When you look at the gray tapioca that American newspapers have become, it’s hard to believe they ever spawned Damon Runyon, who covered his first hanging at 11 and grew up to create Broadway by populating it with Nicely-Nicely and Harry the Horse, Madame La Gimp, Nathan Detroit and Little Miss Marker.
But Runyon lived in an age when a reporter could drink with a ballplayer named Bugs one day and go to the track with Pancho Villa the next. He set the standard for courtroom coverage at the Lindbergh kidnaping trial, he was there when Arnold Rothstein, the gambler, got whacked, and he fixed things so Al Capone could step up and conduct Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” And that’s not the half of it.
No wonder Jimmy Breslin couldn’t resist turning “Damon Runyon” into as much of a fantasy inhabitation of his subject as it is a biography. Breslin is a New York newspaper star himself, a street-smart wiseacre who lifted Runyon’s style just as Runyon lifted his style from--you aren’t going to believe this--Coleridge. The characters Runyon banked on, the gamblers and touts and gangsters, are the characters Breslin banked on before deciding that politicians are more important. Runyon, in his infinite wisdom, didn’t consider politicians human.
But then he flourished when newspapers weren’t so tame, so timid, so full of careerists who would rather become editors than write a sentence with the rhythm of the streets in it. He was allowed the freedom to be Damon Runyon, and that is a freedom Breslin, after more than four decades of trying, has never known. Until now.
Now he can climb inside Runyon’s head during a trip to Hollywood in the early 1940s. Runyon is with Ben Siegel, a gangster who hated his nickname. “When somebody called him ‘Bugsy,’ ” Breslin writes, “his eyes popped out of his head and he tried to bite the man to death like a cannibal in broad daylight.” Anyway, Runyon and Ben Siegel are with two hoods, Champ Siegel and Frankie Carbo, and a nameless young lovely, and they have just finished watching Siegel’s screen test, directed by George Raft.
“I hated it,” the young woman says.
“Why don’t she shut up, Ben?” Champ Segal says. “I’ll tell you how good you are in this here thing. Do you want to know how good you are?”
“Yes,” Siegel says.
“Ben, you’ll never have to steal again.”
These were the kinds of characters Runyon mined relentlessly--the outlaw, the outcast, the outlandish. He discovered them as soon as he blew into New York from Denver in 1910, and he always returned to them for creative sustenance even when he was helping turning Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey into the heroes of the Golden Age of Sports. He went back because the language these wise guys spoke struck him as a treasure--"Make the door shut,” “Take a haircut"--and he used to it write the short stories that became “Guys and Dolls.” That’s why Broadway isn’t just the big street, it’s Damon Runyon’s street.
“He found it was crowded,” Breslin writes, “with people like Pussy McGuire, who stole cats and sold them to old ladies, and Unser Fritz, a degenerate horseplayer who wore shoes with no soles and touted millionaires. Now he took a deep breath. Even the cement smelled of larceny. He heard the sound of a subway train rumbling to a stop at the station beneath the sidewalk. It sounded like somebody blowing a safe.”
Those are the words--the imaginings, really--of the infatuated. For Breslin, however, the infatuation stops at Runyon’s personal life, a life that was cold and lonely no matter how many hot spots the man who lived it could hit a night.
Runyon was born the son of a vagabond newspaperman who drank and finagled his way through a succession of Kansas and Colorado towns. When Runyon was 8, consumption killed his mother, and his three sisters were off to live with his grandmother. He never saw them again. When his father did nothing to fill the void, something inside Damon Runyon died.
“As his lonely life left him subject to no demands that he enter into conversation, he almost never talked,” Breslin writes. “He appeared to have insides made of plate glass. He saw everything and felt nothing. If somebody pressed a face to the pane of glass and looked in for too long, he merely pulled the shade down.”
It stayed down whether Runyon was covering a ballgame when his son was being born, refusing to attend his daughter’s wedding, or walking out on his first wife while she was drinking herself to death. Before her body was cold, he married Patrice Amati, whom he had met when she was a child that day at the track with Villa. He passed her off as a Spanish countess when she was really just a blond bimbo from Mexico, and she wound up proving that this dour little man had a heart by breaking it. First, she flaunted her affair with Primo Carnera, a lug who stumbled into the heavyweight championship, and then she refused Runyon’s request to come to his side as he lay dying, before his time, of cancer.
But the true villain of the piece wasn’t Patrice. It was the cigarette Runyon was never without from the time he was 9 or 10. The cigarette that was, Breslin writes, “so much a part of his working rhythm: type noisily, hit the carriage with the left hand, reach for the cigarette, drag, put the cigarette down, start typing with smoke streaming from nose and throat. Working himself to death.”
When the end finally came in 1946, Runyon was as alone as he had been as a boy back in Colorado. Patrice was gone, his daughter was drying out in a nursing home, and he hadn’t told the people at the hospital that he had a son. It hardly mattered that Damon Jr. got in a plane that scattered his father’s ashes over Times Square.
But if the man himself could pass from the scene so quietly, his work would only get bigger after his death. How fitting, for the work was what Damon Runyon was all about. The swagger of his prose left a legacy that has been carried on by men under the spell of his world’s quirks, characters and locutions.
Flip through the New York papers and you will find Runyon’s spiritual successors. Mike Lupica is in the Daily News, Pete Hamill and Mike McAlary are in the Post, and over at Newsday, you’ve got Breslin, the guy they’re imitating consciously or subconsciously. But Breslin learned it all from Runyon, and how do you thank a man for something like that when he is dead and you have bragged that you are better than he ever was anyway?
What you do if you are Jimmy Breslin is make Damon Runyon the subject of your 11th book, and you write the absolute hell out of it, write it better than you have written anything in your life. You make it funny and sad and evocative and everything else a biography of Damon Runyon should be. And you do it for the simpliest and most honest reason there is. You do it because you owe the guy.