Damon Runyon is famous for shunning the past tense, as in: ‘I am going to take you back a matter of four or five years ago to an August afternoon ... On this day I am talking about, the Lemon Drop Kid is looking for business.’ Even when one of his stories has been told, is over, and he permits his protagonists a little late-night deconstruction, there is still this unrelenting attachment to the present. ‘“Well, Mrs B,” he says. “You almost get a good break when old Doc News drops dead after you stake his wife to the poison because it looks as if you have her where she can never wriggle off no matter what she says. But,” Ambrose says, “my friend Mrs News is cute enough to seek my advice and counsel.” ’ This speech belongs in the past tense, but the author is determined not to put it there. By this stage in Runyon’s career, to have done so would have brought professional dishonour.
Runyon did not always write this way, but once he had learned how to, he never – so to speak – looked back. According to one commentator, there is in Runyon’s New York tales ‘only one single instance of a verb in the past tense [and] I will lay six to five that it is nothing but a misprint.’ Jimmy Breslin reckons that Runyon caught the habit either from Samuel Taylor Coleridge or from listening to hoodlums testifying evasively at court hearings. A more likely bet is that he caught it from Ring Lardner, from whom he picked up several other hard-boiled/soft-centred tricks of style. The fact is, though, that the ploy does fit snugly with the kind of stories Runyon liked to tell, stories whose charm insists that we are not often invited to reflect on origins and consequences. In Runyon’s wide-eyed gangland, everyone talks as if he has been taken by surprise. A counsel for the defence can usually plead that his client was obliged to act before he had a chance to think.
In most of Runyon’s tales of Broadway low-life in the Twenties, the narrator has no past and not much of a present – or perhaps, like his characters, he has more past than he cares to remember and a future that is, to say the least, uncertain. He is a Mr X, and he functions as a warm-up man for the main action. He can be found most nights in Mindy’s Restaurant ‘putting on the gefillte fish, which is a dish I am very fond of, when in come these three parties from Brooklyn’. The parties have names like Harry the Horse or Nick the Greek or Johnny Uptown and they are mostly small or medium-time bad guys: thieves, extortionists, kidnappers, racketeers or killers. The word ‘killer’, however, is a word that’s never used. These men with funny names also have funny names for what they do. They speak of giving their foes ‘a little tattooing’, ‘a boff over the pimple’, or of whipping out ‘the old equaliser’ in order to aim some ‘whangity-whang-whang at Louie the Lug’ or at whoever has been foolish enough to make a party feel ‘somewhat disturbed’ or ‘very much excited’. The narrator does not object to such euphemising because equalisers usually equalise each other – well, almost usually. Like the papers say, innocent bystanders can now and then get caught in other people’s crossfire. But then, what’s innocent about bystanding at a time like this?
This is a question that is never put to Mr X. Although he knows this world, he is not of it. For some reason, though, the Mindy’s hoods practically queue up at his table for the chance to bend his ear: ‘Maybe you will like to hear the story’; ‘It’s a very unusual story indeed, and is by no means a lie, and I will be pleased to tell it to someone I think will believe it.’ This hunger to narrate is portrayed as common to all gangsters of the epoch. None of them can read or write ‘more than somewhat’, and none has even a rudimentary knowledge of life outside his little stretch of urban jungle. On politics and geography, for instance, they are particularly weak. In one story, Harry the Horse and friends find themselves at a political party convention and have no idea what is going on; in another, set in wartime, someone wants to know where – indeed what – Europe is. But then, as Mr X would have us bear in mind, these outlaws have long ago handed in their right to vote, travel is not permitted by the terms of their parole, all politicians are owned by the very gang bosses who own them, and all foreigners seem to be living in New York, so what’s the point?
What the hoods do have, thanks to Mr X, is a natural aptitude for speaking Runyonese, a lingo invented to convey the simultaneous workings of a slow brain and a speedy tongue. The vocabulary is alive with colourful demotic but the syntax is stately, uncertain, pseudo-British. It is as if these self-confident slack-mouths suspect that what they are saying might get written down and used in evidence. Maybe this is why they talk to Mr X: they know – as we are not supposed to – that he is actually a hotshot columnist, that he is an associate of Arnold Rothstein, Al Capone and Mayor Walker, that he can get your name in the papers as easily as he can keep it out, that he has clout in places where it matters: in baseball, boxing, the racetrack, City Hall, the Mob. Certainly, this is how Runyon himself liked to be seen – as the invisible string-puller, the shrewd appraiser on the sidelines. ‘I am the sedentary champion of the City,’ he once said. ‘In order to learn anything of importance, I must remain seated. Why I am the best is that I can last an entire day without causing the chair to squeak.’
Mr X likewise does not often squeak his chair. He also wishes to present himself as an all-knowing neutral. But he is shifty too, and timid, and nothing like as grand-mannered as Runyon, his inventor. He is, he tells us more than once, ‘a law-abiding citizen at all times’ and ‘greatly opposed to guys who violate the law’, although he also makes it his business to steer clear of the police: ‘Personally, I do not care for coppers, but I believe in being courteous to them at all times.’ Luckily, the cops usually steer clear of him: ‘They know there is no more harm in me than in a two-year-old baby.’ Mr X is not ‘a guy who goes around much’, but now and then he is asked to do small favours for the hoods – he runs errands for them, delivers messages, fixes pow-wows between warring parties, and so on. His chief duty down at Mindy’s, though, is to sit still and listen while they talk.
Mr X is sometimes reluctant to do this – maybe because most of the hoods’ plotlines turn on a contrived misunderstanding or on some implausible offstage machination – but at such moments he reminds himself that cute guys like Izzy Cheesecake and Rusty Charlie are likely to turn not-so-cute if they don’t get to tell the tale. So he listens, and we listen with him: as eavesdroppers, we are even less likely than he is to make sniffy moral judgments or offer to help out with the grammar or even to request a bit more detail when it comes to the descriptive stuff. On dolls, especially, the guys tend not to throw away the words. ‘I never see such a wide doll. She looks all hammered down.’
We know nothing about Mr X beyond the very little he lets slip. He seems not to have a regular job, and our guess is that he pays for his meals at Mindy’s out of his racetrack winnings, or that he has some fringe role in the bootlegging business – he certainly knows all the joints. Unlike the guys he eats with, though, he wants nothing for himself: he is not in pursuit of money, power or women. He is what Damon Runyon, who pursued all three, would now and then have dearly wished to be: an uncommitted ear.
Runyon, though, according to his biography, dearly wished to be all sorts of things. Born in cowboyland (actually his birthplace is Manhattan, Kansas), he was the son of an ill-tempered Indian fighter turned newspaperman, a drinker and a brawler who, when Runyon’s mother died, did not take kindly to the business of towing a small boy from bar to bar. Damon thus early on ‘acquired a veneer of hardness covering a heart of loneliness’. He tried his hand at writing poetry, he became a bellhop, a jockey, a boy soldier. But it was not long before Daddy turned him into a small replica of Daddy: he taught the boy boozing, whoring, telling lies, and other necessities of frontier-town living. And little Damon learned fast: by the age of 15 he was a hardbitten news-hound on the Pueblo (Colorado) Chieftain, covering lynchings without spilling his whisky and discovering how to hero-worship visiting gunmen celebrities like the ludicrous Bat Masterson, on whom Runyon would later base one of his most dreamy-eyed character-confections, ‘The Sky’ – or Marlon Brando in the film of Guys and Dolls.
Sky Masterson is Runyon’s fugitive ideal. As a sportswriter, and as a close-up hanger-on of gangsters and tycoons, Runyon was in the business of constructing heroes, but none of the heavyweight boxers he secretly bought shares in, nor any of the bigshot racketeers he took to ball-games and played poker with, would ever shape up to the image of unfettered manliness embodied by the wondrous Sky. Maybe the fact that Runyon’s shoe-size was a near-freakish five and a half or that he lived in daily terror of running out of funds meant that he was in the wrong business from the start. Not so – indeed the money he was earning told him otherwise. As long as he was making such big bucks, he could still reach for The Sky – well, couldn’t he?
So far as he was able to, Runyon played the glamorous urban cowboy role: he talked tough, he dressed snappily, he mixed with the right wrong people and tried not to let on that for health reasons he had in young manhood been forced to quit the drink; he married above himself, but not too far, treated his wife badly, took a Mexican showgirl for his mistress (and in time his second wife), telling everyone that she was really a Spanish countess, neglected his children and was nice to animals, especially horses that ran fast (although he did keep a pet cockroach for a time; it slept in one of his bedroom slippers and was considered thoroughly trustworthy). Throughout all this, he drilled out several million words of highclass copy for his lord and master, Hearst.
‘I never bite the hand that feeds me’ was Runyon’s motto as a journalist, and over the years he made sure that he never had reason to fall out with Hearst, even during the proprietor’s pro-Nazi phase. By the end of the Thirties, he was America’s most highly-paid columnist, and the Broadway stories – of which there were numerous Hollywood adaptations – made him a millionaire. Indeed, his price was about to go through the roof when, in 1946, he died of throat cancer at the age of 62 (or thereabouts; he always lied about his age). For the last months of his life he could not speak. But then he never did speak much. His son Damon Junior records, in a 1954 memoir, that when the dying Runyon was angry about some business having been transacted through a third party, ‘I replied: “But I understand he was very close to you.” His fingers jabbed emphatically at the keys of the typewriter he was using as a voice. He rolled the paper up so I could see what he had written. “No one is close to me. Remember that.” ’
Damon Jr did as he was told: he remembered, and his memories, although they labour to achieve a note of fondness, are saturated with resentment. Runyon is blamed for the death by drinking of his first wife, the mental instability of his daughter, and the general fouled-upness of his son, Junior himself, who at the time of writing was emerging from a long struggle with the booze. Runyon’s own early flight from the bottle seems to have made him pretty good at driving other people to it.
This certainly would be the view of Jimmy Breslin, who suggests also that Runyon’s sense of his own superior detachment must have been well-nourished by the atmosphere of Prohibition. In those days, when booze was at the heart of everything, the great spectator was on coffee. This is one of several acute but unfriendly assessments in a biography which, on the whole, is something of a mess. Breslin is for ever jazzing up the action with invented – or is it reconstructed? – dialogue:
There was a poolroom in the basement of the corner building at 95th and Broadway, and the first day Runyon went in there, one of the guys said to him: ‘The people in here are all right. Don’t go near Tenth Avenue. They got a lot of killers there’.
‘Where on Tenth Avenue?’ he said.
He began walking. If there are killers, he reasoned, then that means there are also a lot of crap games and, even better, loose dolls. When he got to the corner of Tenth Avenue and 47th Street, he took one look at the guys standing around and wishing mightily for trouble, and at once he felt at home. Baseball was nice, but murder was the main event.
Jimmy Breslin is himself a big-name New York columnist, and he covers the Runyon low-life beat. For him, too, murder is the main event. Like Runyon, he writes with lots of mush and muscle and he prides himself on knowing the Big Apple right down to its rotten core (hence his six-page digressions on subjects like the construction of the city’s subway system). He even wrote a novel called The gang that couldn’t shoot straight. And he shares many of Runyon’s attitudes – to highbrows, Columbia University professors, the Algonquin set; and like Runyon, he always has the dope that’s inside the inside dope. For instance, Breslin knows for certain that Jack Dempsey had lead in his gloves when he knocked out Jess Willard, he has the actual name of the guy who shot Arnold Rothstein, and he was pretty much in the room when Bugsy Siegel watched his screen test.
All in all, the example of Damon Runyon must have guided Breslin’s career ‘no little and quite some’. His biography, however, is far from homage-ful: on the contrary, it reads more like an attempt by Breslin to get Runyon off his back, once and for all. The disciple misses no opportunity to cut the master down to size: Runyon ‘believed in writing only for money, even ahead of vengeance’. ‘He wanted phrases that would make the reader think only of him.’ ‘While he pretended that bellhops were his people, he usually situated himself close to the money.’ By the end of it, Runyon’s pimple is well-boffed, and Breslin rules. Indeed, there really is a tone of exultation in Breslin’s account of Runyon’s young second wife’s affair with the muscleman Primo Carnera. The by-then aged Runyon, who collected dumb heavyweights and saw himself as ‘the ultimate Broadway wise guy’, was for years in ignorance of the affair, and there was much chortling at his expense in Mindy’s, chortling Breslin now rather nastily sits in on. Breslin might retort that Runyon would have done the same for him. But would he? Damon Runyon: A Life tells us plenty about Runyon, but it doesn’t tell us this.