It is a fascinating thing to watch as a piece of fiction grows in popularity and ingrains itself into the public consciousness. It is more interesting, in a way, when it grows such that the source behind the story might be lost to the public eye. Take, for instance, the classic musical Guys and Dolls. First premiering on Broadway back in 1950, the show has remained a classic thanks to its infectious score and delightful tale of love and gambling. Its popularity has endured and cemented the show among the musical classics, from a film adaptation back in 1955 to numerous stage revivals on Broadway and the West End that have cropped up to this day. What most people these days might not remember, however, are the stories which inspired the musical. Specifically, the show is based on two short stories known as “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and “Blood Pressure”. Both stories are the creation of Damon Runyon, a journalist who would gain fame with his short story writing. So, just who is this man and how did his writing light the spark for such a hit musical? Let us begin with a peek into the life of Mr. Runyon.
Born on October 4, 1880 with the name “Alfred Damon Runyan”, Runyon’s family was one involved in the newspaper business. After moving from Kansas to Colorado as a result of his father selling their paper, he spent his days in school until the fourth grade. After that, he began working under his father and learning the ways of the business. There was a break in this work when he joined the military in his late teens, but he became a full journalist of his own after the military service. He worked across a variety of papers, before eventually moving out to New York City in 1910. His byline at the time presented his name as “Damon Runyon”, which would stick for the rest of his life. From there, he found himself a life covering baseball and boxing for the papers. His writing quickly earned him notice, thanks to his keen eye for the weird and eccentric. In fact, he is the man who nicknamed the famous heavyweight boxer James Braddock as the “Cinderella Man”. Of course, his memorable writing is not only limited to the world of the newspaper column. He would also go on to write numerous short stories.
Within the world of Runyon’s stories, he paints a picture of a wicked yet playful underside to New York City. His tales found themselves centered around criminals, gamblers, and actors, all hustling and bustling amid crazy adventures. Oftentimes, they possess colorful names like Nathan Detroit, Good Time Charley, and Dave the Dude. Their escapades are frequently presented through the lens of an unnamed narrator, a character who seems to not be a criminal yet knows the company of shady characters well. He orchestrates his yarns with a carefully constructed sense of heart and humor, but one of the most unique parts of Runyon’s stories is how he writes them. Firstly, he almost totally avoids using the past or future tense, preferring to unfold his writing in the present tense. Secondly, he writes with an interesting mixture of street slang and a mocking sense of pomposity. In his stories, a lady is just as likely to be called a “doll” as she would a “character of a feminine nature”. That odd mixture is further enhanced by a lack of contractions, giving a precise rhythm to his pacing. The overall result is a writing style that brings pompous airs to street-level energy. This style, in conjunction with the colorful characters and criminal atmosphere he wrote about, is what helped make him such a big name.
Though his name might not be as well-known these days, Runyon had earned himself quite a popular following in his time and the years after. In addition to the stage musical adaptation of his stories in Guys and Dolls and its film adaptation, there have been nineteen other movies based on his work. A few of these other films include Lady for a Day (released in 1933 and directed by Frank Capra), Little Miss Marker (released in 1934 and launching the career of Shirley Temple), and The Lemon Drop Kid (first adapted in 1934, then remade in 1951 with Bob Hope). His short stories even had a home in anthology programming with Damon Runyon Theater, first as a radio program and then a television series. Clearly, his colorful tales about criminals and their schemes have earned him a solid spot in American literary history, yet his name has unfortunately fallen into obscurity these days. Personally, I feel his work is worth revisiting, his sharp writing style bringing an energy and feel that is still as effective as when his work was first printed. If one is interested in getting a taste of his stories, I would recommend Guys and Dolls and Other Writings. Published by Penguin Classics in 2008, the collection serves as a good starting point with Runyon’s writing. In addition to the two stories that would serve as the basis for Guys and Dolls, the book features plenty of his other short stories, along with poems, newspaper articles, and other pieces of his writing. It is just the right collection to introduce someone to Damon Runyon and the colorful underworld he brought to life with his words.