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Spring 1998
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Texas Guinan: Queen of the Night
Leo Trachtenberg
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New York has always had its demimonde, where the rich and famous flirt with fast living and rub shoulders with the decadent and the criminal. If today's demimonde tends to be dark, even a tad depraved, with its heroin-shooting club patrons, brain-dead music, and sexual excess de rigueur, that of the 1920s was, if not exactly innocent, then certainly brighter, and jazzier. Its setting was a constellation of smoky speakeasies and celebrity-crowded nightclubs, awash in bootleg liquor, and ruled by Gotham's undisputed nightclub queen, the celebrated Texas Guinan, wisecracking, besequined, and outrageous. As a symbol of the exuberant twenties, Texas was right up there with Lucky Lindy, Babe Ruth, and Silent Cal.

Born Mary Louise Cecilia in Waco, Texas, in 1884, and educated in Catholic schools, Texas Guinan grew up a virtuoso of the tall tale. In later years, she foisted upon a gullible press a wholly mythical account of her youth. She convinced reporters that she had ridden broncos, single-handedly rounded up cattle on a 50,000-acre ranch, attended the elite Hollins Finishing School in Virginia, and run off to join a circus—all pure hokum.

She claimed, too, that when the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, she did her patriotic duty, hurrying to France to divert American boys before they faced down the Hun. As her increasingly devoted press swallowed the story whole, she claimed she received a medal from General Joffre, the French commander during the Battle of the Marne. Of course, she had never left American soil. As the country went to war, she was acting in silent movies, a career that lasted until 1922. She starred in 36 movies, mostly two-reelers, though characteristically she inflated the number to 300.

Weaving fanciful stories wasn't her only talent. She could sing a bit, act a bit more, and she possessed self-assurance and ambition to spare. All of it she parlayed into a modest show-business career before becoming the top nightclub hostess of her time. Divorcing her first husband—newspaper cartoonist Jack Moynaham—in 1907, after five years of marriage, Texas moved to Manhattan, though she didn't really settle there for another decade. She became a touring vagabond, one of the innumerable aspiring vaudevillians warbling or lobbing witticisms at customers in far-off outposts of the American hinterlands. She would later have two more husbands, newspaperman Julian Johnson and actor David Townsend, though some question the legality of the marriages. She had lovers as well; but Texas always remained her own gal. "It's having the same man around the house all the time that ruins matrimony," she wisecracked.

When she finally settled down in New York, the brainy, brassy girl from Waco landed several starring roles on Broadway, where her acerbic wit defined her. Her big chance arrived on January 17, 1920, with Prohibi-tion. All over the city, speak-easies, usually small dives, sprouted up; by 1931, two years before Prohibition expired, New York had 32,000 of them, a steady source for police graft. For those seeking entertainment to go with their liquor, a profusion of gaudy nightclubs beckoned. New York's famous res-taurants—Delmonico's, Sherry's, Jack's—gave way to the new clubs, more fun to visit, after all, since patrons could enjoy the additional naughty pleasure of thumbing their noses at the law. Texas Guinan dyed her brunette hair flashy blond, gussied up her blowsy figure in glittery clothes, cultivated the right underworld connections, and went to work as a nightclub hostess. In just a few years, Pro-hibition had made gangsters into millionaires, venal politicians into corrupt fat cats, much of the adult population into lawbreakers, and Texas Guinan into the mistress of Gotham's nighttime revels.

Here's how it happened—or so it's been told. In 1922, Texas was scouting around Broadway for a new career, tired, as she put it, of "kissing horses in horse operas." As Louise Berliner recounts in her book, Texas Guinan: Queen of the Nightclubs, one evening, Texas showed up at a party at the Beaux Arts Café on West 40th Street, a high-class haunt for affluent swells and theatrical grand eminences. Operetta composer Sigmund Romberg was there; so was Pearl White, star of the popular Perils of Pauline film serials. As Texas recalled years later, perhaps telling the truth for once, the party was desperately dull. But not for long. "Someone asked me to sing," she recounted. "I didn't need much coaxing, so I sang. . . . First thing you know we were all doing things. Everybody had a great time." Getting people "doing things"—the more inebriated the better—was from that moment on her life's work. That, and getting and spending money lavishly.

Emile Gervasini, the Beaux Arts' owner, knowing a good thing when he saw it, hired Texas as Mistress of Ceremonies. She didn't stay long, however. Joe Pani, owner of the King Cole room at the Knickerbocker Hotel on West 42nd Street, soon invited Texas to run his show, and she gladly accepted. To the King Cole room would come the silent screen's passionate lover Ru-dolph Valentino, the legendary actor John Barrymore, Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt, and the serial bride of a long string of millionaires, Peggy Hopkins Joyce (at one time or another Mrs. Everett Archer, Mrs. Sherburne P. Hop-kins, and Mrs. Count Gosta Morner). Clearly, the King Cole was a place to see and be seen, no small thanks to the club's new flamboyant hostess.

But Texas didn't tarry at the King Cole, either. After polishing her act, she threw in her lot with Larry Fay, a Broadway hustler, nightclub owner, and mobster. Fay had come up the hard way from Hell's Kitchen, birthplace to many in the city's teeming underworld. Short, dark-haired, and horse-faced, Fay dressed to kill, with a taste for black suits, black hats, and purple shirts and ties.

At first a small-time punk and cabbie, Fay befriended "Big Frenchy" de Mange, a Hell's Kitchen gangster who would later invest heavily in his nightclubs. But it was with the help of a bigger mobster, Owney Madden, that Fay rose from obscurity as owner of a fleet of cabs. His cabs proudly displayed his good-luck symbol: the swastika—not in admiration of the still-tiny Nazi party, but because he'd won a bundle betting on Scotch Verdict, a long-shot horse whose blanket carried the then-still-innocent symbol. Later, Fay would adorn not only his cabs but also his shirts and other belongings with swastikas.

So successful was Fay's foray into business that he tried to list his company on the American Stock Exchange, then known as the Curb Exchange, which turned him down to protect its sterling reputation. After this brush with business legitimacy, Fay sought other opportunities. Prohibition provided him the ideal means of entering the bustling arena of underworld commerce. Driving a cab to the Canadian border, Fay loaded it up with whiskey and returned to New York, where arid customers gladly paid good money for a stiff—and palatable—drink. Calculating his profits, Fay realized he'd hit pay dirt. Soon, fleets of Fay's cabs were busy smuggling booze from Canada to New York.

Fay opened the El Fay Club to help sell the smuggled alcohol, and the instantly popular establishment caught Texas's attention. While still working at the King Cole room, she visited Fay's club at 105 West 45th Street, and found the décor opulent, the entertainment boisterous, and the whiskey, though outrageously overpriced, plentiful. She was soon presiding there from a ringside table, wisecracking with performers and customers.

Giving her a cut of the profits, backing her up with a sexy chorus line, and allowing her free rein, Fay gave Texas the setting she liked. That he was a racketeer with disreputable connections, that secret mob money helped bankroll his club, and that gangsters frequented it—none of this troubled Texas. After too many years of middling show-biz success, on the threshold of middle age, at last she had the celebrity she craved.

Texas reeled in customers as did no other speakeasy hostess during the Prohibition years. Pleasure-seeking patrons, re-spectable and not, elbowed one another for the privilege of having Texas and Fay empty their wallets. From well-heeled Wall Streeters and Ivy League collegians savoring big-city high life to famous athletes, prominent (if errant) politicians, and mobsters galore, good-time Charlies from every walk of life converged on El Fay to whoop it up with Texas and her chorus girls.

As the twenties began to roar, the El Fay Club attracted anyone with money to burn and a yen for illicit fun. It rivaled Jack and Charlie's 21—favored by writers Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley—as New York City's best-known speakeasy. George Raft, then the top Charleston dancer in town, later one of Hollywood's most wooden actors, was a regular; so was Gentleman Jimmy Walker, former state assemblyman, composer of "Will You Love Me in December as You Did in May?" and soon to be Tammany's nightlife mayor of New York. Ring Larder dropped by, as did writers Damon Runyon and Heywood Broun. Screen cowboy Tom Mix, the indefatigable Peggy Hopkins Joyce, Harry Thaw—who had killed architect Stanford White in a jealous fit over his young wife Evelyn Nesbit—these and other notables thronged to the El Fay for a taste of high-life decadence. And, of course, there were gossip columnists: Walter Winchell, Mark Hellinger, Ed Sullivan, all voraciously digging for—and sometimes fabricating—juicy nuggets for hungry tabloid readers.

Nights at the El Fay, and later at Texas's other clubs, blended alcohol-fueled mirth and sportive bedlam. Armed with a clapper, a police whistle, and her ever-derisive wit, wrapped in ermine, and sporting an array of gigantic hats, Texas impaled big spenders with insults and made them love it. "Hello sucker," her blunt welcome to fat cats on a spending spree, has become common parlance, as has "Give the lil' girl a great big hand," Texas's introduction as a performer walked on the stage.

Some El Fay stories became the stuff of legend. One night, for example, a happily inebriated patron started doling out $50 bills to the entertainers. What business was he in, Texas asked, to have such money to throw around? "Dairy produce," he answered. Without missing a beat, Texas exhorted her audience: "Give a big hand for the big butter-and-egg man." Play-wright George S. Kaufman, knowing a great line when he heard it, quickly lifted Texas's improvisation to use as the title to his classic play, The Butter and Egg Man.

The money poured in, and Texas's notoriety spread. Fay and Texas netted $700,000 in one ten-month period, close to $6.4 million in today's money, little of it subject to taxes. And Texas basked in a celebrity that Winchell and other gossips stoked. Indeed, by the mid-twenties, Texas Guinan's clashes with the police and the courts made front-page news across the journalistic spectrum, from the august New York Times to the sleazy tabloid Evening Graphic. "Two Senators See Guinan Club Raided"; "Texas Guinan Jailed in Dry Raid on Club"; "Freed on $1,000 Bail with Nine Employees After Nine Hours of Mirth in Cell," screamed typical headlines. "I like your cute little jail," Texas cooed after a night in the West 30th Street slammer, "and I don't know when my jewels have seemed so safe."

Whatever the headlines, the stories that followed invariably wound up with Texas released from jail, despite the imposing array of law enforcement she faced. Federal agents, magistrates, cops—too many of them had hands outstretched, trying to catch some of the big money spilling from the Prohibition rackets. Mayor Chester P. Mills, responsible for supervising Prohibition agents in the city, took his job seriously, but after two frustrating years fighting local politicians over enforcing the booze laws, he quit. "Prohibition . . . is a part-spoils system," he told Collier's magazine in 1927. "Three quarters of the 2,500 [New York] dry agents are ward heelers and sycophants named by politicians." Things were so bad that when prosecutors tried Big Bill Dwyer as boss of a New York rum-running gang, they discovered that many Coast Guard patrol ships escorted the lawbreakers into port and helped them unload their illegal cargo.

Of course, police made occasional speakeasy raids, to make things look on the up-and-up and to guarantee continued payoffs for protection. Texas's clubs proved no exception, particularly since their popularity guaranteed news coverage. When police, to no one's surprise, found booze at El Fay, they padlocked the club. Un-daunted, Texas and Fay launch-ed the Texas Guinan Club at 117 West 48th Street. When police padlocked that club, the Del Fay  opened its doors at the El Fay's old address, raking in the money until it, too, got shut down. An ongoing farce of raids and roundups ensued, with police regularly bringing the befurred and bejeweled Texas—586 diamonds studded one of her gaudy bracelets—and dozens of scantily clad chorus girls downtown for questioning. It all provided a boon to the city's editors and a constant source of titillation for their millions of daily readers.

In 1925, a runaway real estate boom in Florida attracted incautious investors looking for a quick buck. The state had orange groves, pristine beaches, romantic architecture, hungry alligators, and people seeking diversion. So as the suckers drifted south, Texas and Fay followed them, to launch the Miami Del Fay. Like its northern counterparts, it rang up huge profits. A wealthy local realtor, knowing business genius when he saw it, asked Texas to team up with him. Together, they'd take over the world—or at least southern Florida. She refused, in her inimitable style: "Listen, sucker," she supposedly said, "you take them by the sun, I take them by the moon. Now don't let's interfere with each other's business." But as with all booms, the bust arrived, earlier in Florida than in the rest of the nation. As the Miami party fizzled, Texas and Fay returned north to Broadway's still-thriving nightlife. Once back in New York, though, Texas, now a national celebrity, decided it was time to break with her partner of several years.

Fay wasn't happy. After all, Texas was his meal ticket. He wouldn't let her go without a fight, so he threatened her—not a bright move, since Texas had powerful underworld protection, including Fay's old buddy Owney Madden. She hired some muscle, got a heavily armored car, and financed a new club. Facing such fierceness, Fay sensibly backed down. Diplomatically, he sent his former partner flowers, baubles, and, with one eye cocked on her trigger-happy associates, his good wishes for future success. Texas reciprocated with gifts—a magnanimity she could well afford from the safety of her armored car—and launched the 300 Club, her first independent venture.

The new club at 151 West 54th  Street was a smash: to be part of Broadway's status elite, you had to make the scene there. That made the club a prime target of Prohibition enforcement in the city, now under the authority of the incorruptible U.S. attorney Emory R. Buckner. In the wee hours of July 4, 1926, Buckner sent five detectives, resplendent in evening dress and squiring two policewomen disguised as Charleston flappers, to join 400 merrymakers celebrating "Bob-by Jones Night" at the club. Jones, the legendary golfer, had just returned from England, victorious in the British Open. Exhilarated from his recent triumph, Jones and another golfer, Walter Hagen, did the Charles-ton, to the zesty cheers of Texas's clubgoers.

Other luminaries from vastly different backgrounds joined the golfers, presenting a fascinating cross section of a hot night at the 300 Club. Looking across the dance floor, we see the captain of the Aquitania, the Cunard ocean liner; two U.S. senators; the former president of Cuba; and the comely—and, at 17, underage—Miss Julia Dunn, coquetting her way around tables filled with appreciative and liquored guests. At 3 AM, the disguised cops sprang. The music had to stop, the drinking cease, the frivolity end—the joint was raided. Though one drunken reveler offered to "lick the cops, one by one," others, more prudent and perhaps more sober, slipped away into the darkness.

Jones and his golfing partners beat it to other parts of town. The senators vanished. The sea captain and the former president of Cuba both escaped unscathed, perhaps on grounds of diplomatic immunity. Police charged Dunn with "objectionable dancing," though a magistrate later dismissed the case against her for insufficient evidence. The cops released Texas and her manager after her attorney posted the $1,000 bail. Unchastened, Texas went home to her 17 West 8th Street apartment, which she shared with her parents and a large crush of statuettes and bric-a-brac.

Texas reopened the 300 Club a few days later, but she was at the peak of her popularity, and law enforcement relentlessly ha-rassed her. In the early morning hours of February 16, 1927, a veritable temperance battalion of police and federal agents shattered the front door of the 300 Club, and announced a raid. Texas was used to being busted; this was the sixth time. But it was to be her crowning moment.

Clad in a garish costume, Texas sounded off as police escorted her to a waiting Black Maria: "Play the `Prisoner's Song,' " she firmly told the orchestra. To which a gruff detective wittily retorted, "Give the little girl a big handcuff." At the 47th Street police station, Texas entertained a horde of arrested guests, reporters, photographers, police, and federal agents with several renditions of the song, joined by those 300 Club patrons who hadn't yet collapsed from exhaustion. As the reporters dutifully noted the antics for breakfast consumption, the cops and feds relaxed, and everyone enjoyed the show, which lasted, off and on, for nine hours. It was sure better than chasing mobsters and dodging bullets.

Three days after her nine-hour jail stint, Texas faced another challenge: the Bible-thumping Aimee Semple McPherson had come roaring into town from Los Angeles. Their meeting has made its way into urban legend. McPherson was, like Texas, a woman of remarkable charisma and energy and a relentless self-promoter, but in every other way Guinan's exact opposite. While Texas consorted with the devil's accomplices, merrily heading to certain doom, in McPherson's eyes, the attractive evangelist had as her principal mission the reform of wayward souls.

With glamorously permed hair, a white gown, arms laden with flowers, and the scent of attar of roses trailing behind her, McPherson no sooner arrived in the devil's lair of New York than she headed for a closer look at the city's nexus of wickedness, the 300 Club. After a quick warm-up at a dark Greenwich Village dive, where the natives taught her the unholy Black Bottom dance, McPherson swept into Texas's establishment at 3 am, followed by reporters feverishly writing down her warnings about a city spiraling its way downward to fiery damnation.

Texas welcomed the unusual guest, calling for "a hand for the brave little woman." As the glamorous evangelist stood arm in arm with the bejeweled lady from Waco, how could anybody begin to calculate the vast promotional value of this historic meeting? With the club's patrons cheering wildly, Mc-Pherson addressed the room: "This is an experience such as I never had in all my life," she exclaimed. Admonishing Texas and the other revelers to look to the well-being of their immortal souls, she called it a night, graciously inviting everyone to attend her revival meeting later that day, after they'd gotten over their hangovers, presumably.

Texas and her girls didn't disappoint: on the way to another night of festivity, they showed up the next afternoon, chastely cloaked in furs, at McPherson's Glad Tidings Tabernacle on West 33rd Street. As cameras clicked, Texas and her gang joined in the prayers and hymns, and listened with apparent solemnity to the evangelist's soaring exhortations. "A marvelous woman," Texas declared, shaking hands with McPherson as the paparazzi buzzed. Then, her priorities firmly in view, Texas gathered her flock. "Come on, my chicks, let's get on to the club."

Unhappily for Texas and her "chicks," police padlocked the 300 Club for six months in 1927, which proved to be a year of climaxes for Texas Guinan and the nation. The New York Yankees won the pennant by 19 games, as Babe Ruth hit his epic 60 homers. Lindbergh flew the Atlantic nonstop. The stock market ascended, suffered a warning tremor in August, then continued its climb to the brink. In Washington, President Calvin Coolidge, a man of few words, but, in the light of coming events, a man of profound intuitions, chose not to run for reelection in 1928. As for Texas, with the decade gradually slipping away, she continued to start up club after club: Club Intime, Salon Royale, the Argonaut—one after another, the hot spots opened, only to have the police padlock each in turn.

Sometimes, when her club had quieted and closed for the night and day began to break, Texas, accompanied by her manager and a few girls, would have herself driven to a quiet Long Island beach, where she untypically relaxed for a few hours, away from the accustomed pandemonium of her ordinary life. It was a strange isolation for this driven woman; evidently there was a hidden side of her that needed tranquil hours and fresh air away from the smoke, spotlights, noise, and booze-charged gaiety. Then, the exertions of the night drained away, as her companions dropped from fatigue, she went home to Greenwich Village to her mom and dad and her plethora of gewgaws. And to sleep until the all-night tempests began again.

But now Texas's day of reckoning was at hand. Not Aimee McPherson's kind of reckoning, perhaps, but a more mundane kind, involving teetering banks, plummeting stock values, and growing breadlines, would bring Texas down. She proved no more impervious to the coming disaster than did the rest of the nation.

But before the stock market crash, she had already lost her touch. She produced a mediocre burlesque, The Padlocks of 1927, impressing neither critics nor public. Then she starred in an unmemorable film, The Queen of the Nightclubs, which also flopped. Nor was Walter Win-chell's movie, Broadway Through a Keyhole, with Texas again playing a nightclub hostess, any more successful. Though she continued to fence with the law in each of her clubs, the crowds began to thin, the headlines grew less frequent. For Texas and the country, what historian Paul Johnson called the last Arcadia of the twenties was coming to a close.

On October 24, 1929, after several warning spasms, the stock market crashed, wrenching the lives of most Americans. With the ensuing bankruptcies and spiraling unemployment, Texas and her underworld cohorts were in trouble. As former business executives sold apples on street corners, wallets once bulging with money for illegal booze and demimonde high life were now thin and empty.

Texas did her best to keep the good times rolling. As she quipped: "An indiscretion a day keeps the Depression away." In 1931, she briefly returned to the front pages when she took her troupe to France and was summarily sent packing by the French government. Not that the land of the Follies Bergère objected to Texas's immorality. It was just that she was competing with French performers during economic hard times, so the ever-practical French would have none of her. Texas seethed: "There's no more liberty here than in Russia. I understand why the French shipped the Statue of Liberty to New York—they don't need her anymore." Still, she took advantage of the French fiasco, organizing a touring revue with the provocative title Too Hot for Paris, but de-spite the occasional ban, there was something depressingly passé about her. As great social and political storm clouds darkened the future, the country had more pressing concerns.

A shrewd woman, Texas realized the only way to stay economically viable was to keep moving, to tour from city to city, to rely on novelty. Once again, her career coming full circle, she was a touring vaga-bond. But the frenetic pace of life on the road, and no doubt her many years of late-night revels, finally caught up with Texas Guinan. In Vancouver in 1933, she suffered an attack of ulcerated colitis. After unsuccessful emergency surgery, a Catholic priest gave her last rites, and she died, at the age of 49, on November 5, 1933, a long way from Waco.

As Texas died, so did Prohibition, repealed exactly one month after the woman who benefited so much from it passed away. And a little over three weeks later, on New Year's Day, 1934, Larry Fay met a hail of bullets outside his Club Casablanca. Broke and in hock, the once powerful Fay made an unwise decision that not even his swastika good-luck charm could protect him from: he cut his doorman's pay by $40. The disgruntled em-ployee had had enough, and shot his boss dead.

"The funeral I want is a nightclub wake, a motorcycle escort, and college boys singing songs to the cemetery," Texas once joked in one of her clubs. While Texas's final send-off wasn't quite so spectacular, she un-doubtedly would have been pleased. Twelve thousand turned out to view her body, and show-business pals filled Frank Campbell's Funeral Chapel in New York with flowers. Movie cameras recorded it all. The New York Herald Tribune editorialized: "She was a master showman, and accomplished psychologist. . . . She had 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."

As Texas lay on her deathbed in Vancouver, she said, "I would rather have a square inch of New York than all the rest of the world." She meant it, for it was New York that gave Mary Louise Cecilia the kind of life she wanted. And her life in turn has become part of the city's storied past. It was a lot of fun, while it lasted.

 

 


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