Becoming a Washington Journalist—and Editing Damon Runyon Jr.

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Damon Runyon Jr. left New York to work for a new DC newspaper.

By Jack Limpert

Getting to Washington: After two years of editing a chain of weekly papers in northern California, I was anxious to move on. The San Francisco Chronicle wasn’t interested (though the interview with city editor Abe Mellinkoff was memorable) and the Washington Post didn’t answer my letters so I changed strategy and applied for a fellowship. They say most journalists applying for fellowships want to change jobs or spouses—I mainly wanted to get to the nation’s capital.

In early 1967, I got a Congressional Fellowship, opening the door to move to Washington at the end of 1967 to work on Capitol Hill for a year. The idea of the fellowship, run by the American Political Science Association, was to bring journalists and political scientists to DC to work six months in the House, six months in the Senate. Then, wise in the ways of Capitol Hill, we were to return to where we’d been. Most of the political scientists went back to their college teaching jobs, almost all the journalists networked their way into new jobs in Washington.

Back then print journalists found jobs in the classified ads of Editor & Publisher, a weekly magazine. (Broadcasting magazine did the same for people in radio and television.) In the spring of 1967 I saw a story in E&P about a man named O. Roy Chalk wanting to start a new weekly paper in Washington. I wrote Chalk and told him I could quickly get his paper started and then go on the fellowship.

He responded by inviting me to fly to D.C. Getting off the plane at Dulles, I was met by a chauffeur, who was to take me in a white Cadillac to Chalk’s office in Georgetown. Never having been chauffeured, I got into the front seat. He said, “Don’t you want to sit in the back?” No, this is fine.

As we came down the George Washington Parkway on the Virginia side, we saw the center of Washington, the Potomac River, Georgetown, the White House, the Capitol, the Lincoln, Washington, and Jefferson memorials. Wow.

It turned out that Chalk owned D.C. Transit, operator of all the buses in the nation’s capital. He didn’t like the way the Washington Post wrote about his bus service so he wanted to start a weekly newspaper that would wage war with Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee. Not a good reason to start a newspaper but it sounded like fun and it was.
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We set up shop in a beautiful old building, called the Car Barn, at the foot of Key Bridge in Georgetown. Elegant surroundings for a weekly paper that was going to battle the Post and spend little money doing it. How little? Our first hire was Tom Shales, a bright American University dropout interested in writing about the arts and willing to work for $50 a week. Tom brought along some of his AU pals, all smart and looking for a start in journalism.

We got the DC Examiner started in July, and Chalk seemed happy with it. The tabloid paper was lively and created talk and it wasn’t costing him a lot of money. He lived in New York City (he also owned TransCaribbean Airways, a low-cost airline that flew between New York and  Puerto Rico) but visited D.C. often and was full of ideas.

One of his ideas was to run a column by  Walter Winchell in the DC Examiner. Though Winchell was 70 and nearing the end, he once had been the most powerful gossip columnist in America. Sure, we can do that.

Chalk loved big names. After Walter Winchell came Damon Runyon Jr.

None of us ever met Winchell—his column got sent down from New York and we weren’t about to call him about fact-checking or editing. But Damon,  son of the famous newspaperman and author, was going to move to DC and work alongside Tom Shales and the other young journalists.

Damon was fortyish, very thin, high-strung, a smoker and drinker, and he seemed alone in the world. He didn’t want to talk about his father—it seemed clear the famous writer hadn’t been much of a father. But Damon fit in with Tom and the staff—he got along with everyone, worked hard most of the time, and did good features. And he fell for a young woman on the ad side of the paper.

It was a relationship that had a lot of downs to go with the good times and on Easter weekend in 1968 she told him it was over. I found out about the breakup when the DC morgue called to ask me to identify the body. Damon had jumped off the P Street bridge over Rock Creek Park.
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Over the July 4th weekend I was going through boxes of paper saved over the last 50 years and bound with a plain black cover was a 129-page script for a play. The title page: Damon Runyon’s “A VERY HONORABLE GUY”—The Bookie’s Opera – Adapted by Damon Runyon Jr.

Also on the title page:
Damon Runyon Jr.
N.Y. Herald Tribune
New York City

The Herald Tribune line had been crossed out but was still readable.

On the second page:

Book by Damon Runyon Jr.
Lyrics by Damon Runyon and Damon Runyon Jr.
Based on a short story, “A Very Honorable Guy,” by Damon Runyon.
1957, By Damon Runyon Jr. and Mary Runyon McCann.

On the third page:

SYNOPSIS: Feets Samuels, a Broadway citizen and horse player, hocks his body to pay a debt and keep his only asset, his reputation as “a very honorable guy.” In a final fling with the proceeds from his body he gets lucky in loot — and in love. Naturally he does not want to pay off with his life under these circumstances — but he’ll be dead if he doesn’t, and dead if he does.

While a 1934 movie was made of Damon Runyon’s story “A Very Honorable Guy,” the 1957 play written by Damon Jr. never made it to Broadway.

Among the songs Damon Jr. had written lyrics for:

A Very Honorable Guy

They Can’t Rule You Off for Trying

Doin’ the Best He Can

Cryin’ Won’t Get You Nothin’

Waltz Me Home

Long Live Love

Comments

  1. Dreaming of a newspaper job while in high school, I used to read E&P classified ads and can’t forget the memorable line in most of them: “Drifters, drinkers need not apply.”

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