And instead of thinking what a normal person would, I thought like a member of the Professional Organization of English Majors: Why Damon Runyon?
Runyon wrote the stories on which the musical Guys and Dolls was based. You remember–“A Bushel and a Peck,” “I’ve Never Been in Love Before,” “Luck Be a Lady”…
What did he have to do with cancer research?
Then it occurred to me the foundation might be named for someone else.
And that, although I’d assumed I was well informed, nearly everything I knew about Damon Runyon could be, and was, expressed in the third paragraph of this post.
So I headed for Wikipedia and discovered my original Why? was right on. They’re the same person. I learned a few other things as well:
Alfred Damon Runyan was born in Kansas and grew up in Pueblo, Colorado, where he started in the newspaper trade. He is believed to have attended school only through the fourth grade. At one of the newspapers he worked for, the spelling of his last name was changed to Runyon, and he let the new spelling stand.
While covering spring training in Texas, he met Pancho Villa in a bar, and later he went on the American expedition into Mexico searching for Villa.
For years, he covered sports and general news for various Hearst publications and syndicates. His “knack for spotting the eccentric and the unusual, on the field or in the stands, is credited with revolutionizing the way baseball was covered.”
He was a “notorious gambler” and paraphrased Ecclesiastes: “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s how the smart money bets.”
He wrote stories celebrating Broadway life that grew out of the Prohibition era. The stories are “humorous and sentimental tales of gamblers, hustlers, actors, and gangsters, few of whom go by ‘square‘ names, preferring instead colorful monikers such as ‘Nathan Detroit’, ‘Benny Southstreet’, ‘Big Jule’, ‘Harry the Horse’, ‘Good Time Charley’, ‘Dave the Dude’, or ‘The Seldom Seen Kid’.”
The stories were carefully constructed, but their style made them distinctive. He avoided present tense with “an almost religious exactitude.” He created a special jargon for his characters to speak. He used slang, sometimes rhyming, reminiscent of cockney slang, as in the following passage from “Romance in the Roaring Forties”:
“Miss Missouri Martin makes the following crack one night to her: ‘Well, I do not see any Simple Simon on your lean and linger.’ This is Miss Missouri Martin’s way of saying she sees no diamond on Miss Billy Perry’s finger.”
Twenty of his stories were made into films, including Little Miss Marker, which launched Shirley Temple’s career, and which was the biggest film of 1934. It was remade as Sorrowful Jones (1949), 40 Pounds of Trouble (1962), and, again, Little Miss Marker (1980).
And now to answer my original Why?
When Runyon died of throat cancer in 1946, his friend Walter Winchell went on the radio and asked listeners to give to cancer research.
“Mr. and Mrs. United States! A very dear friend of mine – a great newspaperman, a great writer, and a very great guy – Damon Runyon, was killed this week by America’s Number Two killer – Cancer. It’s time we tried to do something to fight this terrible disease. We must fight back, and together we can do it. Won’t you send me a penny, a nickel, a dime, or a dollar? All of your money will go directly to the cancer fighters, in Damon Runyon’s name. There will be no expenses of any kind deducted.”[
“The organization gained more visibility in 1949 when Milton Berle, a long-time friend of both Runyon and Winchell, hosted the first-ever telethon, raising $1.1 million for the foundation over 16 hours. In its first three decades, the foundation was a popular cause among celebrities from Hollywood to Broadway and the sports world. Marlene Dietrich, Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, and many of their contemporaries served as supporters and board members.”