Blond blizzard from Waco was queen of Roaring ’20s
Being a good Waco boy in my growingup years, I never greeted anybody that way, and, as far as I know, was never greeted that way myself. In the early decades of the 20th century, though, a fellow Wacoan who called herself Texas Guinan made “Hello, sucker” her trademark, and her good-natured jibe made her the toast of Prohibition-era New York City. Leo Trachtenberg, writing in a 1998 issue of City Journal, maintained that the wisecracking woman from Waco was as much a symbol of her era as Lucky Lindy, Babe Ruth and Silent Cal.
Why Texas Guinan this week? Maybe it’s everything we went through last week, last month, last year. I was looking for something different, and Guinan was certainly that. She was the quintessential blond blizzard.
She was born Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan — pronounced GUY-nun — in either 1883 or 1884, on a farm outside Waco. Known as Mamie as a child, she was educated at the Sisters of Sacred Heart Convent in Waco, where she was “wild as a hare,” a classmate recalled for a Waco
newspaper. “She kept things pretty lively for us and the Sisters …”
Dismissing Waco as a “sucker town,” Guinan ran away from home at 14 to perform in a circus Wild West act. She also starred in a couple of silent Westerns made in New York before World War I. In Hollywood, she produced more than 30 two-reelers of her own, usually featuring her astride a galloping horse firing a six-shooter at the bad guys.
Early in her career, Wacoans were impressed. On April 13, 1912, Miss Birdie Duer Horn of Herring Avenue reported on the society page of the Waco Morning News that she had received a letter from a friend in Los Angeles, who reported that “Miss Mamie Guinan, who lived on North Fourth Street when a small girl … has developed into a magnificent young woman. She has chosen the stage for her profession and has just played a star engagement in Los Angeles.”
Allegedly — and almost everything you write about Guinan has to include “allegedly” — she got her start as Manhattan’s marvelous nightclub maven a few years later, when her Hollywood career stalled. Invited to a stuffy party at the club connected to the Beaux Arts Hotel on West 35th Street, and still “wild as a hare,” she took it upon herself to liven things up by singing, dancing, telling jokes and leading partygoers in a sing-along. The club owner immediately hired her to liven things up every night. Thus, at 39, a star was born. As New York’s first female mistress of ceremonies, she helped put the roar in the Roaring ’20s.
Not long afterward, she transformed a Manhattan warehouse into a nightclub, with the backing of a mob boss she had met named Larry Fay. Worth an estimated $5 million in 1924, Fay was known around town for organizing the first taxi-club monopoly in New York City, while making millions as a big-time bootlegger and nightclub owner.
Guinan herself was allegedly a teetotaler and lived in a Greenwich Village apartment with her parents, her brother and a number of pets. She married and divorced at least three times. “It’s having the same man around the house all the time that ruins matrimony,” she observed.
Fay’s investment in Guinan paid off, until a machine gun-toting mobster filled him full of holes. Until that sad demise, his fellow mobsters rubbed shoulders in Guinan’s smoky speakeasies with movie stars, millionaires and society swells. Her clientele happily paid a steep cover charge to guzzle bootleg rum at $25 a bottle, ogle the pretty girls and eagerly anticipate the next teasing bon mot from the blond, bejeweled “female P.T. Barnum and Mae West seductress rolled into one,” to quote the writer Leslie Zemeckis.
“You may be all the world to your mother, but you’re just a cover charge to me,” she liked to say, perched on a stool at the center of it all. She soon owned her own club — or succession of clubs, since the cops were frequent, uninvited visitors.
Bursting in and gathering up liquor bottles hastily stashed under tables, the law would padlock the place and haul the wisecracking Guinan to a paddy wagon outside, while her band played “The Prisoner’s Song.” The next morning she’d buy the cops breakfast at the Waldorf Hotel, and the next week or the next month, she would open up another club under a different name at a different address. Those in the know knew that the El Fey Club or the Del Fey Club or the Club Argonaut or the Club Intime or the 300 Club were Texas Guinan’s.
“Her father often sat in her clubs enjoying his raucous daughter’s performance while her mother sat with a glass of milk,” Zemeckis writes. “She read voraciously while incense burned in her beloved home. She claimed not to eat meat and favored wearing red stockings.”
In the spring of 1933, Guinan was in Chicago, where she was held up by three ruffians outside the hotel where she was staying. They got away with jewelry, a fur coat and a scarf worth a total of $40,000.
“The fellow in the back was a youngster,” she told police. “I said, ‘I’ll give you $1,000 if you leave my stuff.’
“He said, ‘I’ll give you two minutes to peel off them rocks and furs before I blow your head off. I ought to get an autograph too.’
“I said, ‘Well, I guess I’m the sucker today.’”
That same year, Guinan organized a troupe of 33 dancing girls and musicians and sailed for Paris. Her reputation arrived first. Authorities refused to let the group off the boat. After a “melancholy five days spent in a detention hotel in Havre, France,” the New York Times reported, she gave up and sailed home.
“The reason for the unexpected bar to her entry was not quite clear,” the Times noted, “except that Miss Guinan said that scores of club and restaurant owners in Paris had petitioned the government to exclude her on the ground that she would undoubtedly take away all the night-life trade in Paris.”
Also, French customs agents found “a set of fierce looking bowieknifes” in her baggage.
“What do you do with these knives?” an agent asked.
“I throw them at the girls,” Guinan replied. Back home, she toured the country with her show, “Too Hot for Paris.” She told the Times the abortive trip cost her $50,000 and that she intended to recoup her loss by suing the French government.
She didn’t live long enough to sue France. On Nov. 5, 1933, she died in Vancouver, British Columbia, of ulcerated colitis. She was 49. A month after her death, Prohibition was repealed.
In his City Journal article, Trachtenberg quoted from a New York Herald Tribune editorial noting that Guinan was both a master showman and an accomplished psychologist. “She had ability too,” the newspaper observed, “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.”
More than 12,000 people showed up at Frank Campbell’s Funeral Chapel on Broadway to see her off. Wearing a white beaded chiffon dress, a diamond ring and a necklace, a spray of faux orchids pinned to her shoulder, she was laid to rest in a silver coffin.
She was a long way from Waco.