Runyon recalled as renegade, last honest man
Tom Runyon Tom Runyon, owner of the Old Place in Cornell, had a way of making impressions on people.
At Runyon’s memorial on Aug. 14, hundreds of friends and family members gathered in the rural Cornell community of Agoura to pay respect to a man who by all accounts was a rugged, crabby individualist—part cowboy, part sophisticate and 100 percent genuine. Runyon died at his Malibu home on July 17 at the age of 89.
Runyon lived in Malibu since 1937 but had been a fixture in Cornell since 1969, when he and his wife, Barbara, opened Old Place, a steak and clams joint that occupies the ramshackle 1914 post office and general store off Troutdale Drive and Mulholland Highway.
Old Place reflected Runyon’s nofrills, tellitlikeitis life philosophy. Guests have two dinner options—steak and clams, with an occasional Sunday beef stew. There are five booths separated by doors salvaged from the Santa Barbara Mission, and an old long surfboard serves as the bar bench.
Restaurant regulars told stories about saloon brawls and wild parties with the Hollywood elite as well as tales that illuminated Runyon’s perspective on life. “We had experiences that are not retellable,"said Richie Moore of Thousand Oaks, who played music at Old Place for the past 40 years. “If I brought a guitar into that place, Tom would never let me pay for a drink."
Blake Wheeler of Calabasas supplied Runyon with clams for 30 years—“rain or shine."Runyon, he said, would turn people away if they didn’t call in advance or if not enough people showed up for dinner.
“It was a bit of a chore to light an oak fire for just one or two steak dinners,"Wheeler said. “He’d have to have four to six guests before he’d do it. There were no soups, no salads, no coffee, no dessert—just steak and clams Thursday through Sunday."
Grant Gerson, owner of Calamigos Ranch in Malibu, said if a newcomer came into the restaurant he might not be welcomed. “If no one was there and he didn’t like the look of you, he’d say, ‘There’s no space for you,’"Gerson said. “He was quite a guy."
Brian Jackson, who grew up down the road from Old Place, traveled to Runyon’s memorial from Washington state.
“Every night was just packed—parties, just crazy,"he said about Runyon’s popular restaurant and saloon.
Runyon’s son, Morgan, shared his father’s story—and colorful yarns—at a memorial held at Charme d’Antan, a nearby antique store. The Runyon name is etched into Hollywood Hills’ history. A gulch that was formerly known as No Man’s Canyon was purchased by Runyon’s uncle, Carmen Runyon, in 1919 and renamed Runyon Canyon.
“It was the roaring ’20s in the Hollywood Hills in Runyon Canyon,"Morgan Runyon told guests. Movie director Cecil B. DeMille was Tom Runyon’s neighbor. “Cecil had guns—Tom liked guns,"Morgan said. DeMille allowed young Tom access to a shooting range on his property.
Tom’s father, Charles Runyon, died when Tom was 7. His mother, Cornelia, moved her family to Brentwood.
Morgan Runyon said his father made his own “ammo"as a child and even built a cannon, which he tested on lima bean farmers next door. The farmers escaped unscathed, but young Tom hid the evidence to avoid trouble and “for possible later use."
At the age of 17, Runyon purchased his first car and an airplane. He bought land in Malibu at $20 per acre and eventually purchased 80 acres in the Trancas area. Runyon’s experience as a pilot landed him in the Army Air Corps in 1940, flying cargo missions in North Africa and Italy. He earned the rank of major, and after World War II he continued to serve in the Air Force Reserves until the 1960s.
Runyon attended Columbia University and wrote fiction for magazines, said his son. He moved from the New York writing scene to the L.A. art scene, where he met his wife, an artist. They rented a tower apartment above the Santa Monica pier’s carousel.
Tom and Barbara Runyon eventually moved back to his Malibu home in 1961.
Old Place opened in 1969, and the friends the Runyons made in Malibu and Hollywood became regular patrons, along with surfers, old-timers, locals, fishermen and many others. Actors Steve McQueen, Robert Mitchum and Jason Robards, director Sam Peckinpah, singer/ songwriter Bob Dylan and others frequented Old Place, and, according to longtime Cornell resident Carlyn Goddard, some of the parties were wild and extravagant. Guests at one party were treated to a “whole pig,"she said.
Goddard said Runyon’s movie pals asked him to play himself in a variety of films, including “Every Which Way But Loose"and “The Getaway."Aside from parties, what Goddard remembers most about Runyon was his character. He may not have cracked a smile too often and was perhaps “too gruff"with people he didn’t know, but his “low tolerance for liars"made him a standout among men, she said.
Craig Aimes, another longtime Cornell resident, said Runyon was the first cowboy he ever knew and probably the “last honest man in America."Actress Katharine Ross, a Cornell resident, gave a eulogy. “Tom was cut from old cloth,"Ross said. “He embodied honor, integrity, loyalty. He was a force to be reckoned with—either you cut muster with him or you didn’t. He was the real deal."
“(Tom) was kind and generous but not soft and fuzzy,"Ross said.
Morgan Runyon said his father died peacefully in his bed in Malibu “surrounded by love,"with the sound of the surf in the background. “What Tom had was a twinkle in his eye and an interest in anything interesting."
Tim Skogstrom, owner of the Cornell Winery and Tasting Room next door to Old Place, will help Barbara Runyon reopen the restaurant in September. They may add a fish dish to the menu and perhaps a side of potatoes.
“What can I say about Tom except that he was a Renaissance man,"Skogstrom said. “He was a cowboy in every sense of the word."
Runyon is survived by his wife, Barbara; daughter, Alessandra, a Santa Fe, N.M. artist; son, Morgan, an art director from Topanga Canyon and Malibu; and three grandchildren.