Wednesday, September 28, 2011
Texas Guinan – Queen of the Night Clubs
They say that everything is larger in Texas and Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan was proof of that. She was born in Waco, Texas in 1884, and educated in Catholic schools. Waco was not the dusty cow town that Tex portrayed in her memoirs. Not only did it have electric lights but a little soft drink called Dr. Pepper put the town on the map the year after she was born. From childhood, she was a tomboy, more prone to playing pranks then playing with dolls. An exhibitionist, she delighted in thumbing her nose at the conventions of the day, walking through the red light district, telling her friends where babies came from. Her father Mike was risk taker, concocting shaky business deals. There were years of fortune in the Guinan household and years of poverty. Texas learned from an early age that a man couldn’t be relied on for support.
Texas started acting at the age of sixteen, and after a brief detour into marriage, she made the move to the Big Apple in 1906. It was love at first sight. Although Texas had only a modest talent as a singer and a dancer, she made up for it with sheer chutzpah. She quickly found work in a few Broadway musicals, where she became known for her acerbic wit, but she spent most of her time touring the country in various vaudeville shows. While she didn’t spend time in the trenches in World War I, she did do time in Hollywood, starring “The Gun Woman” and “Fuel of Life” becoming the first female Western star. She eventually made 36 mostly B-movies, although she later inflated that number to 300. Although she never married again, Texas had several beaux over the years. She preferred however to remain independent. “It’s having the same man around the house all the time that ruins matrimony,” she once wisecracked.
Prohibition was the apex of Texas’ career as it was for the various mobsters who saw the 18th amendment as a chance to make some serious dough, bootlegging liquor from Canada and Europe. Despite the law, people weren’t about to stop drinking. By 1922, Tex was looking for a new career, tired as she put it of “kissing horses in horse operas.” One night, she showed up a party at the Beaux Arts Café on West 40th Street, a high class joint where anyone who was anyone was there. The party was desperately dull so someone asked Texas to sing. She willingly obliged. “First thing you know we were all doing things. Everybody had a great time.” Getting people to “do things,” soon became her life’s work.
Soon she was lured away to work at the King Cole Room at the Knickerbocker Hotel on 42nd Street. The King Cole room was seriously swanky; celebrities such as Rudolph Valentino, and John Barrymore were known to frequent the hotel. But Texas didn’t just want to be the hostess with the mostest, she wanted a cut of the action and that is what she got when she hooked up with Larry Fay, an ex-cabbie turned nightclub owner with serious mob connections. Fay hired her at the El Fay Club on West 45th Street, where she presided from a ringside table, cracking wise with performers and customers. Fay gave her a cut of the profits, hired a sexy chorus line, and allowed her free rein. Texas now had a setting that she liked. Her years in the theatre and films stood her in good stead, she knew how to entertain an audience, how to make them laugh. She was the life of the party, the ringmaster, emptying the wallets of her customers without even trying. Her secret was the best booze, the sexiest chorus girls (including a young Ruby Keeler and the future playwright and congresswoman Clare Booth Luce), and her penchant for skewering her customers with her wit, and making them like it. Ironically for someone who spent most of her time cajoling customers to pay as much as $25 for a fifth of Scotch, she never touched a drop of alcohol herself.
Wrapped in ermine, armed with a clapper and a police whistle, Texas held court night after night, insulting her customers and making them love it. “Hello sucker,” became a common phrase as did her introduction as a performer walked on the stage, “Give the lil’ girl a great big hand.” On another night, an inebriated customer allegedly began handing out $50 bills. When Texas asked what he did to be able to throw money around, he replied that he was in dairy produce. Without missing a beat, Texas exhorted the audience to “Give a big hand for the big butter and egg man.” Playwright George S. Kaufman lifted her line to use as the title of his play “The Butter and Egg Man.”
The money poured in, in one 10 month period Texas and Fay netted something like $700,000 which is over $6M in today’s money. While it seems like a great deal money, Fay and Texas were also paying bribes to cops and other law enforcement officials. That didn’t keep them from raiding the place. But even getting arrested seemed to bolster her reputation. She made front page news every time. “I like your cute little jail,” she cooed after a night in the West 30th Street joint, “I don’t’ know when my jewels have seemed so safe.” Inevitably Texas was released. As soon as one club closed, Texas and Fay opened another one. They opened the Texas Guinan Club on West 48th, when police padlocked that one, they simply moved back to the El Fay Club space.
Texas finally went out on her own, opening the 300 Club on West 54th Street. Fay was not happy about losing his meal ticket, of course he threatened her, but Texas had a powerful new friend in her corner, gangster Owney Madden. She hired some goons, and bought a heavily armored car. Fay wisely backed down and offered his best wishes on her future success. And a success it was, the 300 Club was a smash from the beginning. But the cops wouldn’t leave Texas alone. There was a new sheriff in town, the incorruptible U.S. Attorney Emory R. Buckner, and Texas was in the sights of Prohibition enforcement. In 1927, police raided the 300 Club. By now, Texas was used to the drill. She ordered the band to play the “Prisoner’s Song” as she was hauled off to jail. Paraphrasing one of her most famous lines, a detective quipped, “Give the little girl a big handcuff.” At the police station, Texas entertained a horde of entertainment reporters, prisoners, police and federal agents with several renditions of the “Prisoner’s Song,” during the nine hours that she was behind bars.
Long before the stock market crash in 1929 that ended the good times, Texas was going out of style. She produced a mediocre revue The Padlocks of 1927 that bombed. Trying to revive her movie career, she starred in several movies that also flopped. Texas tried her best, as she quipped “An indiscretion a day keeps the Depression away,” but it was a losing battle. In 1931, she took a troupe to France but was sent packing by the French government. It wasn’t that she was too immoral for the country that gave the world the Can-Can, the Apache Dance, and the Follies Bergeres, but in the hard economic times, she was competing with French performers for audience dollars.
Always with an eye open for publicity, she changed the name of the revue to “Too Hot for Paris,” touring the country from city to city, always on the move. Her career had no come full-circle. By 1933, the late nights and the road finally caught up to Texas Guinan. She suffered an attack of ulcerative colitis. After emergency surgery that failed, she died at the age of 49 in November of 1933 in Vancouver, Canada. On her deathbed, she said, “I would rather have a square inch of New York than all the rest of the world.”
Texas once joked that she wanted her funeral to be a nightclub wake, with a motorcycle escort, and boys singing songs on the way to the cemetery. 12,000 people showed up to her funeral, at the same funeral chapel that had held Rudolph Valentino's services. The New York Times Herald wrote “She was a master showman, and accomplished psychologist….she had the ability too, and would have been successful in any one of a dozen more conventional fields. To New York and the rest of the country Texas was a flaming leader of a period which was a lot of fun while it lasted.” Guinan was laid to rest in Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York. A month to the day after her death Prohibition was repealed.
Texas Guinan: Queen of the Nightclubs by Louise Berliner