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Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Damon Runyon (1884-1946)

Alfred Damon Runyan was born October 4, 1884, in Manhattan, Kansas. He grew up in Pueblo, Colorado, and later moved to Denver. His family was good friends with William Barclay "Bat" Masterson, who found him work as a sportswriter (which Masterson also did) in New York. He tried to start a minor baseball league in Colorado but when that didn't work out, he moved to New York, with the help of Bat Masterson.

He became the reporter for the New York Giants. When a proofreader incorrectly edited the spelling of his name, so Runyan became Runyon. The editor also left off his first name Alfred.

In 1911, he began courting Ellen Egan. Runyon was a hard drinker and a heavy smoker. The drinking almost lost him the love of his life. He quit the drinking and he got to keep the girl. Runyon remained a heavy smoker.

Runyon was the leg man for both Ed Sullivan and Walter Winchell when they started their careers as gossip reporters. He developed friendships with many of the notorious New York City gangsters of the era. He took notes and wrote stories about everything.

With Ellen, he had two children, Mary and Damon, Jr. Their marriage was broken up in 1928 when he began seeing a woman from Mexico he met several years earlier when he was reporting on raids by Pancho Villa. Mary died of cirrhosis in 1932 and Runyon married that woman, Patrice Amati del Grande. Just before Runyon died, Patrice left him for a younger man.

Runyon wrote many short stories for several periodicals involving gangsters, whose names he changed. They were immensely popular. Some of the stories were, The Lemon Drop Kid, Little Miss Marker, Guys and Dolls, The Palm Beach Santa Claus, Lady for a Day, and there were many, many more. In the stories, mobsters are not seen as being bad, just naive. There's very little in the way of any violence. Many of these stories were heard on radio programs in the 1930s and 1940s.

As he was a heavy smoker, Damon Runyon died of cancer in New York City on December 10, 1946. A friend to many celebrities, his will stipulated what to do with his body when he died. It said that Eddie Rickenbacker fly first over Broadway and scatter his ashes on the street. Then he was to go to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx and fly close to his first wife's grave. He did it.

Walter Winchell set up the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund which has been one of the most successful charities in history. After Winchell succumbed to cancer himself, the name was changed to the Damon Runyon-Walter Winchell Cancer Fund.

In January 1949, Alan Ladd's Mayfair Syndication Company began producing a radio comedy series based upon the stories of Damon Runyon. The Damon Runyon Theater aired for about a year.

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