Thursday, June 24, 2010

Damon Runyon

"One evening along about seven o'clock I am sitting in Mindy's restaurant putting on the gefiltte, which is a dish I am very fond of, when in comes three parties from Brooklyn wearing caps as follows: Harry the Horse, Little Isadore and Spanish John."

So begins one of Damon Runyon's most anthologized stories, "Butch Minds the Baby," instantly recognizable for its voice, humour, characters, and use of the present tense.

Runyon's fiction came out of a life that spanned the lawlessness of two eras - the Old West and Prohibition on the East Coast.

As a newspaperman he covered wars and sporting events. He loved to gamble and hang out in nightclubs with gangsters, sometimes even accompanying them on the way to a job.

According to Breslin, Runyon preferred the company of gangsters because they were much more colourful than politicians and bigshot businessmen, who were equally corrupt:

It was unfortunate that Charles Barney was not smart enough to stop stealing even when he had to take his clothes out of the closet to make room for his money, and he continued into some impossibly corrupt real estate businesses. One day he woke up and found the only way he could see his way out was to blow his brains out, which he did. This did not stop his heirs, who founded Smith Barny stockbrokers and used as their motto, "We make money the old-fashioned way. We earn it." They should have said, "We steal it," but that's all right. This is America.


The book opens and closes with Patrice, Runyon's second wife. He met her in Juarez when he was covering Pancho Villa. She was a barefoot girl just past 12 who wanted to be a dancer. He promised to find her a job in New York if she learned to read and write, and paid for her education. Years later he made good on his promise when she showed up unexpectedly in the Big Apple. She became his mistress and later his wife. He was 51 and she 26 when they married. The bridesmaid was his own daughter. His first wife had just died.

Together they fabricated a tale that made her a Spanish countess who possessed one of the 10 largest diamonds in the world. The fabrication was similar to one of Runyon's short stories, and so complete that they came to believe it themselves.

Patrice however chafed at the difference in their ages, and soon began fooling around with the boxer, Primo Carnera. Runyon arranged for Carnera to fight Joe Louis, whose body "looked like the electric chair." He delivered a beating to Carnera.

When Runyon was dying of throat cancer, his doctor asked Patrice to write a supportive letter to Runyon. Instead she wrote that she was now in love with a younger man.


There are no footnotes or bibliography. Breslin relies instead on newspaper files and his own memory of stories he's heard over the years. At times he slips into the present tense, and tells it like a Runyon short story. It's incredible stuff -- Al Capone conducting an orchestra, Bugsy Siegel doing a screen test, Jack Dempsey slipping lead pipes into his gloves, Bat Masterson and Benito Mussolini writing for NYC papers.

At one point Runyon was the highest paid newspaper writer in the county. Several of his stories were made into movies. His most famous title is Guys and Dolls. He shares with several other literary greats the distinction of having contributed an adjective to the English language: Orwellian, Dickensian, Runyonesque. He had a liver "weak as a glass chin."

There are no pictures in the book. Here's one I found on the Web: