(b. 8 October 1880 in Manhattan, Kansas; d. 10 December 1946 in New York City), major sports reporter, columnist, and short story writer whose use of humor and "slanguage" created a unique style that earned him a wide and loyal readership.
Born Alfred Damon Runyan, Runyon was one of four children of Alfred Lee Runyan, a newspaper publisher, and Elizabeth Damon. After partnerships to establish newspapers in several towns failed, the family moved to Pueblo, Colorado, where on 3 March 1888 Runyon's mother died of consumption. While his three sisters went to live with relatives, Runyon stayed with his father, who was working as a printer on the Pueblo Chieftain.
Runyon attended the Hinsdale School in Pueblo up to the sixth grade, but soon left to spend his days reading in the library, roaming the streets with a gang of friends, occasionally picking up odd jobs, and adopting his father's barroom habits of smoking and drinking. By the time he was fifteen, he was working for the Pueblo Evening Press, where an editor misspelled his name, changing it from Runyan to Runyon.
When the Spanish-American War began in 1898, Runyon tried to enlist. Rejected as too young and too small, he nevertheless got aboard the train moving the troops to San Francisco. Once there, he managed to get accepted as bugler to the Thirteenth Minnesota Volunteers, but sailed for Manila, in the Philippines, only after the fighting was over.
Discharged from the military in 1899, Runyon spent some time in San Francisco before returning to Pueblo and the Pueblo Chieftain. His problems with alcohol led to short-term employment at several newspapers, but in 1906 he landed a position at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, where he remained for four years. In his off time, Runyon began to write poems and short stories, including "The Defense of Strikerville," which was published by a national magazine, McClure's, in February 1907. After a heavy bout of drinking sent him to the hospital in 1910, he made a vow to quit drinking, a vow that he upheld for the rest of his life. Writing to his son in his later years, Runyon explained that liquor "made me dull and stupid and quarrelsome. It made me dreadfully ill afterwards.… I quit because I saw that I was not going to get anywhere in the world if I didn't, and I wanted to go places."
In 1910 he was in San Francisco, covering the James J. Jeffries vs. Jack Johnson heavyweight championship bout, when his friend Charles Van Loan suggested that Runyon go to New York. There Van Loan helped him land a job as a sports reporter at William Randolph Hearst's New York American, where an editor shortened his name to Damon Runyon. By then sober, successful in selling his short stories and poetry, and with a promising future at the American, he proposed to Ellen Egan, society editor at the Rocky Mountain News. They were married on 6 May 1911. Their first child, a daughter, was born on 24 August 1914 while Runyon was covering a game between the New York Yankees and the Chicago White Sox. Their second child, a son, was born on 17 June 1918.
Writing for the New York American, Runyon developed the style that earned him a loyal readership. Setting up his portable typewriter in the press box, he went beyond simply reporting an event to include human-interest details about baseball players, fighters, and horses, as well as colorful descriptions of the spectators. At times his own personal interests were involved in promoting individual fighters, as in his biographical series on Jack Dempsey. At other times, following the adage "I never bite the hand that feeds me," he reflected the interests of Hearst and others important to his career. Some critics characterized Runyon's personal style as aloof and cold. Others, observing his generosity, saw a shy and sentimental side. With fellow journalists, he often helped newcomers, but turned competitive when his position was challenged.
Runyon was a keen observer of those around him. Frequenting the bars and, during Prohibition, the speakeasies, he gathered an eclectic group of acquaintances—politicians, entertainers, reporters, and gangsters. Many of these became models for the "guys and dolls" who peopled his short stories. As he downed cup after cup of coffee in a favorite bar or nightclub, sat in on gambling sessions, or roamed along Broadway, he listened and captured the rhythms and patterns of language used by his first person narrators.
The late hours and frequent out-of-town assignments created problems in Runyon's marriage, and he and his first wife separated in 1928. After Ellen Egan's death in 1931, Runyon married dancer Patrice Amati del Grande on 7 July 1932 in a ceremony performed by New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker. This marriage coincided with Runyon's most prolific period as an author, which saw the publication of several collections of his works including Guys and Dolls (1931), Blue Plate Special (1934), Money from Home (1935), More Than Somewhat (1937), Take It Easy (1938), The Best of Damon Runyon (1938), My Old Man (1939), and many others.
As his popularity soared, movie rights to several of Runyon's short stories were sold. Lady for a Day (1933), based on "Madame La Gimp," was nominated for three Academy Awards, and Little Miss Marker (1934), starred Shirley Temple. Trying his pen at drama, he collaborated with Howard Lindsay in writing the successful Broadway play A Slight Case of Murder in 1935. When the New York American suspended publication in 1937, Runyon's columns moved to Hearst's New York Daily Mirror. By then he had developed a hoarseness and pain in his throat. Continuing to ignore it, he worked as writer-producer for RKO Pictures and Twentieth Century-Fox from 1941 to 1943. Finally, in April 1944, he consulted a physician. The diagnosis was cancer. Several operations followed as the malignant growth recurred. Unable to talk, Runyon continued to write his columns and to converse with his friends through notes.
Runyon's separation from his second wife ended in divorce in 1946. On 6 December 1946, Runyon entered the hospital for the last time. He slipped into a coma and died on 10 December 1946. Following Runyon's request for no public display, his son and his friend, pilot Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, scattered his ashes over New York City from the air.
In his three and a half decades as a newspaperman, Runyon lived through the major changes in sports and society that accompanied World War I, the Prohibition era, the Great Depression, and the New Deal. He captured the human dimensions in reports from sports arenas across the country, from political events, and from courtroom trials such as that of Bruno Hauptmann for the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and Al Capone for income tax evasion. As a major sports reporter, Runyon drew on his remarkable knowledge of sports and sports figures to add humor, color, and breadth in writing about sporting events from boxing and baseball to horse racing. Collections of his columns include Short Takes: Readers' Choice of the Best Columns of America's Favorite Newspaperman (1946), In Our Town (1946), Trials and Other Tribulations (1948), and The Turps (1951).
Runyon was both prolific and versatile. During much of his career he turned in a daily column and a weekly feature, as well as writing short stories and poetry. In feature stories his use of humor and fictional narrators disguised his often critical view of the world. His short stories appeared regularly and were popular reading in the United States and abroad. The high regard of his readers and friends was evident when, at his death, they responded with millions in donations to the Damon Runyon Memorial Cancer Fund.
Collections of Runyon's letters are at the University of California, Berkeley, and Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and some of his manuscripts reside in the collection of the New York Public Library. A memoir by Damon Runyon, Jr., Father's Footsteps (1953), includes letters written by his father in the last years of his life. Biographies include Edwin P. Hoyt, A Gentleman of Broadway (1964), and Jimmy Breslin, Damon Runyon: A Life (1991). Tom Clark places Runyon within the context of the major sports events of his time in The World of Damon Runyon (1978). Patricia Ward D'Itri, Damon Runyon (1982), is a useful critical analysis. An obituary is in the New York Times (11 Dec. 1946).
Lucy A. Liggettm