Damon Runyon Biography

Damon Runyon was an American short-story writer, journalist, and humorist considered by us to be one of the world's greatest writers. He was the archetype of the tough, hard nosed street reporter who fraternized socially with gangsters and hoodlums, which certainly fueled his public persona. He was a frequent companion to gangster Al Capone, heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, baseball legend Babe Ruth, gambler/bookmaker Arnold Rothstein, and legendary radio personality Walter Winchell.

Runyon was born in Manhattan, Kansas in 1880, but was mainly raised in Pueblo, Colorado. Runyon was 7 years old when his mother, Elizabeth Damon Runyan, died. His father, Alfred, an itinerant printer and Publisher of small-town newspapers, spent his free time in bars, leaving young Runyon to roam the streets. He was expelled from school in the sixth grade and immediately followed his father into the printing business. By age 15, he was not only working for the Pueblo Evening Press, but he had gained the status of a legitimate news reporter. Runyon wrote his famed In Our Town story collection, based on the colorful characters he observed in Pueblo. It was during this time that a typographical error rendered his name "Runyon" instead of its traditional "an" spelling and he decided to adopt the change permanently.

In 1898, Runyon enlisted in the Spanish-American war and was sent to the Philippines, where he wrote for Manila Freedom and Soldier's Letter. After leaving the army, he moved from paper to paper before landing at the Denver Post, where he became a star sportswriter who expanded his horizons to politics and crime as well as publishing verses and short stories in national publications such as Harper's Weekly and McClure's. In 1910, he went to work for the Hearst chain, writing a daily column in The New York American. Having given up alcohol upon moving to New York, Runyon was known to drink 40 to 60 cups of coffee a day, with a cigarette for each cup, as he made his way from Lindy’s to the Stork Club, soaking up the atmosphere of his beloved Manhattan. In 1911, he published a collection of poems entitled The Tents. In 1912 and 1916, Runyon served as a Hearst foreign correspondent in Mexico, following Pershing’s hunt for Pancho Villa, and in Europe covering World War I. By the 1920's, Runyon had developed his own distinct writing style, describing the small details and perspectives that other reporters did not pursue. His syndicated column, featuring celebrated murder trials and the shady days of Prohibition, was seen by millions daily, and he was considered America's premier journalist.

From 1939 to 1943, Runyon pursued a Hollywood career as a writer and producer at MGM, Universal and RKO. Characters like the Lemon Drop Kid and Izzy Cheesecake were derived from his real life relationships and experiences.  Films such as LITTLE MISS MARKER (1934), starring Shirley Temple (later remade with Bob Hope and Lucille Ball), and Frank Capra's LADY FOR A DAY (1933) are only two examples of Runyon's 16 stories which were turned into films.

Runyon lived a rich life and varied life. Although he was married and divorced twice, producing two children from whom he was largely estranged, he developed deep friendships with a number of contemporaries. In 1938, Runyon developed throat cancer, which left him unable to speak. When he died from the disease in 1946, World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker scattered his friend's ashes from his plane over Broadway and Walter Winchell founded the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation in Runyon's honor.

Runyon's literary legacy includes over 700 stories, novellas, plays, articles, essays, and poems. Among Runyon's best-known works is Guys and Dolls, which was adapted to the stage as a musical on Broadway in 1950, where it ran 1,200 performances, and was successfully revived in 1976 and 1992. The musical has been staged in over 25 countries, and is performed over 3,000 times annually in high schools, universities, community and regional theaters, making it one of the most produced professional and amateur musicals of all time. Runyon's works also serve as the basis for 29 films feature films, most notably:

  • GUYS AND DOLLS (1955) based on “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and "Blood Pressure"
  • LITTLE MISS MARKER (1934, 1980), SORROWFUL JONES (1949) and 40 POUNDS OF TROUBLE (1962) all based on “Little Miss Marker
  • POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES (1961) and LADY FOR A DAY (1933), both based on “Madame La Gimp

Memorable quotes by Damon Runyon:

"I long ago came to the conclusion that all life is 6 to 5 against."

"Always try to rub against money, for if you rub against money long enough, some of it may rub off on you."

"The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet."

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