Monday, March 17, 2008


Most of us have heard the term Damon Runyon character but never gave a thought to the real person after whom the term was coined. This is another example of an eponym--a word named after a person. A Damon Runyon character describes a disreputable person who walks a fine line between both sides of the law. We're talking about colorful street people like gamblers, pimps, gangsters and other assorted lowlifes who were the subjects of Damon Runyon's stories.

Damon Runyon (1884-1946) was a journalist and short story writer who wrote about those aforementioned underworld characters on the streets of New York City. He was born as Alfred Damon Runyan (yes, with an "a", not an "o") out of wedlock in the other Manhattan (Kansas, where his birthplace is on the National Register of Historic Places). He was raised in Pueblo, Colorado, where his father and grandfather were newspapermen.

Runyon came to New York to work as a sportswriter and columnist for Hearst's New York American where he covered the New York Giants baseball team as a beat writer from 1911 until 1920, as well as covering boxing matches. He was credited with revolutionizing sportswriting by covering not only the game itself but the drama off the field and in the stands, highlighting the eccentric and unusual. His contributions were significant enough than in 1967, he was inducted into the writers' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY. He is also a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

A close friend was fellow sportswriter William B. "Bat" Masterson, the former Western gunfighter who knew the Runyan family in Colorado. Two of Runyon's assistants later became famous in their own right--Ed Sullivan and Walter Winchell.

His stories were sometimes turned into humorous Broadway plays and movies. He gave his characters names like Apple Annie, Harry the Horse, and Sam the Gonoph. Perhaps the best known is his short story, The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown, which became better known as Guys and Dolls. A long running Broadway play, it was made into a movie with Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra. The story line was about gamblers with names like Nicely Nicely, Nathan Detroit, Sky Masterson and Big Julie from Chicago, who mended their ways, finding religion with the social worker/reformer (Jean Simmons) who was Marlon Brando's love interest in the movie.

The characters in Guys and Dolls were prototypes for those on The Sopranos or cop shows like NYPD Blue. Runyon was a gambler himself, and gambling was a common theme in his works. In one of his most famous quotes paraphrasing Ecclesiastes, he declared, "The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet."

Runyon was described by Cornell English Professor Daniel Schwarz as among the first to "stylize both the language and the behavior of gangsters and depict them as another part of the socio-economic system, showing how the underworld provided clients with gambling, sex and hard-to-get sports tickets and, during Prohibition, with liquor."

Runyon tapped a vein of interest in the American public which has exhibited itself in recent times with the popularity of Mario Puzo's gangster novels, Frances Coppola's Godfather movies, Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, and Barry Levinson's Bugsy, as well as The Sopranos. Undeniably, the American public is fascinated by the sleazy side of entertainment, sports and politics which has made the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the downfall of Gov. Eliot Spitzer into spectator events.

Runyon also wrote, among other things, Little Miss Marker, which starred Shirley Temple in her film debut, The Lemon Drop Kid which starred Bob Hope, and Pride of the Yankees.

Several slang terms entered the language, courtesy of Damon Runyon's rich vocabulary:

Ever-loving--almost always prefacing "wife", as in "his ever-loving wife"
More than somewhat--quite a bit, as in "he is more than somewhat married"
Roscoe/John Roscoe/The old equalizer--gun

Runyon died of throat cancer in 1946 and had his ashes scattered over Manhattan (NY) from a plane flown by legendary pilot and World War I ace Eddie Rickenbacker. After his death, Walter Winchell established the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation in his memory. It continues to fund cancer research today. The first telethon in TV history was hosted by Milton Berle in 1949 to raise funds for the Foundation.




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March 19, 2008 at 3:01 AM  

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