Literary daybook, Dec. 18

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published December 18, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On Dec. 18, 1813, Mrs. Pinkney writes to Mrs. Goddard concerning Captain Gordon and his daughter Charlotte.
-- "A Visit to Highbury" (1995)
By Joan Austen-Leigh

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1946, Damon Runyon's ashes were scattered over Broadway by his son, in a plane flown by Eddie Rickenbacker. Runyon was born in Manhattan, Kansas; he arrived at the bigger apple at the age of 30, to be a sportswriter and to try out, at Mindy's and the Stork Club and any betting window available, his crapshoot worldview: "All of life is six to five against." Broadway became his special beat, and in story collections like "Guys and Dolls" he developed the colorful characters -- Harry the Horse, the Lemon Drop Kid, Last Card Louie -- and the gangster patois that would swept America throughout the '30s and '40s.

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. When Handsome Jack takes out his equalizer and accidentally plugs Miss Harriet's favorite parrot, and Basil puts up two grand to make like he's shot Handsome Jack in order to impress Miss Harriet, and Red Henry for revenge on Jack works a quick change to replace the blanks for real slugs, and Midgie Muldoon jumps in front of her Jack just as Basil raises his rod and turns it on ... well, Miss Harriet and Basil can't wait to escape to Italy and get married, just as they deserve.

The ending to the real life was not so happy, romantically or otherwise. Runyon's wife of 14 years had left him -- she formerly a Spanish dancer at the Silver Slipper, first met at a Mexican racetrack when she was a kid running messages for Pancho Villa, Runyon a reporter running Villa to ground. Throat cancer had arrived to stay, forcing all communication to be via notepad -- the biographies show that this could produce some pretty funny barroom one-liners to his cronies, but also this letter to Damon Runyon Jr. expressing 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.

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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