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Damon Runyon: How to Talk Like a Gangster

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'In fact,' Sam the Gonoph says, 'I long ago come to the conclusion that all life is six to five against.'
  – Damon Runyon, 'A Nice Price'.
A mug shot of Damon Runyon, courtesy of Library of Congress.

When you say, 'they brought in the dream team', you're using his slang. Did your boss give a co-worker the 'heave-ho'? Was the rejected proposal a case of 'no dice'? Does your favourite TV star have charm 'in spades'? You're talking Runyonese, you know.

He drank. He gambled. He once ran into Pancho Villa in a bar. Later, he followed Black Jack Pershing around, while Pershing followed Villa in a vain attempt to catch him. He turned baseball into poetry and gunsels1 and taxi dancers into laugh-out-loud comedy and handkerchief-wringing pathos. He changed the way we think of gangster talk, and he inspired a literary prize.

His name was Damon Runyon, and even if you've never heard of him, you've probably heard of something that he wrote.

A Western Upbringing, Sports Failure, and Heading East

This horse thief is called Horsey for short. And he is not called by this name because he ever steals a horse but because it is the consensus of public opinion from coast to coast that he may steal one if the opportunity presents.
  – Damon Runyon, 'A Piece of Pie'.

Albert Damon Runyan (original spelling) was born in bustling Manhattan. Manhattan, Kansas, that is, in 1880. The population of Manhattan, Kansas, at the time was 2,104. Albert's editor father had to sell the newspaper, though, and the family moved further west when the boy was two, to Pueblo, Colorado, where he grew up to become a newspaperman like his father and grandfather (a printer) before him. The spelling of his last name was changed by a printer's error – he left it that way. In later life, he was just as complacent about an editorial change of his name from 'Albert Damon' to plain 'Damon'. So from now on, we'll call him Damon Runyon.

Runyon enlisted in the US army for the Spanish American War in 1898. They put him to writing newspaper copy. Afterwards, he tried to manage a minor baseball league. He wasn't good at it, so he moved to New York City in 1910 and covered baseball and boxing for the Hearst newspapers. Runyon changed the way those sports were covered – he added the poetry and excitement. Then Runyon did more: he created unforgettable fictional characters that forever changed our view of life in New York City.

The Other Manhattan

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. . .
  – John Schulian, sportswriter, reviewing Jimmy Breslin's Damon Runyon: A Life

Runyon was a colourful character himself, fond of drinking (though he learned to cut back), smoking, and gambling. He ran a small horse stable of his own. He advised entrepreneur Leo Seltzer to turn Roller Derby into the full-contact spectacle it became. He married twice – once to Ellen Egan, the mother of his two children, and once to Patrice Amati del Grande, whom he'd met in Mexico while running around after Pancho Villa. Runyon left Ellen, who was drinking herself to death, and Patrice left him for a boxer in 1946, the year he was dying, and refused to visit him on his deathbed. That was a scene Runyon himself could have written. There would not have been a dry eye in the house.

Not only was Runyon colourful, but he hung around with colourful people – like gangster Bugsy Siegel. Runyon knew Ben Siegel well enough not to call him 'Bugsy'. Because it drove the gangster, well, 'bugsy', which could be bad for one's health. Runyon was good friends with Otto 'Abbadabba' Berman, the mathematical genius responsible for Dutch Schultz's phenomenal success in the numbers racket. Runyon was protective of his friends: when Berman was gunned down in Lepke Buchhalter's deadly attack on Schultz, newspapers described Berman as Schultz's bodyguard. Runyon, who knew the man well, scoffed that Berman would have been 'about as effective a bodyguard as a two-year-old.'

Runyon's biographer, Jimmy Breslin, is himself a New York writer of great renown and recipient of the Denver Press Club's Damon Runyon Award. In his book, Damon Runyon: A Life, Breslin attributes at least part of the incredible skill and detachment of Runyon's writing to the harsh disappointments of his own life. Breslin wrote, 'He appeared to have insides made of plate glass. He saw everything and felt nothing.' For someone who 'felt nothing', Runyon was able to make his readers feel a great deal.

In his hardness against the world, Runyon sounds like one of his own characters – Sorrowful Jones, the protagonist of one of his most famous stories:

Now while all this gab is going on, Sorrowful never glances at them. He is just sitting there looking at Marky's door. And now as he is looking at the door a very strange thing seems to happen to his kisser, for all of a sudden it becomes the sad, mean-looking kisser that it is in the days before he ever sees Marky, and furthermore it is never again anything else.
  – Damon Runyon, 'Little Miss Marker'.

Runyon turned his own experiences and his acquaintance with gangsters into short stories that were entertaining and sometimes gripping. Underlying the humorous tone, however, there could be genuine heartbreak. Readers often forget the tragedy, choosing only to remember the funny bits. This may partly be due to the success of the musical Guys and Dolls, the perennial favourite about gambler Nathan Detroit's love for a Salvation Army officer, first chronicled in the story 'The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown'. The tale of 'Little Miss Marker' has spawned at least four Hollywood films with happy endings – quite unlike the bleak and bitter original. The earliest version was a vehicle for Shirley Temple.

In the end, though, perhaps the most lasting influence of Damon Runyon's gangsters has been on the language itself. After all, Runyon was a personal friend of Abbadabba Berman, who is credited with the saying, 'It's not personal. It's business.' Runyon quotes are used 231 times in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Damon Runyonese

Well, while waiting around Miami, trying to think of some way of making a scratch, I spend my evenings in the Shark Fin Grill, which is a little scatter on Biscayne Boulevard near the docks that is conducted by a friend of mine by the name of Chesty Charles.
  – Damon Runyon, 'A Job for the Macarone'.

Just as the comic gangsters who sing 'Brush Up Your Shakespeare' in Cole Porter's Kiss Me, Kate are often described as 'Runyonesque', so there is a language that can be called 'Runyonese'. Runyon used this language to create his unique style: his stories are told in first-person by an unspecified narrator who uses only the present tense and avoids contractions. This Data-on-the-holodeck approach, combined with a tendency to circumlocution ('characters of the female nature'), lend a comic pomposity to gangster verbiage. It also disarms the reader and deflects criticism of their violent lifestyle.

Runyon's stories are a crash course in goniff talk. He doesn't usually explain – you have to guess the meaning from context. 'Goniff' is a Yiddish word meaning 'thief'. A 'pan' is a face – the Yiddish word is 'poynim' or 'punim', depending on dialect. There's a lot of Yiddish in New York gangster slang. One reason is that there are Jewish New York gangsters – Runyon's friend Abbadabba, Dutch Schultz himself, to name two. Another reason is that Yiddish was one of the most-heard languages in certain New York neighbourhoods at the time. Yiddish words, however, formed only part of the 'insider talk' Runyon wrote so fluently. A 'fin' (from 'finif', Yiddish for 'five') was a five-dollar bill, sure, but a C-note (from Latin 'centum') meant 100 dollars. When you get into high numbers, Runyon's imagination takes over – he gave us 'zillion'.

In addition to reporting genuine thieves' cant, Runyon invented his own phrases. A phrase you might think was British in origin came from Runyon. He invented the phrase 'Hoorah Henry2' to describe an upperclass fool. Runyon made us familiar with dames and speakeasies, croakers (doctors), dolls who might be 'classy', but more often are ladies of negotiable affection, suckers like Waldo Winchester (a play on reporter Walter Winchell), mugs, lobs and wise guys who are out to make scratch, with or without firearms or shivs.

We read, we learn. Perhaps we think about it, perhaps we merely chuckle and shed a tear or two. New Yorkers, though, will attest: that was a real world once, on those streets. And Damon Runyon walked them, listening. He hung out in the speakeasies with the wise guys. And he told us all about it.

Artwork showing a 'wise guy' leaning on a cool car.

For Further Enjoyment

Want more Runyon? Try The Damon Runyon Omnibus, available from Gutenberg Australia.

Listen to a recording of Julia Mckenzie singing 'Adelaide's Lament' from Frank Loesser's Guys and Dolls, based on the work of Damon Runyon.

Watch an interview with Jimmy Breslin about his biography of Damon Runyon.

1A note for the innocent: A gunsel is an armed footsoldier in the gangster world.2Now more commonly spoken as 'hooray Henry'.

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