Search This Blog

Friday, October 5, 2012

Damon Runyon, born October 4

The short story writer who defined the Prohibition Era

Distinct and idiosyncratic, Runyon's New York underworld characters will live forever.

He spun humorous tales of gamblers, hustlers, actors, and gangsters, few of whom went by "square" names, preferring instead colorful monikers such as "Nathan Detroit," "Benny Southstreet," "Big Jule," "Harry the Horse," "Good Time Charley," "Dave the Dude," or "The Seldom Seen Kid."

Never heard of him?  He was the guy behind Guys and Dolls.

Born 1880 in a family of newspapermen, Runyon (originally "Runyan" until a newspaper report misspelled it) had a flamboyance of his own.

At the age of 18 he enlisted in the US Army to fight in the Spanish-American war.  Somehow, he emerged as a newspaper columnist, specializing in covering baseball matches for several papers, starting 1911. 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.

One year, while covering spring training in Texas, he met Pancho Villa in a bar in Texas and later accompanied the unsuccessful American expedition into Mexico searching for Villa. It was while he was in Mexico that he met the little girl he eventually married.

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 the bottle soon after arriving in New York, after his drinking nearly cost him the courtship of the woman who became his first wife, Ellen Egan (who was NOT the girl he'd met in Mexico). 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."

I guess you're wondering about that Mexican girl. She resurfaced in New York about 1928, when she called the American seeking him out. Her intention was to take him up on a promise he had made -- to find her a dancing job in New York, once she had finished the education he had paid for back in 1916.  He was instantly infatuated, leading to the break-up of his marriage.

Her name was Patrice Amati del Grande, and she became his companion after he and Ellen separated. After Ellen Runyon died of the effects of her own drinking problems, Runyon and Patrice married, but that had a sad ending too, when Patrice left Runyon for a 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 scattered from an airplane over Broadway in Manhattan by Captain Eddie Rickenbacker on December 18, 1946.

No comments: