The world of Damon Runyon, a bee inspection report, and the best girl group of them all: newsletter, May 29, 2020

May 31, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: newsletter, podcasting, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,575) on Friday, May 29, 2020.


One of the delights of doing this newsletter is the response I get from you readers — something I have mentioned several times previously. Where it’s appropriate, and it usually is, I try to share most of those responses with you. I also try to respond to everything that is sent to me, and sometimes my responses are much briefer than I would like.

I mention this because during the past two or three weeks, the number and quality of the responses I have received have been delightfully high. The best thing is that I can share those responses with you; the worst thing is that I get behind on answering those responses, and I simply trust that you will have patience with me. 

Please continue to write if you see something you like, something you don’t like, or just something that prompts a good story. Good stories are what I wish for you this weekend.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,576 subscribers and had a 27.6 percent open rate; 2 persons unsubscribed.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement, and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

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 Runyon, 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 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, he eventually ended up 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 added 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 Feet Samuels, Dave the Duke, and the Hot Box hangout.

The state of the bees: nearly eight weeks in the hive

My beekeeping partner John and I opened our four beehives on Sunday afternoon for the first time since the bees had been installed on April 2. Bloom-wise, it has so far been a good spring for the bees. First there was the crimson clover that was blooming in abundance when the bees first joined us. As it began to fade, a variety of other blooms began to appear: privet, honeysuckle, blackberries, etc. Now that those are gone, we find a lot of white clover on the ground with a bit of hydrangea and other flowing plants mixed in.

So, the bees have had plenty to munch on and carry back to the hives for storage and honey-making purposes.

In addition, we have been watching from the outside and have seen plenty of bees and plenty of activity around the entrance of the hives. Seeing that on a daily basis has been a good thing, and there haven’t been any signs of trouble, such as a lot of dead bee carcasses in front of the hives.

All that said, when we opened the hives, what did we look for?

Lots of bees. Each hive began with about 10,000 bees. There are several times that number in each hive now. It means the queen has been actively laying her eggs, and the eggs have been developing into new bees.

Lots of brood cells. Brood cells are cells in the comb where new bees are developing. They are easy to spot because they have a brown capping over the cell. (See the top picture.) We found lots and lots of brood cells in each hive. This is the major sign that the hive is currently healthy and functioning properly.

Relatively few drone cells. Drones are male bees that do little to help the hive, and their presence can serve as a host for varroa, a mite that is the chief pest of beehives in this country. Drones are a natural part of the process, so you expect to find some drone cells, but if you find too many, something in the hive has gone amiss. Here, again, all the hives checked out. We found some drone cells but not enough to be alarmed about.

Evidence of honey. The hives won’t contain much capped honey (as seen in the bottom picture here) at this point, but you do want to see honey in the cells. That means the bees are involved in the process of making the honey. It doesn’t happen all at once, and if you see uncapped honey, that’s a good sign. We found some capped honey and lots of uncapped honey in all of the hives.

Bottom line: The hives are healthy and functioning properly at this point.

There are five to six weeks before we will get into the honey harvesting season, and there is still much that could go wrong with the process. But our hive inspection brought us good news, and we are happy to have it.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

The Supremes: achieving Berry Gordy’s ultimate crossover appeal

They were the best girl group ever, and they’ve got the numbers to prove it: 12 top-ranked pop hits, Grammy nominations, membership in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, packed concert halls, numerous television appearances, and always and everywhere the stars of the show. The numbers and the facts don’t lie. The Supremes in the mid-1960s were at the top of the popular music mountain, the only group to give The Beatles a run for their money.

But within the Motown musical milieu, there has always been doubt — and more than a little grousing.

The Supremes, and especially Diana Ross, were always Berry Gordy’s pet. Gordy was Motown’s founder and final word on every aspect of the operation, and The Supremes received his special attention and more than their share of breaks and promotions. Partly, this was because Gordy had fallen head-over-heals in love with Ross, and they eventually had an affair.

But the group was also good — good musically and good commercially. They had an appearance and a sound that made you forget about race and gender, which was especially important in the 1960s, and concentrate on the moves and the music. They could get your hands clapping and your feet stomping and your voice singing if you were so inclined.

And they sold records. Their list of million-sellers is almost without precedent.

Like other Motown groups, the girls — originally Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Diane (later Diana) Ross, and Betty McGlown — grew up near the Brewster-Douglass housing project in Detroit and started singing as teenagers. In the late 1950s, they formed first as the Primettes, a sister group to the Primes whose members went on to form the core of The Temptations. They had made some records in those early years, but they had little success. They signed with Motown in 1961, and by that time, McGlown had dropped out, and they had a new name, The Supremes.

Even with Motown in the first two years, they never had a record break into the top 20 on the pop charts. In the spring of 1964, they were told to record a song titled “Where Did Our Love Go,” a song that had been written for the Marvelettes. That group had rejected the song, and The Supremes didn’t like it much either. Still, they made the record, Motown released it, and it rocketed to the top of the charts while the group was touring with the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars.

That song was followed by four consecutive U.S. number-one hits: “Baby Love” (which was also a number-one hit in the UK), “Come See About Me”, “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Back in My Arms Again.” During the next two years, those hits were followed by more, such as  “I Hear a Symphony”, “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On.”

The Supremes’ album The Supremes A’ Go-Go, released in October 1966, became the first album by an all-girl group to reach the top of the charts, and it knocked The Beatles Revolver out of first place. More importantly, the group had finally achieved one of Berry Gordy’s main aims: crossover appeal. The Supremes were as popular with white audiences as they were with black fans.

But, as usual, all was not well within the group or within the Motown confines. In 1967 Gordy changed the name of the group to Diana Ross and the Supremes, further exacerbating the relationships among Ross, Wilson, and Ballard. Ballard particularly believed that she was being cut out, and she began drinking and gaining weight so that her appearance no longer lined up with the image that Berry Gordy was trying to market. There were also persistent rumors that Diana Ross would leave the group and strike out on her own.

Ballard left the group in 1967, but that did not solve the personnel problems. The situation deteriorated to the point that in 1968, the women would not record together, and they came in at separate times to lay down their tracks. The final number one record for the group, “Someday, We’ll Be Together,” was a Diana Ross solo, originally meant to help launch her solo career in 1970. At the last minute, Gordy changed his mind and marketed the record as Diana Ross and the Supremes.

After Ross’ departure, the group continued for several years, but it never recaptured its old magic. The Supremes finally disbanded in 1977 with a final concert in London’s Drury Lane Theater.

See these previous posts about Motown:

Fifty years ago, Marvin Gaye asked What’s Going On?

Please, Mr. Postman

Berry Gordy began Motown with an $800 loan from his family

Martha and the Vandellas: Heat Waves, Quicksand, and but always Dancing in the Street

Temptations: soulful voices, close harmonies, and choreography that made you want to dance

Smokey Robinson, Motown’s founding brother

Stevie Wonder: the most talented Motowner of them all

Podcast recommendation: The Last Archive

Truth, these days, seems to lie dead as a doornail, half-hidden in the weeds like those bodies you see at the beginning of television murder mysteries. It’s obviously been assaulted, and since its demise, wild animals have been feeding on it.

Not a pretty sight.

For nearly two centuries now, truth was healthy and robust, supported by facts, evidence, clues, observation, experimentation, and the common pool of knowledge that we could all agree upon.

Not only was it healthy, it was respected. Going up against the truth not only left you defeated but enervated and often humiliated.

But that was then and this is now, and truth is dead.

The question is: Who killed the truth?

Jill Lapore takes a crack at answering this question in this new fascinating and professionally-produced podcast The Last Archive. Lapore is a historian at Harvard and staff writer for the New Yorker. She’s a sensational writer and one of the best public intellectuals we have. Here’s the way the podcast describes itself.

In The Last Archive, acclaimed historian Jill Lepore traces the history of evidence, proof, and knowledge, in troubled epistemological times. From archives and libraries to interrogation rooms and evidence vaults, Lepore takes listeners around the country–and across the passage of time–in search of an answer to the question: Who killed truth? Source: The Last Archive

The first episode looks at the murder of a mother of three in Vermont in 1919. A man was convicted of the murder, and Lapore begins with the facts and the evidence — just like many other good-to-great true-crime podcasts.

But with her researcher’s eye and skill, she then turns it into something much more than an interesting murder case. There are reasons, hidden in the record, why the truth never came out.

I have listened to a lot of podcasts, but this one is the best and most engaging one I have heard yet in 2020. It’s definitely worth the time, and I’ll be back as soon as the second episode is available.


Check out last week’s newsletter

Dan C.:  As an author myself, I have a two-fold opinion on buying used books. I know that the author loses out on his/her share of the royalties for a book, but they also lose out on royalties when a library buys their book. They did receive the royalty the first time the book was sold, so it isn’t like a pirated copy. A lot of times, I buy a used book because I could not afford to buy at the new copy price.  With that said I purchased a used copy of Liberty and Freedom by David Hackett Fischer. I paid $7.80 instead of the $79,00 for a new copy. What I really don’t understand is the price some dealers charge for a book. At one point my book (self-published through CreateSpace) had a dealer that was selling a “Collector’s Edition” of the book for over $125.00 when the Amazon Price had already discounted to $17.95 from the original $18.95. I just checked and the collector’s edition is no longer listed and Amazon dropped the price another dollar. 

Lila G.: After watching the Netflix film Unorthodox recently I had an opportunity to read the book Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman, which is the true story of her escape from her Hasidic roots. Gripping and fascinating at the same time

Sue S.: I am really enjoying your newsletters and the series about Motown most of all.  Two years ago, my husband and I, toured Michigan.  We had time to visit Motown and had a very enjoyable tour.  40 “mature” people were led through the building.  Our guide was so knowledgable and personable and really made the tour special.  We saw a film on Motown, visited Barry Gordy’s apartment, saw the museum with outfits from the performers, and original items.  Then we entered  Studio A.  No pictures were allowed but thanks to one very persistent gentleman, an exception was made for us.  The highlight was a group sing-along to “My Girl”.


Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Shopping as we know it

Best quote of the week:

Satire should, like a polished razor keen, wound with a touch that’s scarcely felt or seen. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, author (1689-1762)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: Marguerite Higgins finds a place for a woman in a combat zone, Stevie Wonder, and what Lincoln looked like: newsletter, May 22, 2020


Get a FREE copy of Kill the Quarterback

Get a free digital copy of Jim Stovall's mystery novel, Kill the Quarterback. You will also get Jim's newsletter and advanced notice of publications, free downloads and a variety of information about what he is working on. Jim likes to stay in touch, so sign up today.

Powered by ConvertKit

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *