Arts history: Alfred Damon Runyon

This week coincides with the anniversary of the birth of the American writer and journalist Alfred Damon Runyon.

Born in October 1884, Runyon was a highly influential columnist, sports-writer, and author of his time. He was known for his brash, bold, racy style that reflected America at the time of his writing.

Runyon was born in Manhattan to a family of newspaper-men. He grew up in Colorado and began contributing pieces to local newspapers while still at school.

He served in the Spanish-American War in 1898, after enlisting in the army at 14 years old, and then returned to journalism. He later became a war correspondent for Hearst papers during WWI, and stayed on there as a columnist after the war.

Despite specializing in sports, he was arguably most famous for his humorous stylized short stories, which through his own invented jargon, dealt wryly with the seedy side of New York City underground life that grew out of the Prohibition era (a national ban of the manufacture, transportation and sale of alcohol from 1920 to 1933).

Described as “The Chronicler of Broadway” due to works such as Guys and Dolls (1931), Runyon introduced to the nation the lingo and characters of the New York underworld, using colourful nicknames such as “Good Time Charlie”, “Harry the Horse” and “Dave the Dude”. The musical and film Guys and Dolls (1950 and 1955 respectively) were based on his stories.

Runyon reached the height of his popularity in the 1930s, writing a newspaper feature “As I See It”. In 1940 he collaborated with Howard Lindsay, to co-write A Slight Case of Murder, which became successful on Broadway.

From 1941 he worked as a film producer, and 20 of his stories (two of which are also plays) became motion pictures during and after his lifetime.

In 1967 he died from throat cancer, leaving a huge legacy behind him. Besides the arts, his heritage includes the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation set up by his friend and fellow journalist, Walter Winchell, and the annual Damon Runyon Award, which the Denver Press Club assigns to a prominent journalist.

Runyon’s success as somewhat of a “Renaissance man” of journalism is clear through his role in various aspects of publishing. His contributions to literature, theatre and film, are still enjoyed, remembered and performed to this day.


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Sophie Szynaka

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August 2022
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