Damon Runyon lived through, and helped invent, the flamboyant Twenties and Thirties. As the Hearst papers’ leading columnist, he covered such diverse phenomena as Pancho Villa’s rebellion, the Lindbergh trial, and the “Golden Era of Sports.” His best-remembered work, the romanticized stories of New York’s underworld, became Hollywood films such as LADY FOR A DAY, LITTLE MISS MARKER, and GUYS AND DOLLS. Breslin, in this engrossing, thoroughly researched biography, says Runyon “rose above his newspapers” through his original literary and personal style.
Hardly a panegyrist, Breslin maintains the biographer’s proper distance, with equal attention to Runyon’s literary success and personal failings. He says Runyon’s illusions led him to cause much unintended pain. For instance, Runyon equated being a good provider—his writings paid extremely well—with being a good father and husband. In fact, his emotionally neglected first wife, Ellen, died an alcoholic’s early death.
Runyon the hard-nosed journalist also came to believe the national myths he helped create. According to Breslin, Runyon coined the term “the Roaring Twenties.” In his hilarious fantasy world of small-time hustlers and mobsters, it was “as though there were no such thing as people starving and sleeping in the open on Riverside Drive.” The decades after Runyon’s era, says Breslin, would demand that New Yorkers “live life as it actually is”—meaning, often, the hardships and frustrated dreams of everyday people portrayed in Breslin’s own newspaper columns.
Breslin, widely viewed as Runyon’s journalistic/literary heir, is the ideal biographer for Runyon. But Breslin clearly believes himself a much more accurate reporter about New York’s little guy than was the inventor of guys and dolls.