More Than Somewhat

Damon Runyon was a big shot sports writer in the 1920s and he became an even bigger deal as a chronicler of life on Broadway. Here is a good introduction to his work, including the short story, "Romance in the Roaring Forties."

From Pete Hamill's introduction to Guys and Dolls and Other Writing:

The beautiful thing about Damon Runyon is that he still speaks to us across the decades. He was born in the nineteenth century—fittingly in Manhattan, Kansas—and died in 1946 after a long struggle with cancer. In between, he wrote millions of words of journalism, some poetry, and the wonderful Broadway stories that make up part of this book.

Almost all of them are tales related by an unnamed narrator (who is surely a stand-in for Runyon), and they describe a world that vanished long ago, if indeed it ever existed at all. The world was located in about ten square blocks of midtown Manhattan during the second and third decades of the twentieth century. Usually the area is called Times Square, although Runyon, who worked for Hearst and never The New York Times, seldom uses that name. It is a world primarily inhabited by the New York children of Irish, Jewish, and Italian immigrants, although Runyon enjoys describing the collisions of his Broadway people with various outlanders: slumming members of the upper class, greenhorns from way out in America, ambitious grifters in town to make big scores. There are almost no African-Americans (and in the racist argot of the era, Runyon refers to various black porters and waiters as “stove lids”). Harlem in that era was vivid with life and ambition. Runyon, the story writer, never bothered going there, except for glancing visits on the way to and from the Polo Grounds, where a team called the Giants once played baseball, long ago.

The Runyon world appears in these stories to be a male club (one critic describes it as “homoerotic”). His gangsters, gamblers, old bootleggers, prizefighters, waiters, musicians, and newspapermen are triumphantly male. Their language has a male rhythm. So do their lives, where the macho codes often lead them to mayhem. But many of the stories feature women, and the effect they have on men. The women are often tougher than men, and certainly more realistic. Most of them accept the notion of love, but they almost never separate that dangerous and delightful emotion from the hard realities of economics. Runyon’s showgirls all seem to understand that their beauty is a transient thing, an accident of genes and luck, but that with clarity and a certain amount of guile, a doll can build a secure future upon that splendid accident. Most of Runyon’s females would have agreed with Runyon’s advice to young writers: “Get the money.”