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Damon Runyon: Biography, Short Stories & Books

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the life of Damon Runyon, a newspaper man turned playwright and short story writer who wrote largely about early 20th-century New York City.

Damon Runyon

Sometimes authors or artists become synonymous with the event or issue that they cover. Harry Connick Jr., for instance, is often identified with his hometown of New Orleans, while William Faulkner is associated with the University of Mississippi and Oxford, Mississippi, in general.

For early 20th-century New York City, that figure is arguably the writer and playwright, Damon Runyon. In this lesson we will explore Runyon's life and work.

Biography

Runyon was born in Manhattan, but not the one you might think. Runyon was born in Manhattan, Kansas, in 1880. His name at birth was actually Alfred Damon Runyan. The 'o' was inadvertently swapped with the 'a' in his last name by a newspaper he worked for in his early career and Runyon never bothered to correct it.

Runyon was the grandson of a newspaper owner in New Jersey who relocated the family to Kansas before Runyon's birth. The family ran the local paper in Manhattan, Kansas, but Runyon's father was forced to sell the paper and move the family west when Damon Runyon was only 2 years old. They ended up in Pueblo, Colorado where Runyon learned the journalism trade from his father and began working for area papers.

Runyon joined the U.S. Army at 18, intending to join the war effort in the Spanish-American War. However, his experience and education led him to be appointed by the Army to run and write a soldier's newsletter. After his service, Runyon remained in Colorado until 1910 when he relocated to New York City. He fell in love with the New York scene, which shows through in his work.

Runyon wrote numerous short stories and plays set in New York over the next thirty years, in addition to covering baseball for local papers. Runyon died in New York in 1946 of throat cancer. The iconic documenter of New York life, Runyon had his ashes spread from the air over Broadway and New York City.

Works and Style

Runyon released a series of poetry soon after he arrived in New York, but Runyon's most popular work, outside from his normal newspaper columns, were his short stories. Many of them were published either as stand-alone stories or as part of a larger collection. Most center on New York City, in particular Broadway and the Midtown and Brooklyn neighborhoods.

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