It wasn’t just that she had a heart the size of Texas; she also had a mouth the size of the Jumbo State.
Her name was Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan (pronounced guy-nan). She was born January 12, 1884 (or 1883, as one census states) in Waco, Texas, where Dr. Pepper, America’s oldest soft drink was invented and sold. Mary Louis would become known for her sarcastic, brassy quips hollered across nightclub floors at customers who flocked to be in her presence. She would be given — or take — the name Texas, a name that would come to symbolize a take-no-prisoners personality too big for the patrons she lorded over as the hostess of the Prohibition era. She was a female P.T. Barnum and Mae West seductress rolled into one. A talented singer, actress and notorious bullshitter. She had a gift of gab and a talent with a well-landed insult. “Hello suckers,” was how she greeted millionaires and gangsters alike.
Her parents were Irish immigrants from Canada. She left home at a young age in search of fame. Her early years are awash with tall tales, she maybe ran away and joined a wild west show; she might have lived in Chicago. By 1904 she was married to a newspaper cartoonist. She would claim to marry two more times, to another newspaperman and an actor. “It’s having the same man around the house all the time that ruins matrimony.” By 1906 divorced and living in New York City she was making her way onto the vaudeville stages.
In 1913 she found herself in a scheme to sell a Texas Guinan fat reducer. The pills sold between $3 and $20 until the promoter was prosecuted for this bit of quackery. By at least 1917 she landed in the Golden State where she performed in a few dozen two-reelers (about 20 minutes). She was usually seen wielding a six-shooter and riding horses, creating a new kind of western heroine. One who did not need to be rescued but would do the rescuing. Her tomboy appearance was groundbreaking at a time when women were largely cast as helpless damsels in distress. She even formed her own production company and began producing her own silent films.
But it wasn’t a reel calling that would define her. It happened — according to Texas legend — by accident. Too old and not slim according to Hollywood standards she returned to New York. Attending a rather dull party at a hotel Texas began singing and entertaining the folks, impromptu. The owners liked what they heard and she was hired to emcee, becoming probably the first woman emcee, breaking ground in a man’s profession. She was 39; she wasn’t a clinging, coy starlet. She was a woman, with all intents who had “a pair.”
In 1924 Texas hooked up with bootlegger Larry Fay, working at his club’s El Fey where one rubbed a tuxedoed elbow with movie star Gloria Swanson or a Vanderbilt or an Astor. Fay was 6’3” and because of the enemies he garnered rode in an armored car, a pistol at his side. Texas earned a cut of the club, the backdrop was gorgeous showgirls as she presided over the room, greeting and insulting guests, bullying them into buying more illegal booze. She neither favored the blue bloods over the ex-convicts who crowded the small club. Everyone was a sucker. Texas held her spot in the center of the club from a stool. Talent at the El Fay was procured by former press agent and now producer of popular reviews on Broadway Nils T. Granlund. It was Granlund that introduced Fay to Texas and Granlund that provided the girls from the Ziegfeld Follies and Earl Carroll’s Vanities. (Granlund had his own history with gangsters having worked for at least four that were murdered). The luscious lovelies were bait for customers. One line of chorus girls skipped amongst patrons carrying baskets of cherries, popping them into the mouths of the men while guests shouted “Cherries!” Later the girls in Texas’ clubs were so young they were usually chaperoned by their mothers. Ruby Keeler was fourteen when she danced at a Guinan club. “Give the lil’ girl a great big hand” was a normal saying as Texas introduced the talent. Between Texas and Fay they made upwards of what in today’s currency would be millions of dollars. Fay would be killed in 1933 at another club he owned.
Texas was a hard worker. She usually showed up at whatever club she was working around midnight, had a melon and ice cream, stayed until the clubs closed, around 6 or 7 in the morning, ate breakfast and dashed to her large home in Greenwich Village which she shared with her parents, brother and a group of pets, sleeping until 6 pm.
Arrested many times, in the police stations she joked her jewels had never felt so safe. None of the charges ever stuck, authorities could never prove she had any ownership in the clubs. The arrests and headlines, and quips only made her more famous. As police escorted her out of the nightclubs she would had the band play the “Prisoner’s Song.” She wore gold padlocks around her neck. The law tried to crack down on all the joints in New York blatantly selling booze. Nightclubs would be busted then padlocked. But just weeks later another club, with another name, same owners would spring up sometimes just blocks away. Texas especially thumbed her nose at authority, regularly buying the cops breakfast from the Waldorf Hotel, smiling from inside a paddy wagon, to using her mobster friendships to wipe out evidence she was an owner of any of the clubs. They never would get Texas.
Eventually Texas wanted her own club, without Fay, who was less than pleased. But she wasn’t brash for nothing. She took up his habit of riding in an armored car. She sidled up to gangster Owney “The Killer” Madden who she knew would protect her. Fay left her alone.
Club Intime was located in the basement of the Hotel Harding at 205 W. 54th Street in Manhattan (it is now the Flute Bar). It was cozy and lush with Chinese lanterns hanging from the ceiling and red velvet walls. Owney Madden had bought the Harding. He was a gangster, an Irish thug who spent time in Sing Sing and had a fierce crush on Mae West, who moved into the hotel after Madden purchased it. Though his torso was filled will bullet holes he invested in Mae’s plays that landed her in jail, most notoriously for Sex. They embarked on a long affair that neither admitted publically. Owney was friends with the rakish George Raft, actor and minor gangster. Owney helped his friend out, by employing him as a dancer (and gigolo) at Club Intime where Texas now worked. Raft also dallied with West and helped relieve drunks of their wallets, splitting the stolen dough with Texas’ brother Tommy who worked in the club.
Texas would either own or run, or have a stake in many clubs, always hostessing and emceeing, included were the 300 Club and Texas Guinan’s. Where ever she worked she lured millionaires, society folks and celebrities in with her vibrant personality. Everyone wanted to be with the life of the party. She dripped with jewels, was draped in fur and wore a police whistle around her neck, which she frequently used.
“Never give a sucker an even break,” she said, charging a steep cover charge and outrageous sums for liquor, $25 for a bottle of rum, $2.00 for water. Texas herself didn’t succumb to the lure of booze.
The undisputed queen of the nightclubs, Texas typified the era she lived in, prosperous, rebellious and madcap, dancing as fast as one could. She relished the attention. She had bleached her brown hair blonde. She was more thickset than voluptuous, she had charm. Not particularly beautiful she had her own glamour and confidence. Though Texas left her home town behind she didn’t abandon her family. Her father often sat in her clubs enjoying his raucous daughter’s performance while her mother sat with a glass of milk. She read voraciously while incense burned in her beloved home. She claimed not to eat meat and favored wearing red stockings. Unapologetically one of a kind. According to author Donald L. Miller in his book Supreme City, her motto was to “exaggerate the world.”
Texas’ time was coming to an end. The stock market crash of 1929 hurt her business. No one was interested in the drink-all night frivolity of a F. Scott era. Texas managed to stagger on for a few more years, in Chicago and Europe (where she was mostly banned because of her reputation). She died November 5, 1933 in Vancouver of an amoebic dysentery (an infection of the intestines by a parasite). She had surgery and possibly suffered a perforation of the bowel which led to her death. It was claimed she contracted the disease in Chicago during the world’s fair the previous summer which felled nearly 1,200, supposedly due to bad pipes at the Congress Hotel. Along with Texas a hundred others died. A month after Texas’ death Prohibition — which was a synonymous time for the jazz baby and Texas Guinan — was repealed.
An era and a woman were gone. The woman Variety called “a tornado” was not abandoned in death. More than ten thousand showed up for her funeral which she had wanted to be held in a nightclub, but instead was held at Campbell’s where hysteria had reigned in 1926 at matinee idol Rudolph Valentino’s funeral. She was buried in a white beaded chiffon dress, with a diamond ring and necklace, a spray of faux orchids pin to her shoulder. Chaos followed Texas in death. An accident involving one of the cars in the funeral procession injured a group of showgirls. A mob of forlorn worshipers caused a scene pushing police aside and charging her vault to tear the flowers off her silver coffin as a memento. Perhaps desperate for a souvenir from an era, more carefree more loud and bright than the one they found themselves in. The papers claimed it was a shameless act. I’d like to think Texas would have smiled, blown her police whistle and said “bring on the suckers.”
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