Damon Runyon’s Family Stars in a Runyonesque Tale

If Damon Runyon had concocted the brouhaha that is currently playing out over the remnants of his estate, he would have written it funny. As this is a real tale, however, few people are laughing. “It’s a sad history of a family,” Runyon’s grandson, Richard Runyon McCann, told The Transom.

Mr. McCann and his mother, Mary Runyon McCann, are the focus of this story, which has been unfolding since at least 1992. Long before that, when Damon Runyon was still alive, his daughter Mary was declared incompetent. Since 1947, according to Mr. McCann’s memory, Ms. McCann has been under the care of a court-appointed guardian, and in and out of institutionalized care. Until just a few months ago, Ms. McCann, who is 84, was residing at a nursing home near Cincinnati. (Richard McCann, who lives in Indiana, declined to reveal her current whereabouts.)

Though Ms. McCann’s guardian is in Cincinnati, a trust that Runyon set up for his daughter is filed in Surrogate’s Court here in Manhattan. Because much of that trust’s assets-copyrights to Runyon’s work that have expired and been renewed by others-no longer exist, the court is deciding whether to dissolve the fund.

In April, a lawyer for Mr. McCann sent a three-page letter to Ms. McCann’s court-appointed guardian in New York, Edward Hayes (himself a Runyonesque character) that has thrown a monkey wrench into the process and angered a lot of people. Its gist is that in Mr. McCann’s opinion, “there has been a hostile takeover of my mother’s rights.”

The “takeover” to which Mr. McCann refers was a 1992 deal in which Ms. McCann’s guardian, David Faulkner, agreed to sell all of Ms. McCann’s rights to Runyon’s works, including such magazine stories as “Little Miss Marker” and “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” and collected works that included Guys and Dolls and Blue Plate Special .

The buyer was literary agent Sheldon Abend. Mr. Abend owns the American Play Company, which controls the copyrights to the works of a number of writers. In 1971, for example, he picked up the rights to Cornell Woolrich’s “It Had to Be Murder,” the story on which Alfred Hitchcock’s film Rear Window was based, for $650. When actor James Stewart tried to re-release the picture (the production company he and Hitchcock ran together owned the film rights), Mr. Abend sued, saying that he owned the original story and that he had not given permission. Eventually the case wound up in U.S. Supreme Court. Mr. Abend won, leading to a bit of law that is often called the Abend Rule. (Mr. Abend and his lawyer Robert Gaulin are currently mounting a new production of Rear Window , starring Christopher Reeve in the Stewart role.)

Even before he was squaring off with Stewart, Mr. Abend had formed a relationship with the surviving members of the Runyon family. Mr. Abend said that the association dates back to 1965 and has included work for Ms. McCann’s guardian.

For Ms. McCann’s share of Damon Runyon’s literary rights (two of Mr. McCann’s cousins together hold approximately 50 percent), Mr. Abend paid $125,000. Roughly $20,000 of that was earmarked for legal fees payable to Ms. McCann’s Ohio guardian. In his letter to Mr. Hayes, Mr. McCann’s attorney, Mark Lillianfeld, wrote that “despite the fact that the Ohio Court of Common Please [sic] authorized the Guardian’s sale of its interest in Runyon Works, the circumstances of the sale to Mr. Abend and the information provided to the Ohio Court by the Guardian have disturbed me for several years.”

Among the things that bothered Mr. Lillianfeld was that “[a]t no time prior to the sale of the Guardian’s interest of Runyon Works was Richard McCann, Mary Runyon McCann’s sole heir, consulted by the Guardian.”

Mr. Lillianfeld also balked at the price of the transaction, noting that “there was no indication in the Petition that the Purchaser was the Guardian’s literary agent” and that although an ultimately successful “Broadway revival was scheduled to open within days of the filing of the Petition [of the sale], it was ignored completely in the Petition.”

The attorney for Mr. McCann also cited a copy of a 1992 letter from Chase Manhattan Bank vice president Nicholas Alexiou that put the value of royalties from Guys and Dolls at $253,800 and further noted, “This calculation was made before the most recent successful revival of the play. If the average annual income from Guys and Dolls increases, as it is anticipated, the value of the right to receive this income will grow accordingly.”

Neither Mr. Lillianfeld, who is recovering from heart bypass surgery; his associate Nina Kirkpatrick, who is handling the case in his stead; nor Mr. Alexious returned calls.

Mr. Abend said he is outraged by Mr. Lillianfeld’s letter. “I couldn’t imagine a New York lawyer making the accusations that he made. We’re not going to stand for this.” Indeed, Mr. Abend said that his attorney, Mr. Gaulin, would be filing disciplinary charges against Mr. Lillianfeld in Indiana.

For his part, Mr. Abend denied the charges, to the point of saying, “I didn’t know that there was going to be [a revival of Guys and Dolls ] on Broadway.”

Mr. Gaulin called Mr. Lillianfeld’s letter “an atrocity” and deemed Mr. McCann “a complete joke.” He said that he found it odd that Mr. McCann and his lawyer waited six years to register these concerns. In the meantime, he alleged, Mr. McCann has signed three separate “settlement documents” that resolved all Damon Runyon copyright and related issues. He added that the initial agreement allowed Mr. McCann to keep more than $200,000 in royalties that he was “wrongfully given. Some of which belonged to his mother.” Said Mr. Gaulin: “Mr. Abend doesn’t owe him money.”

“I didn’t take any money illegally,” said Mr. McCann. “I followed the guidelines of the bank.” Mr. McCann, who is a retired Purdue University counselor, said that he’s especially angry about the situation because “now I’m hearing from the guardian that they’re running short of capital [to pay his mother's expenses]. I have that in writing.”

Mr. Gaulin described his client’s 1992 deal with Ms. McCann’s guardian as “arm’s length” and said that it was the guardian who had come up with the terms for the deal. “Mr. Abend had originally offered $75,000 for half of the rights. They came back and said ‘$125,000 for the whole thing,’” said Mr. Gaulin. “We have resolved every single issue in Federal court,” he said, adding that the matter in Surrogate’s Court should be resolved any day now.

But Mr. Hayes still has to determine whether the assets were properly accounted for. “It’s a tragic story,” he told The Transom. “It does appear that, at best, Mr. Faulkner used poor judgment in protecting his client.” Mr. Hayes also said that “if Sheldon Abend was representing the interests of Mary McCann at the same time that he’s buying the assets that he’s advising her about, then he or the guardian should have gotten another appraiser to value that asset.”

“If it’s true,” responded Mr. Gaulin, “then whose job is it to get the appraisal? That’s the guardian’s job.”

Mr. Faulkner did not return calls, but his partner, Ed Tepe, said only: “Everything that Mr. Faulkner did in the handling of this case was presented to and approved by the Hamilton County [Ohio] Court of Common Pleas probate divisions. Anything that was done, was done with the [court's] approval.”

The Transom Also Hears

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… On the eve of her new production, Elsa/Edgar at Sag Harbor’s Bay Street Theater, bad blood may have prompted actress Elaine Stritch and director Gene Saks to go their separate ways. Murphy Davis, the show’s producer and long a force at the theater, stepped in recently-but not before two preview performances had to be canceled.

A publicist for the theater denied that there was ill will between Ms. Stritch and Mr. Saks. “He got the production off the ground, and it was a scheduling problem that came up,” she told The Transom. “So our producer stepped in.” The publicist added that there was no relation between the cancellation of the first two preview performances, which had originally been scheduled for May 20 and May 21, and the departure of Mr. Saks. Ms. Stritch and Mr. Saks were unavailable for comment.