That’s How the Smart Money Bets

Roaming around online, I happened upon the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation.

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.”

Today the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation “identifies scientists with the highest potential to revolutionize how we prevent, diagnose, and treat all forms of cancer.”
It supports promising young researchers, who are typically unlikely to receive government funding until they’re past forty. Scientists study all types of cancer at the molecular and genetic levels, and not according to the organs in which they are found.
Fundraising events include the Runyon 5K at Yankee Stadium, the William Raveis Walk + Ride, theater benefits, and an annual breakfast. In the Runyon Up, participants run up the 72 flights of stairs in World Trade Center 4. The Foundation accepts memorial gifts and encourages friends to like it on Facebook and Twitter. Donors can sponsor the research of a current scientist.
Since 1946, Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation has invested more than $300 million and funded research by over 3,500 scientists. 100% of donations go to research.
Among the latest  “New Discoveries,” the website lists the following articles:
The Foundation describes its mission this way:
“Unlike other cancer charities, we do not place safe bets on well-known, established scientists. We seek emerging talent with bold innovative ideas, the rising stars of cancer research who are willing to take risks and are not daunted by the most complex scientific challenges.”
Damon Runyon gambled. Obviously, so does the foundation bearing his name. And obviously, it’s very good at it.
The odds are, Runyon would say, “That’s the way the smart money bets.”

Humility check

In the previous post, I wrote a paean to myself in honor of receiving a positive critique in a recent manuscript contest. I was shameless. Because the judge wrote Fannie Flagg twice on the score sheet, I used the name five times in my anthem.

I was moved to lavish self-aggrandizement by memory of my mother, who often quoted Damon Runyon: “He who tooteth not his own horn, the same shall not be tooted.”

Today I do a bit of un-tooting. Below is a list of things the song of myself didn’t include.

1. My entry did not advance to the finals.

2. The judge read only the first ten pages of the potential novel.

3. When the judge said that to get an agent I’ll have to find one who “gets” Texas and the South, she meant she “gets” Texas and the South and, as a result, my small-town setting and my dialogue.  If she’d been unfamiliar with the vernacular, I wouldn’t have fared so well.

4. The selection process is subjective. I once wrote an entire post on this topic, but the story bears repeating: Five years ago an entry I submitted received a score of 80. The next year, in the same contest, the very same (unrevised) entry garnered 18 points. Judge #1 said the entry was funny. Judge #2 said that I should take a lot of workshops, read more books, and use MS Word to identify my egregious grammatical errors. And that my pre-teen protagonist’s parents were guilty of child abuse.

Oh dear. I thought I’d made peace with that. My point: if I’d drawn another judge this year, I might have come out with a much lower score, and my paean would be different in both tone and content.

5. In a sentence beginning, “My concern,” the judge says she “would have liked” something that last year’s judge, who read version #1 of the ten pages, would have liked as well. I’ll have to fix that–change the material without sacrificing the current dialogue, pacing, tone…

6. The novel isn’t a novel. It’s potential. It’s a WIP.

7. There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.

To summarize–Opening that envelope and finding compliments inside encouraged me. It lifted my spirits. It showed me a glimmer of hope.

But it didn’t complete the manuscript, get me an agent, offer me a contract, hand me an advance, put me on the best-seller list, fill my coffers to overflowing, or ensure me a spot on Letterman.

In short, I have work to do. Continued self-aggrandizement will only get in the way.

After all, I’m already fighting background noise. Radio station KFKD plays continuously in my right ear, reciting my virtues. The constant yammering makes it hard to focus.

On the other hand, the “rap songs of self-loathing” pouring into my left ear don’t exactly speed me on my way either.

So I’ll take the critique sheet from the envelope, and with a loving hand smooth it flat, and place it in a spot where it will be visible as I write.

Fannie Flagg has been in the back of my mind for years. It’s time to move her right up front.

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Thanks to Ann Lamott, author of Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, for exposing radio station KFKD for what it is.