse and, like Wodehouse, Runyon creates entirely his own idiom and entirely his own comic world. But unlike Wodehouse, who is always sunshine and innocence, Runyon’s world is wry and coloured with exquisite melancholy. Source: I wish more people would read … Damon Runyon’s short stories | Books | The Guardian

Runyon built a world with its own character and language that you won’t find duplicated anywhere else in American letters. Leith compares him favorably to P.G. Wodehouse and says that in some way Runyon is better.

Runyon was born in 1880 in Manhattan, Kansas, into a family of newspaper people. When he was old enough, he drifted west, not east, joined the Army during the Spanish-American War and served in the Philippines. After the army, eventually writing sports for the Denver Daily News. He loved baseball and tried to organize his own minor league, but it flamed out quickly.

He then moved to New York and got a job writing about baseball and boxing for the New York American, a Hearst newspaper. Runyon liked to observe and listen to people as much as he enjoyed the sporting event itself, and his writing reflected that. He would write about quirky and eccentric characters, and that made his writing a delight to read even if you weren’t interested in the sport. That point of view is credited with changing the character of sports writing during that era. 

In his short stories (Runyon never write a novel) developed a style, a dialogue pace, and a set of characters that had never been seen before. They were contained within a 10-block area of mid-Manhattan; they had no jobs or visible means of support. They were inevitably up in the middle of the night, hanging out in second-rate clubs and bars. Many of them were Jewish mobsters.

To this milieu, Runyon a way of speaking that was like nothing that anyone had ever heard but that fit the world he had created.

As Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker about Runyon’s work:

So Runyon’s key insight into American slang is double: first, that street speech tends to be more, not less, complicated grammatically than “standard” speech; but, second, that slang speakers, when they’re cornered to write, write not just fancy but stiff. In prime Runyon, the two sounds—street ornate and fountain-pen formal—run together into a single argot and beautiful endless sentences: “This Meyer Marmalade is really a most superior character, who is called Meyer Marmalade because nobody can ever think of his last name, which is something like Marmalodowski, and he is known far and wide for the way he likes to make bets on any sporting proposition, such as baseball, or horse races, or ice hockey, or contests of skill and science, and especially contests of skill and science.” Source: Talk It Up | The New Yorker

Runyon’s stories were published in magazines in the 1930s and 1940s. By 1946, he was dead from throat cancer. He had been a heavy smoker all of his life.

Four years after his death, the musical Guys and Dolls appeared on Broadway and ran for 1,200 performances. The musical is based on two short stories by Runyon. In 1955 it was made into a movie starring Frank Sinatra, Jean Simmons, Marlon Brando, and Vivian Blaine. It has been revived on Broadway several times and has been produced by theater groups so much that it is a standard part of the American repertory. In addition, his stories have inspired at least 20 movies.

***

For years, the Damon Runyon Omnibus has occupied an honored place in my bookshelves but has been opened too rarely. Because of Leith’s article, however, I have pulled it down and have reacquainted myself with Feets Samuels, Dave the Duke, and the Hot Box hangout.

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Jim Stovall, (JPROF.com) a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self-publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker, and beekeeper -- among other things. Subscribe to his weekly newsletter at http://www.jprof.com .
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