28 June 2015

Damon Runyon, by Jimmy Breslin

Damon Runyon was a journalist, poet, author, and playwright. He wrote of the Roaring Twenties, and brought Broadway and New York City and its characters of that era to life. Jimmy Breslin, a colorful and popular journalist and writer of the later twentieth century writes the life of his predecessor.

Runyon grew up in Pueblo, Colorado, and was apparently drinking like an alcoholic and smoking like a chimney before he was a teenager. His drinking became so bad that eventually he quit, and in later life wrote of his appreciation for AA, although his own sobriety predated the birth of that program by about 20 years.

In writing about Runyon's career, Breslin talks of graft and corruption in a very casual manner. His attitude seems to be that this stuff is everywhere, and pretty much always has been, and that we shouldn't be surprised by it. His own analysis of history would be one of theft and greed.

An interesting bit from the middle of the book (pp185-186) describes "[New York City's] drug panic of 1919." This was also the time when influenza was killing thousands all over the world, including in that city. Louis Harris, "a doctor who was chief of the city's Bureau of Preventable Diseases...found that groups of doctors and nurses were shoving aone another to enter houses where the sick inside had cash..." Harris said " 'The socialization of the medical and nursing professions to place them under government control should no longer be deferred."  Harris's opinion was not too welcome. " 'When he went to medical school, he failed stethoscope,' Esdail (Doc) Cohen of the New York World said."

"...on April 8, 1919, the first federal drug agents in the nation raided six physicians and four druggists who were prescribing opium, cocaine and heroin to people purportedly in need of hop as medicine. That weekend...two thousand addicts walked into Bellevue Hospital...and begged for help. By Monday, the hospital opened a drug treatment center, alarming doctors, who saw it as another attempt to establish socialized medicine..."

From page 187:

"...the state planned to open a long-term treatment center at Mount Lebanon Shaker Village... 'These people should get treatment all right,' a Bellevue doctor announced. 'They should get treated to jail.' "
"Dr. Royal Copeland, the New York City health commissioner, reported, 'Over 95 percent of all drug addicts have shown, by their acts, a non-appreciation of the service, and have repeatedly attempted to be discharged before the end of their treatment. It is, therefore, recommended that the Department of Health discontinue any sort of drug treatment program.' "
Runyon observed this through the point of view of Arnold Rothstein, a gangster. "[Rothstein] decided to provide an orderly distribution of drugs by a professional criminal, himself. He told Frank Costello, 'There can't be much wrong with them. Nobody cares.' "

From page 188:

"Rothstein was the nation's first major underworld distributor of drugs. The first federal drug agent in New York, Max Roder, always said the biggest name he had on his list as a dealer was Arnold Rothstein. 'Every time you mentioned his name in the office, five people on his payroll went to the phone to call him up.' "

Runyon's life was colorful, to say the least. He saw the first half of the twentieth century in all its iniquity and glory, and wrote about sports, gangsters, and his beloved Broadway.

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