By Ray Schultz
No reporter of a certain age can pass up a book about Walter Winchell and Damon Runyon, least of all one that promises to tell “The True Untold Story.”
Granted, there isn’t much left to be said about this duo. Winchell, the gossip columnist and radio star, has been picked apart by biographers; so has Runyon, whose stories inspired Guys and Dolls. Still, I sprang for Trustin Howard’s Winchell and Runyon: The Untold Story, because I’ll read anything I can get my hands on about them.
They were an unlikely pair, given their backgrounds. Winchell, Jewish, grew up on the Lower East Side. Runyon, a lapsed Protestant, was born in Manhattan, Kansas, and he was almost 20 years older than Winchell.
But those differences were outweighed by their similarities. Both were famous, both had come up the hard way. They loved the night life. And Runyon seemed to wish he was Jewish. He would go into Ratner’s, the dairy restaurant, and for breakfast order “Half a grapefruit, a big bowl of vegetables and sour cream, a big slab of boiled white fish, a bowl of kasha, an order of blintzes, a big piece of coffee cake and coffee as fast as you can refill my cup.”
Howard is a TV comedy writer who started with Joey Bishop. He’s no historian. The book is slight, amateurish in spots. And precision isn’t his strong suit.
To hear him tell it, Runyon and Winchell became friends just before World War II. But Runyon used Winchell as a model for his character Waldo Winchester a decade before that.
And unless I’m misreading it, Howard seems to imply Runyon got drunk with Winchell at Texas Guinan’s in the 1940s. In 1913, as several biographers have reported, Runyon woke up on a train without knowing how he got there and never took another drink.
Finally, it isn’t quite accurate to say that Franklin Roosevelt “took to the airwaves to declare war on Japan”—he spoke before both houses of Congress, and Congress issued a declaration that Roosevelt signed. But let’s cut Howard some slack: He’s not trying to be Robert Caro. What he’s done here is present scenes—vignettes, almost—that he says have eluded formal biographers.
There’s Runyon’s account of how he lost a bundle on a race at Saratoga. (The male horse he’d bet on stopped to romance a female horse). There’s Runyon telling Winchell he’s right about “that little German asshole” (Hitler).
There are their jaunts around the city on the so-called dawn patrol. There’s Winchell consoling Runyon over his failed marriage. “We’re complicated guys, Damon,” he reportedly says. “Our work is our life.”
The anecdotes are believable, even without sources. And Howard doesn’t try to mimic Runyon’s style, a weakness of many writers who tackle Runyon as a subject: He’s got a voice of his own.
All too soon, we get to the story of Runyon’s visit to the vet with his cocker spaniel Nubbin. (Howard calls her Nubbins, but I’ll stick with the version that Runyon used in his column).
Nubbin needed a tonsillectomy. And Runyon confessed that his own throat was bothering him. The vet offered take a look. What he saw alarmed him.
It turned out that Runyon had throat cancer. Doctors removed his voice box, but it was only a temporary reprieve. Winchell’s knees buckled when he heard the news, Howard writes.
Winchell was said to be a hard man—willing to ruin people. But he attended to his dying friend for nearly two years.
“The two of them truly become inseparable,” Howard writes. “And as Winchell promised a very sick Runyon, they are constantly at the track, the ball parks, the theatres, the nightclubs, just anywhere they can find some kind of action.”
The voiceless Runyon communicated by passing notes to Winchell. They exchanged good-natured insults. “I do not mind awaiting daylight in some pleasant deadfall but walking around is no good for me and Walter cannot show me that it is of any benefit to him, either,” Runyon wrote in his column. “Because while he walks around a heap, he always has a beef about not feeling any too well, and he gets balder by the minute.”
Runyon covered FDR’s funeral in April 1945, attended by a nurse, and continued turning out his column. “He writes on instinct,” Winchell said, according to Howard. “And no matter what he’s going through—his words never lose that edge.”
But Runyon was running out of time. He died in December 1946, at age 66, and Winchell honored him by starting the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund. As Howard tells it, mob boss Frank Costello donated $25,000 and cons in prison sent whatever they could. Winchell and Runyon’s children dropped his ashes over Manhattan from a plane. And Winchell opened a note that Runyon had left him: “I found that an irresponsible reporter in front of a typewriter can do more damage than a drunken surgeon in an operating room.” What an epitaph. The book ends, and at this point I will pay Howard the greatest compliment any writer can get: “That’s all?”