(Mathew Lyons’s article appeared in the Spectator, 11/24; Photo: Braodwaymusicalhome.com.)
Guys and Dolls, the musical loosely based on the Broadway stories of Damon Runyon, premiered on Broadway seventy years ago on November 24th 1950. It ran for 1,200 performances and has been frequently revived ever since. The film version, starring Frank Sinatra as Nathan Detroit and Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson, appeared in 1955. Last year, entertainment-industry bible Variety reported that a remake is in the works from TriStar. Runyon’s world, and his characters, live on.
Even on the page, never mind in 1950s Technicolor, Runyon’s characters can sometimes seem larger than life. But many of them are, in fact, based on real people that Runyon knew on the Broadway of the 1920s and 1930s. His first biographer, writing in 1948, two years after Runyon’s death, said that any competent New York detective would have recognised most of the gamblers and gunmen. But if they have mostly faded from both memory and myth these days, it’s still possible to connect some of them to their reputed real-life counterparts.
Nathan Detroit/The Brain
Nathan Detroit isn’t a big figure in Runyon’s stories, but the man on whom he is modelled was big enough for Runyon to trace not one, but two characters from him. That man was Arnold Rothstein, a still-legendary underworld figure, responsible more than anyone putting the organised into organised crime: under his guidance, the families and syndicates of criminal America were moulded into professional, quasi-corporate enterprises. “He don’t want to be known as a tough guy,” fellow gangster Owney Madden said. “Rothstein wants to rob people sitting down.”
Above all, Rothstein was a financier – people called him The Big Bankroll – backing everything from Prohibition-era bootleggers and the nascent drugs trade to small-time debts and loans. The biggest bookmaker in the country, Rothstein thought he could fix anything, from the 1919 World Series baseball tournament to the city’s politicians and police. The floating crap game, Nathan Detroit’s signature enterprise, which involves moving the game’s location every night to make it hard for the police to shut down, was a Rothstein idea; every kind of floating game was. He had been running such things since 1911.
In a couple of stories, Runyon gave Rothstein the name Armand Rostenthal, and another nickname too: The Brain. Like The Brain, Rothstein conducted much of his business from a table at Lindy’s 24-hour restaurant at 1626 Broadway, between 49th and 50th Street – thinly disguised as Mindy’s by Runyon – where he reportedly drank nothing stronger than milk.
Rothstein died of gunshot wounds in November 1928 after a dispute about a large gambling debt. Runyon was one of the last people to speak to him alive before he left Lindy’s that night; he made the evening the subject of one of his first stories, The Brain Goes Home. (It’s a curious fact of literary history that Rothstein was also immortalised by Scott Fitzgerald as Meyer Wolfsheim in The Great Gatsby.)
One of Sky Masterson’s real-life counterparts is easy to spot. That’s Bat Masterson, a sometime gambler, sheriff, gunman and journalist who Runyon first encountered in his days as a junior reporter in Colorado. Masterson fought alongside Wyatt Earp in the gunfight at the OK Corral, although by the time Runyon knew him, his badge-holding, gun-blazing days were past.
But Sky has other counterparts too. One of the anecdotes told about Masterson’s gambling in the stories is of him sitting eating a bag of peanuts while watching a baseball game and betting that he could throw a peanut from second base to the homeplate on a baseball field. “Everybody knows that a peanut is too light for anybody to throw it this far,” Runyon writes. Sky wins the bet by using a peanut weighted with lead.
Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, who wrote the script for Guys and Dolls, make Nathan Detroit say he once saw Sky bet on which raindrop on a window pane would reach the bottom first. That bet was actually made in New York’s Waldorf-Astoria by a long-forgotten industrialist named John Warne Gates, popularly known as Bet-A-Million Gates for just such reasons.