Six to Five Against

December 18: On this day in 1946 Damon Runyon's ashes were scattered over Broadway by his son, in a plane flown by Eddie Rickenbacker. Born in Manhattan, Kansas, Runyon was thirty when he arrived in New York to be a sportswriter, and to try out at Mindy's, the Stork Club, and any betting window available his crap-shoot worldview: "All of life is six to five against." Broadway became his special beat, and in Guys and Dolls and other collections he developed the colorful characters and the gangster patois that soon swept America.

 

Stories like "Social Error" even poked fun at the "underworld complex" that was making him so famous. Socialite Miss Harriet Mackyle is a Doll-wannabe, the kind who "thinks it smart to tell her swell friends she dances with a safe blower." Guy-wannabes like Basil Valentine get "all pleasured up by this attention ... because Miss Harriet Mackyle may not look a million, but she has a couple, and you can see enough of her in her evening clothes to know that nothing about her is phony." Nothing that Basil will ever see, anyway: after a near-fatal misadventure among the real Broadway hoods, Miss Harriet and Basil escape to Italy and get married, just as they deserve.

 

For Runyon, the ending was not so happy, romantically or otherwise. Runyon's second wife—formerly a Spanish dancer at the Silver Slipper, first met at a Mexican racetrack when she was a kid running messages for Pancho Villa—had left him for a younger man after fourteen years. Throat cancer had forced all communication to be via notepad, and one bitter note to Damon Runyon Jr. expresses more 'stacked deck' than 'six-to-five against':

I notice you do a lot of thinking about yourself and your problems. Sometimes when you are in a mood for thought give one to your old man who in two years was stricken by the most terrible malady known to mankind and left voiceless with a death sentence hanging over his head, who had a big career stopped cold, and had his domestic life shattered by divorce and his savings largely dissipated through the combination of evil circumstances.... Try that on your zither some day, my boy, especially when those low moods you mention strike you.

Runyon's very last note to Damon Jr. was the regards-to-Broadway request about his ashes.


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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