Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Texas Guinan – Queen of the Night Clubs

“Hello Suckers!” was the regular greeting of the tall, leggy, blonde dripping jewels as the demimonde of New York society crowded into the smoky speakeasy, rubbing shoulders with the criminal class. In the 1920’s Texas Guinan ruled the night, the undisputed Queen of the Night Clubs. A wisecracking, besequined, outrageous dame, who became an exuberant symbol of the Roaring Twenties, as well known as Babe Ruth, Charlie Chaplin and Lucky Lindy. She was extravagant and frivolous, with a heart as large as the state she hailed from. Notorious for her ability to slither through the cracks on nuisance charges, Tex was the best known and loved hostess on the Great White Way, the Toast of Times Square. She was a bundle of contradictions: a good “bad woman” who hung out with gangsters and illegal booze, but who still lived at home with her parents who she supported to the end of her life. She was also a loyal friend who never forgot the people who helped her on the way up, a lover of antiques, and a voracious reader who read a book a day.

Texas was shameless in her quest for publicity during her career. She was one of the first celebrities to endorse a weight-loss product, and during her nightclub years, she once staged her own suicide to just to promote a new club. During her years in the spotlight, she fed a gullible press tall tales about a youth spent riding broncos on a 50,000 acre ranch, running off with a Wild West Show, and entertaining the troops during World War I earning herself a medal from the French, all of it pure bunkum. But Texas never let the truth get in the way of a good story. As far as she was concerned, as long as they were talking about her, who cares what they said? Not that the truth was any less boring.

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.

Customers flocked to the El Fay and her other clubs, not just the hoi polloi, but millionaires and mobsters rubbed elbows with politicians and athletes, well-heeled Wall Streets and college co-eds vied to get in to empty their wallets into Fay and Guinan’s pockets. Gossip columnist such as Walter Winchell, Ed Sullivan and Mark Hellinger came with pencils poised to dig the dirt for hungry tabloid readers. Several newspapers kept a standing table at the club, with a reporter on deck every night. Her club was said to be a news source as essential as the courthouse or the city jail.

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


Susan Higginbotham said...

This is fascinating! I had never heard of this lady before.

gio said...

I didn't know her either! What an interesting life she had.

Lorraine said...

WOW... what a gal!

Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

They were supposed to make a movie about her life with Courtney Love or Madonna playing the role but unfortunately it never got made. It's the one time that a screenwriter could make stuff up and be justified because Texas stretched the truth like a rubber band her entire life! The champagne bar Flute now occupies the space that the 300 Club used to be in.

Cinema Nostalgia said...

Fascinating mischievous woman. I had never heard of her until today.

steve harman said...

Hi Elizabeth Kerri,
I appreciate your writing in this topic.

Barry F. Bealick said...

Last Saturday, January 25, 2014, I was only several doors away from The El Fey Club's former Manhattan location at 107 West 45th Street, attending "A NIGHT WITH JANIS JOPLIN" at 149 West 45th Street -- The Lyceum Theater -- with my life partner FREDA.

I told FREDA that my paternal grandparents celebrated my grandpa Max's fortieth birthday there in 1926 and that the legendary AL JOLSON approached their table to say that HE, too, was born in 1886 and had ALSO turned forty.

Texas Guinan, who a few minutes earlier had yelled out, "Everybody give a big hand to Birthday Boy Max who turns forty today !!", was still at their table and waved her jewelry-spangled hand and exclaimed -- loudly enough for everybody to hear -- "Hey, Jolie and Max, I beat you guys here by two years...I got two years over you guys...born in 1884 !!"

She then served them CHAMPAGNE in COFFEE was Prohibition and she didn't want the club raided again by Federal agents !!