Damon Runyon (1880–1946) was a newspaperman, political reporter, author, screenwriter, and playwright in the early 1900s. Best known for his work after leaving Colorado, particularly Guys and Dolls, Runyon was a prolific writer during his time in Colorado, working for many of the state’s newspapers thanks to a seeming inability to hold down a job. Today, Runyon’s legacy lives on in the films and musicals he wrote and produced during his time in New York, but he remains one of Colorado’s most successful and creative individuals.
Damon Runyon was born in Manhattan, Kansas, on October 8, 1880, but spent most of his childhood in Pueblo, where his family moved in search of a healthier climate for Runyon’s sickly mother, Elizabeth. Runyon’s father took a job as a printer for The Pueblo Chieftain, but the change of scenery did nothing for Elizabeth. Her bouts of diphtheria and tuberculosis finally took her life in 1887, leaving seven-year-old Damon and his three sisters in the care of their father. While the girls moved in with relatives in Kansas, Damon stayed with his father. Apparently determined to follow in his father’s footsteps, he frequented saloons, slept in flophouses, scrounged for food, and only occasionally went to school. Around the fourth or fifth grade, Runyon was formally expelled, to his everlasting relief. His career in journalism began immediately thereafter.
Starting on the bottom rung as a printer’s devil and gofer, Runyon worked his way up in the newspaper world. By age fifteen, he was a hardened, chain-smoking, bar-hopping reporter for the Pueblo Evening News, where his father then worked. He received his first byline two years later in the Pueblo Evening Post. Despite his tender age, he already had some of the skills that would later make his reputation: a talent for exposing the rich detail in a story; a knack for making interesting characters come to life; and a clever, tongue-in-cheek narrative style that left readers always wanting more.
Eager to see the world and leave his childhood behind, in 1898 Runyon tried to join a detachment of Colorado volunteers headed for the Spanish-American War in Cuba but was turned down because of his youth. Undeterred, he shipped out for the Philippines with a group of Minnesota volunteers. While overseas he wrote for a couple of military newspapers—Soldier’s Letter and The Manila Freedom—and references to the war would appear in his articles, short stories, and poetry for years afterward. He tended to glorify battle despite witnessing very little fighting firsthand. According to his son, Damon Runyon, Jr., “the most dangerous shots he encountered were those that came at him over a bar.”
Return to Colorado
After the war, Runyon made his way back to Colorado by train-hopping, befriending many drifters that he met along the way. Outsiders had always intrigued him, and later in his career hoodlums, gamblers, and mobsters would play starring roles in his stories and movie scripts. Their manner of dress and speech, even the nicknames they gave each other, struck a chord with Runyon. Back in Pueblo—an industrial town known as the “Pittsburgh of the West”—he immersed himself in their world, and the experiences provided much fodder for his later work.
Once back home, Runyon put in short stints at several newspapers in Pueblo, then found jobs in Basalt Junction near Aspen and in Glenwood Springs with the In-It Daily. In 1901 he joined the staff of the Gazette in Colorado Springs and stayed there until the new owners tired of his drinking. That pattern repeated itself several times over: Runyon bounced from the Gazette in Saint Joseph, Missouri, back to Pueblo and the Chieftain in 1903, and to the Advertiser in Trinidad the following year. His writing was admired but his dependability was suspect. By 1905, Runyon found himself in Denver, where he would live for the next five years at as many addresses. His working address was not any steadier than his residential one; he briefly wrote for The Denver Republican but soon moved on to The Denver Post, the popular upstart paper owned by Frederick Bonfils and Harry Tammen. Trying to make a name for himself in the business, he composed articles in between binge drinking. His talent was obvious, and he even ghostwrote some articles for Otto Floto, the Post’s leading sportswriter and one of the first newspapermen to recognize Runyon’s ability. However, the managing editor—Joe Ward—could not tolerate Runyon’s drinking and did not think that he could even write while sober. Ousted again, the young journalist headed west to San Francisco for an abortive stint at a newspaper there.
In 1906 Runyon once again returned to Colorado, signing on with the Rocky Mountain News, Denver’s oldest newspaper. Owned by US senator Thomas Patterson, the News had a Progressive, reform-minded outlook and crusaded against big-city machine politics, particularly of the variety practiced by Denver mayor Robert Speer, his allies, and his initiatives, such as the City Beautiful renovations.
“Me and Mr. Finch”
Personal and political conflicts played out alongside a fierce circulation battle between the Post and the News. It was an environment tailor-made for Damon Runyon. Happy to have Runyon’s sharp tongue and brawling wit on his side, Patterson assigned his prized new correspondent a prominent role. He teamed Runyon with Frank Finch, the News’s talented cartoonist, for an extended tour of Colorado. The two young men traveled the state producing sketches, in words and drawings, of various festivities with the goal of attracting readers from outside the Denver area. Runyon and Finch illustrated the key players in all the cities they visited, talking up each town and making it sound as though they never wanted to leave. Every town, be it Berthoud, Montrose, Ault, or Pueblo, came across as the greatest municipality under the sun.
They sent their first dispatch from Strawberry Days at Glenwood Springs on June 21, 1907. On July 1, Runyon and Finch embarked upon their main tour of Colorado, producing an article and cartoon every day or two under the title “Me and Mr. Finch.” Finch was known as “Doc Finch” for the wide-bellied, bespectacled bird that he used in all of his cartoons. Over the next few months, Runyon and Finch traveled by train from place to place, visiting almost every town in the state, and bigger boosters for Colorado would have been difficult to find. Often the news of their visit brought travelers from Denver to the hinterlands for a festival or fair. “Me and Mr. Finch” attracted a loyal following of readers who eagerly awaited each succeeding article and cartoon in the paper.
“Me and Mr. Finch” moved Runyon into the first tier of Denver newspaper writers. Ed Keating, his editor, granted Runyon increased freedom to branch out and cover the stories that most interested him. He wrote about roller rink and theater openings, penned biographies of local businessmen, and indulged his fondness for sports. He also began to test his ability as a poet and author of short stories, his true passion. Two early Runyon tales, “The Defense of Strikerville” and “The King of Kavanaugh County,” appeared in McClure’s Magazine in February and April 1907, respectively. His poetry often ran in the Rocky Mountain News as well as in Lippincott’s, Munsey’s, and other magazines and later was collected in two books, The Tents of Trouble (1911) and Rhymes of the Firing Line (1912).
While at the News, Runyon began to build a reputation as a political reporter. He interviewed Vice President Charles Fairbanks when he passed through Trinidad and in August 1907 spoke to presidential candidate William Howard Taft in Denver. On the local front, Runyon turned a story about public art into a political maelstrom. The city had commissioned a monument to commemorate Colorado’s earliest pioneers. But when noted sculptor Frederick MacMonnies created the work, which featured a Native American astride a horse at the monument’s pinnacle, Denverites were outraged, especially the older pioneers still living in the city. Runyon interviewed Captain Jack Howland, an early settler, and extracted some choice comments about the design. The News featured the interview on the front page alongside a Finch cartoon depicting a sculpted Native American clutching a scalp and riding his horse over a helpless group of prone settlers. Public pressure forced MacMonnies to change his design, and Kit Carson rests atop the sculpture to this day.
Runyon’s problems with alcohol persisted. Throughout his years in Colorado, his devotion to alcohol cost him jobs and diminished his success. He was a binge drunk who would indulge from three days to two weeks at a time, ending up in a heap somewhere in a semi-coma. During these bouts, he would rant and rave, spend time with prostitutes—frequently in public—and pick fights with much larger men. When he awoke, he barely remembered any of these episodes, and his body would take several days to recuperate—whereupon the next binge usually began. His campaigns with Doc Finch often ended at the Denver Press Club, where the two spent long hours soaking up card games and cocktails. Runyon’s time in Denver would mark the end of his demon days, so by the time he left for New York in 1910, he had given up the bottle, claiming in a letter to his son that “it never made me happy and bright and sparkling the way it does with some people. It made me dull and stupid and quarrelsome.”
Moving to New York
Frederick Bonfils eventually succeeded in luring Runyon and Finch to The Denver Post, where Runyon stayed until 1910, working on his poetry and short stories while devoting a great deal of time and attention to the Denver Press Club, even serving on its board for several years. His reputation spread back east and circulated widely, until an old Press Club friend named Charles E. Van Loan persuaded Runyon to seek out a wider audience. Runyon quickly landed a job with the New York Journal-American, a Hearst paper, and he sent for Ellen Egan, a society writer with The Denver Post, whom he married in May 1911. The couple had two children—a daughter in 1914 and a son in 1918—but the household was hardly peaceful, and the marriage eventually collapsed. Ellen died alone years later, battling alcoholism.
After spending four years as a sportswriter in New York, Runyon graduated to political reporting, receiving an assignment in 1920 to cover the Madera Revolution in Mexico. Runyon also kept himself busy writing screenplays, and by the end of his life, sixteen of them had been adapted into major Hollywood releases. According to his son, he was “an agony writer. That is, writing was heavy labor for him, and each word hit the paper bathed in sweat.” Yet he made it look easy. The plays and movies we associate with Damon Runyon—Guys and Dolls, Little Miss Marker, Lady for a Day, and The Lemon Drop Kid—reflect the culmination of a writing style and voice born in Colorado. His years in the Centennial State, though clouded with alcohol abuse, presaged his later success.
Adapted from Mary Ann McNair, “‘Me and Mr. Finch Go Among ’Em’: Damon Runyon’s Early Years in Colorado,” Colorado Heritage Magazine 21, no. 4 (2001).