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Damon Runyon story of the week #2: The Lemon Drop Kid

September 5, 2012

Damon Runyon at work

“The Lemon Drop Kid” was published in the 1938 collection Furthermore but was written many years before given that it was first made as a film in 1934.

Runyon’s horse racing stories, or at least the stories set in and around race tracks, are among the best in On Broadway because they capture the essence of race tracks, horse players, their desperation and their desperate wives.

Horse players, owners and trainers in Runyon stories are always busted out of luck but still only one win or score away from being in clover again. The Lemon Drop Kid is no different, a race track grifter who makes his money spinning tall tales to unsuspecting gamblers, before making off with their cash having given them a bum steer of a tip.

He gets his soubriquet for his habit of munching on lemon drop sweets which he keeps in the pocket of a dishevelled suit. A softly spoken con man, travelling from race course to race course, ducking and diving to avoid the sleuths of  course security supervisor Cap Duhaine.

Flat broke at New York state race course Saratoga, the Lemon Drop Kid stumbles upon Rarus P. Griggsby, an embittered wheelchair-bound millionaire industrialist, with a name that Groucho Marx should have commandeered for a character.

Griggsby can’t walk due to arthritis and has spent a small fortune on cures that haven’t worked. The Lemon Drop Kid fixes him for a mark, passing off his lemon drops as a cure for the chronic ailment, before starting the old phonus balonus about a sure thing in the next race.

In setting up his BS story, Runyon describes the Lemon Drop Kid’s lies with a  gorgeous phrase that encapsulates his linguistic creativity – he calls it ‘the old ackamarackus.’ How good is that?

So from here on, to avoid spoilers not much more can be said, other than the old nag the Kid thought was going to be pulled up lame after a furlong romps it – and having stolen Griggsby’s C note earmarked for the non-placed bet, the Kid has to leg it.

The conclusion is a beautiful exercise in misdirection and punchline timing. Please read it.

As ever, what is noticeable is Runyon’s exceptional ability for characterisation in a small number of words. The Kid is a product of poverty and the depression: a quietly spoken, secretive loner brought up in a New Jersey orphanage who rationalises his low bottom criminality has offered him a greater sight of America than years working legit dodges ever could have. He’s a great character.

The Lemon Drop Kid was made into a poor Bob Hope vehicle in 1951, a film which doesn’t maintain the spirit of the original story. Much better is this 1940s radio adaptation from the Damon Runyon Theatre.


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