Joe Bruno on the Mob – Texas Guinan
Texas Guinan — “Queen of the Nightclubs”
She was a cowgirl who could shoot a gun with the best of them, a singer of sorts, a better actress than a singer, and a gal-pal of the biggest and meanest mobsters of her time. Thanks to her underworld connections, Texas Guinan will always be known as the “Queen of the Nightclubs.”
Mary Louise Cecilia “Texas” Guinan was born on January 12, 1884, in Waco, Texas. She was the daughter of Irish-Canadian immigrants Michael and Bessie (née Duffy) Guinan. Called “Mamie” at the time, Guinan attended Loretta Convent Catholic School and she sang in the church choir. When she was 16, her parents moved to a ranch in Denver, Colorado. It was on her father’s ranch where Guinan learned how to ride, rope, and tame wild horses.
A year after she her family arrived in Denver, Guinan won a scholarship to the School of the Dramatic Arts in Chicago, where she studied for the next two years. When she returned home, Guinan graduated from the illustrious Hollins School for Girls.
But as much as she loved singing and dancing, Guinan was enamored with the Wild West Shows that frequently appeared in the Denver area. Practicing at her father’s farm and at local shooting ranges, Guinan became an expert with a six shooter. Soon, Guinan was appearing in Wild West Shows, and in rodeos which were then called “roundups.” In 1904, while she was staring in a Wild West Show in Denver, Guinan met and married John J. Moynahan, a newspaper artist of very little note. That marriage lasted five years, and it ended when Moynahan took a newspaper job in Boston, and Guinan relocated to New York City to begin, albeit slowly at first, her unparalleled career.
When she arrived in New York City, Guinan was nearly broke. She lived in a seedy two-dollar-a- week hotel in Washington Square and spent her daylight hours scouring the officers of casting agents looking for work.
During her marriage to Moynahan, Guinan had learned the art of illustrating to add to her many talents. That came in handy, when one day as she was window-shopping in Manhattan, Guinan spotted a Great Arrow automobile in a car dealership display window, which sold for the astronomical sum of $4500. At that time there were only 8000 cars built in the entire United States of America. Guinan empties her pockets and came up with enough loose change to buy paper and a few pencils. Then she set out to sketch the Great Arrow, and when she was finished, Guinan was able to sell the illustration to an advertising agency for the fancy sum of $500, more money than most people made in a year in those days.
With her newfound cash, Guinan upgraded her digs, and was able to persuade a theatrical agent to take her on as a client. Almost immediately, Guinan got a part in a play entitled The Snow Man. Her performance in The Snow Man was so critically acclaimed, Guinan caught the eye of Charles Dana Gibson, who immortalized his “Gibson Girls” pen and ink drawings of what Gibson thought was the “perfect woman.” Gibson, highlighting the five-foot-six-inch Guinan’s hourglass figure and long shapely legs, sketched several drawings of Guinan. Guinan used these drawings as a springboard to a Broadway career where she appeared on stage, and sometimes in a basket above the stage, singing such inane ditties as “Pansies Always Bring Thoughts of You.”
Guinan was now a star on Broadway, and she also appeared in several in Vaudeville shows, showcasing her shapely figure and somewhat interesting singing talents. Her most famous gig was when she was one of the stars in the 1913 Shubert Brother’s Broadway extravaganza “Passing Show,” which also starred Willie and Eugen Howard, Trixie Friganza and Charlotte Greenwood.
Due to her success in the “Passing Show,” Guinan was approached by an enterprising weight-loss promoter. Eager to make a buck any way she could, Guinan allowed the weight loss promoter, who ran ads in Variety offering a “Marvelous New Treatment for Fat Folks,” to use her shapely body in an ad in which Guinan stated, “I was made a star of the Passing Show on account of my glorious figure… and mind you, I was doomed to oblivion just a short time before when I tipped the scales at 204 pounds.”
That was a slight fib, since Guinan never weighed more than 136 pounds in her entire life.
While Guinan was basking in the limelight of Broadway, out west in Hollywood a new phenomenon was taking place. It was called the cowboy movie, and its biggest star was William S. Hart, known as the “King of the Cowboys.” Because of her unique abilities, Guinan was the perfect woman to segue into cowboy movies.
“I could twirl a lariat, rope a steer, ride, shoot and beat any tobacco-chewin’ cowpoke,” Guinan said.
Guinan’s big break came when she was performing at the Winter Garden Theater.
“We poor girls were always looking for some new stunt whereby to distinguish ourselves,” Guinan said. “So when I asked the manager (of the Winter Garden) if I might ride a horse down the runway instead of merely dancing down, he said ‘All right if you don’t kill too many customers.’ I admit most of them got under their seats when they saw me ride my snow-white charger thundering down the runway above their heads, all dressed up in black lace chaps and swinging a lariat. After the show, the movie man signed me up for a two-reel western. And what a time I had.”
The movie, which was released in 1917, was called The Wildcat. At that time, it was one and done for Guinan as a cowgirl in movies, so after the shooting of The Wildcat, Guinan traveled back to New York City and began appearing again in Vaudeville.
However, Harry Aitken, who owned the Triangle Film Corporation in Yonkers, saw potential in Guinan to become the female William S. Hart. It’s not clear who approached who about the idea, but in 1917, Aitken signed Guinan to do a series of two-reel cowboy movies. In October and November of 1917, Guinan stared in three cowboy movies: Get Away Kate, Fuel of Life and The Stainless Barrier. Guinan followed in 1918 with The Gun Woman, The Love Brokers and The Hellcat.
Over the next several years, Guinan stared in 36 westerns (she said it was over 300, but Guinan was known to exaggerate), and was called in Hollywood the “Queen of the Cowgirls,” as well as the “Female William S. Hart.”
When Prohibition became law, Guinan saw the opportunity to get out of “kissing horses in horse operas.” She went back to New York City, and in 1923 Guinan got a job as
as Mistress of Ceremonies at the Beaux Arts, a popular (illegal) nightclub. A few weeks later, the Knickerbocker Hotel hired Guinan to be the Master of Ceremony at at the hotel’s King Cole Room. Frequent guests there were such thespians as Rudolph Valentino and John Barrymore.
Guinan decided with her new career, she need a complete physical makeover. Casting off her cowgirl image, Guinan dyed her brunette hair to a radiant blond. She also started wearing clusters of diamonds, and low-cut dresses, with a Stetson hat haughtily perched on top of her new blond hair. At the King Cole Room, Guinan sang her whole repertoire of songs, with much gusto, if not with great vocal talent.
One of the men who caught Guinan’s act at the King Cole Room was ex-con Larry Fey. Fey was a small-time criminal with 40 arrests on his record, mostly for minor offenses. Fey operated a cab business and all his cabs were decorated with swastikas, not because he was a proponent of the Nazi party, but because he won a ton of money betting on a long-shot horse named Scotch Verdict, whose blanket carried the swastika, which was not yet associated with the Nazi Party. Fey was so enamored with the swastika, he placed the symbol not only on his cabs, but also on his shirts, luggage and other personal belongings.
So successful was Fey with his cab company, he tried to list it on the American Stock Exchange, which was then known as the Curb Exchange. However, due to his criminal record, the Curb Exchange turned Fey down flat. So Fey decided to use his cabs for a new branch of his business. As an exploratory trip, Fey traveled to the Canadian boarder in one of his cabs. When he got there, Fey loaded up his cab with illegal booze, and brought it back to New York City, to serve in one of the several dive speakeasies he was involved in with known gangsters. Realizing he had hit paydirt with his new idea, Fey then used fleets of his cabs to run booze back and forth from the Canadian boarder to New York City.
Because of his involvement with illegal rum-running during Prohibition, Fey was real tight with celebrity gangsters like Owney Madden and Frenchy Demange, who were partners in the upscale Cotton Club in Harlem. Fey, his pockets now brimming with cash, wanted an upscale nightclub (speakeasy) of his own. And in Texas Guinan, Fey saw his meal ticket to success. Fey took Guinan in as a partner (along with Maddon and DeMange), and they opened a nightclub with the uninspired name of El Fey.
Fey was the man behind the scenes with the money, but Guinan was the upfront star of the show. She sat in the middle of the main room on a tall chair and greeted every customer with her customary “Hello Sucker!” In her hand Guinan held a clapper, or a noisemaker, and sometimes a police whistle, which she was not adverse to using. Before, after, and sometimes during the floor show, Guinan would engage her customers with wisecracks, and sometimes, downright insults. But it was all in good fun. One of her customers once said, Guinan was “Never at a loss for a retort discourteous. It was her custom to encourage heckling rather than frown on it.”
Guinan coined the term “butter and eggs man” for her rich customers, and she often said when someone had too much to drink, that “a man could get real hurt falling off a bar stool.”
For her stage shows, Guinan employed 40 scantily-clad young ladies, performing in groups, and sometimes individually; singing and dancing and doing other things who some might consider illegal. (A policeman, who raided the joint, once held a 4-by-6-inch piece of cloth that was one of Guinan’s dancer’s entire outfit.) The stage was so tiny, when the 40-girl chorus line went into full leg-kicking mode during an especially festive song, the girls sometimes fell into the laps of the well-healed customers, some legitimate businessmen, so not so legitimate.
“It’s not my girl’s fault,” Guinan once told the police, who said her girls were intentionally sexually engaging the customers. “It’s because the place is so crowded, my girls have no place to go.”
Whenever one of her girls finished a solo performance, Guinan always bellowed to the crowd, “Give the little lady a great big hand.”
One day, an enterprising Prohibition Agent infiltrated the premises, and he saw a waiter selling a bottle of Scotch to a customer. The agent immediately jumped to his feet and yelled at one of his cohorts in the crowd concerning Guinan to “Give the little lady a great big handcuff.”
When El Fey was raided, and it happened quite often, Guinan, as she was being led from the premises by the police, would tell her band to play “The Prisoner’s Song,” as she made her grand exit in handcuffs.
When the joint was jumping, and it was every night, Guinan would yell to the crowd, “Thank the Lord for Prohibition!”
The crowd would yell back, “Why Tex?”
She smiled, “Because I would be out of a job without it.”
Speaking of Prohibition, at the time it was estimated there were 32,000 speakeasies in New York City. And El Fey was one of the most expensive. Even though Guinan swore she didn’t sell illegal alcohol on the premises, and she also swore she never took a drink in her life (which was the truth), a bottle of whatever booze you liked cost $25 at the El Fey. And if you brought in your own libation, setups cost five bucks a person. Not too shabby.
After one too many busts, El Fey closed it doors for good. Or more correctly, the police paddocked El Fey for good. So Fey and Guinan moseyed down just two blocks away from El Fey and opened the Del Fey Club. Soon, Guinan was “packing them in like sardines” again.
However, the law not being as stupid as Guinan and Fey thought they were, closed down the Del Fey Club in a matter of weeks. The New York Times wrote: “After Federal agents, fortified with writs and warrants, hauled her into court … the indefatigable hostess moved into the Texas Guinan Club at 117 West Forty-eight Street …. and her coterie willingly followed…”
The Texas Guinan Club was such a success, Hollywood, in the name of Paramount Pictures honcho B.P. Schulberg, summoned Guinan again; this time to star as herself in the 1924 picture Night Life in New York. Her co-stars included Rod LaRocque, Ernest Torrence, Dorothy Gish, Helen Lee Worthing, and George Hackethorne. The title editor was ex-husband number 2, Julian Johnson.
Night Life in New York opened at the Rivoli Theatre in New York City on July 12, 1924, the same week the prohibition agents and the local police shut down more than 30 New York City speakeasies, one of which was the Texas Guinan Club. Guinan herself was arrested at her club, put in handcuffs, and led from the premises, as the band again played The Prisoner’s Song.
On August 4th, 1924, Guinan and her lawyer Harold Content met with Assistant United States Attorney Frederic C, Bellinger. Guinan insisted that she was not aware than any liquor was being sold in her club, and that in fact, she was only an employee of Larry Fey anyway, and should not be held responsible for anything illegal that transpired at the club. Fey also appeared before Bellinger and basically confirmed what Guinan had said. Guinan worked for him, Fey said, and in no way did she have any real ownership in the Texas Guinan Club. Bellinger refused to press charges against Guinan and he gave Fey a slap on the wrist by forcing him to close down the Texas Guinan Club for six months.
Unfazed, Guinan and Fey hightailed it down to Miami, where in weeks they opened the Miami Del Fey Club. Guinan went immediately to work, taking a little time off to divorce her third husband George Townley. Guinan explained why she was a 3-time failure at marriage, “It’s having the same man around the house all the time that ruins matrimony.”
(Editors note: In Jimmy Breslin’s biography of Damon Runyon, Breslin stated that Guinan was “a big loud lesbian.” I have trouble believing a woman married and divorced three times could be a lesbian. Possible. But not likely. However, since Breslin was around in those days, and I wasn’t, I’ll give Breslin the benefit of the doubt.)
News of Guinan and Fey’s new venture traveled fast up north, and the New York Times wrote, “Striking the high mark of the Florida real estate boom, their venture was a bonanza. The profits were enormous. So conspicuous was the Guinan-Fey success that both were hounded by real estate brokers, hoping for a quick turn over. Miss Guinan had an answer that repulsed all advances. She said ‘Listen suckers. You take them by the sun. I take then by the moon. Now, let’s don’t interfere with each others business.’”
For some reason, Fey and Guinan had a fallout in Miami. Fey stood in Miami while Guinan packed her bags and headed for New York City, where she opened her own 300 Club at 151 West 54th Street. Fey was not amused, nor was he very happy about the split, because the fact was Guinan was his meal ticket to success. As a result, in New York City, Guinan bought herself a bullet-proof sedan and hired a slew of gangster bodyguards, just in case. Knowing Guinan had as many friends in the underworld as he did (Lucky Luciano, Frank Costello and Owney Maddon included), Fey backed down from any planned aggression against Guinan, and instead sent her flowers and a few diamond to sooth over the misunderstanding. Guinan replied in kind.
On New Year Day, 1933, Fey was shot to death by one of his employees, after Fey announced to the employee that he had to take a pay cut.
On February 16, 1927, Guinan’s 300 Club was raided by federal agents and the New York City police. Guinan spent 9 hours in custody at the 47th Street police station before bail could be arranged. It was Guinan’s sixth arrest, but the only time she had spent more than a few minutes in the slammer.
However, Guinan, the quintessential entertainer, made the most of her predicament. Without prompting from anyone, Guinan went into full entertaining-mode. To the astonishment and pleasure of the other arrested party-goers, reporters, photographers, and even the police and federal agents, Guinan sang her entire repertoire of songs to the crowd for the entire nine hours of her stay. No one said, or did a word to stop her. And when Guinan was finally released from jail, she left to resounding applause. Even the lawmen were clapping.
Three days after Guinan’s jail ordeal, famed evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson made her grand entrance into Guinan’s 300 Club. McPherson was vehemently against drinking and carousing, and when she arrived at the 300 Club most people thought trouble was a-brewing. But nothing could have been further from the truth. Guinan immediately diffused the situation. She introduced McPherson to the crowd, saying, “Let’s give a big hand for the brave little woman.”
McPherson, a charmer herself, addressed the room by saying, “This is an experience such as I never had in all my life.” Then she admonished Guinan and all the other party-goers in attendance, by saying their behavior was not good for the well being of their souls. Then before she left the premises in the wee hours of the morning, McPherson invited everyone to attend her revival meeting later that same day.
Guinan took that invitation seriously, and just a few hours later, Guinan and a dozen or so of her dancing girls, dressed to the nines in fur and diamonds, arrived at McPherson’s Glad Tidings Tabernacle on West 33rd Street. The newspapers had been tipped off about Guinan’s arrival, and as the photographers snapped away, Guinan shook hands with McPherson and told the crown that McPherson was “a marvelous woman.” Finished with the compliments, Guinan barked at her girls, “Come on, my chicks, let’s get on to the club.”
Over the next several years, Guinan opened and closed several night clubs, or to be more exact, the feds and the police closed them for her. These clubs included Club Intime, Salon Royale, and the Argonaut, which was the last nightclub Guinan owned.
In 1927, while the feds had closed down Salon Royale for six months, Guinan decided to use her free time to produce and star in a Broadway review called called The Padlocks of 1927, which was little more than an extension of the stage shows she put on at her nightclubs. While Guinan belted out her best songs to the crowd, Guinan’s girls danced and caroused on stage wearing padlock belts, but little else. Sadly, the show was a huge flop so Guinan went back to Hollywood and stared in an all-talking movie called Queen of the Night Clubs. But alas, that movie flopped as bad as The Padlocks of 1927 had on Broadway, so Guinan was back to square number one.
In 1930, Guinan was still trying to make a go of it at the Argonaut. But the Depression had hit New York City hard and the Prohibition agents were intent on closing every visible speakeasy in town. And Guinan’s was the most vis1ble. With profits dwindling and the feds breathing down her neck, Guinan’s manager John Stein convinced Guinan to close down the Argonaut, before the feds did it for her, and take her show across the pond to Europe.
Guinan and 40 of her girls, and a jazz band for accompaniment, boarded the French liner Paris. Her first destination was London, England, but while the Paris was still out at sea, Scotland Yard detectives notified Guinan that her and her crew were not welcome in England. For some reason, Guinan’s name was on a Scotland Yard list of “barred aliens.” The British government also felt, that because of the depression that had stretched to Europe, their own entertainers would lose work if Guinan and her scantily glad girls were allowed to perform there.
Guinan was indignant. She issued a statement to British reporters that said, “I will gladly give a check for a hundred thousand dollars to any charity if anyone can substantiate statements made against my character. What has England against me? My parents were born n England.”
Her parents were actually born in Ireland, but as usual, Guinan did not always have the best relationship with the truth.
However, the British would not budge, so Guinan and her crew continued on to Havre, France. When the ship arrived in Havre, it was immediately boarded by French special police. They examined the Guinan gang’s passports, and said that the Guinan gang must stay on the ship until it returned to New York City. The reason given was “that instead of obtaining visas required of entertainers, who intended to exercise their profession in France, the ‘Guinan gang’ had come equipped only with tourist authorization.”
Yet the real reason for the French government’s refusal to let the “Guinan Gang” on their shores was stated in a Paris newspaper, which wrote, “The French Syndicate of Entertainers have been protesting to Premier Pierre Laval against the employment of foreigners … and this circumstance may have actuated the special decree.”
Guinan again was livid at being refused entrance to a European city. “I have been turned back at the frontier for reasons which are vague, even in the minds of Frenchmen,” she told French reporters. “I am an American citizen and I have never been convicted of a crime (Which was true. She was arrested many times, but never convicted). There is no scandal about me and my passport is O.K.!”
Still the French would not budge, and although Guinan’s gang was allowed off the ship to see the sights, they were not able to perform their show.
On June 3, 1930, Guinan’s gang was ordered to travel back to New York City on the Paris. Guinan had already spend $50,000 for the trip to Europe, and was destined to spend the same amount of money to get back to America,. But as a bone to Guinan, the French Lines agreed to take Guinan’s gang back to America, in first-class accommodations, at no charge.
As she boarded the ship to leave France, Guinan told French reporters, “I was a sucker to come 3000 miles to go to jail, when every jail in America is waiting for me.” Then she winked at the reporters and said, “But – you know – an indiscretion a day keeps depression away.”
Guinan returned back to New York on June 9th, and immediately started arranging her new venture – a Broadway review called Too Hot for Paris.”
Within weeks, Too Hot For Paris was such a success, Guinan decided to take her show on the road for a one-year engagement. The tour, which was sponsored by the Orchestra Corporation of America, booked 200 one-and-two night stops in cities and towns across America.
“This show can be set up on a prairie if need be,” Guinan told the press. “We even carry our own applause.”
The show, originally scheduled to travel only a year, was still going strong into 1933. Guinan even implemented some of her wild west routines into the show, which went over big in places like Texas, Colorado, and Nevada. Guinan interrupted her trip only to head to Hollywood in early 1933 to star in her last movie, Broadway Through a Keyhole, which stared Paul Kelly, singer Russ Columbo, Eddie Foy Jr., and Constance Cummings. The screenplay was written by syndicated columnist and radio commentator Walter Winchell, who had been a frequent visitor at many of Guinan’s nightclubs.
Broadway Through a Keyhole opened at the Rivoli Theatre on November, 1, 1933, but Guinan was not there to see the opening. Instead, Guinan’s gang had embarked on a grueling tour of the Pacific Northwest. In Oregon, Guinan suddenly became ill, but she sucked it up and continued on the tour to Vancouver, British Columbia.
On the night of October 30, 1933, Guinan played to a packed house. But immediately after the show, Guinan was in such horrible pain, she was rushed to the Vancouver General Hospital. There Guinan was told the bad news by Dr. MacLachlan that she had amoebic dysentery and that an immediate operation was necessary to save her life. Guinan was in such horrible pain, she told the doctor she was willing to die, if only to stop the pain. And she re-iterated to the doctor what she said many times in court — that she had never touched a drop of alcohol in her life.
On November 4, before she was wheeled into the operating room, Guinan received the last rights from the Reverend Louis Forget of St. Patrick’s Church. Then she told her advance man Eddie Baker that if she died, to return her body to New York. “I rather have a square inch of New York City than the rest of the world,” she told Baker.
Texas Guinan died at eight a.m. the next morning at the age of 49.
On November 11, Guinan’s body returned to New York City. She was taken to the Campbell Funeral Church on Broadway between 66th and 67th Street. In a single afternoon, more than 12,000 people viewed Guinan’s body.
The New York Times wrote, “Miss Guinan’s body was dressed in a white chiffon sequin gown – she had been partial to sequins. In her left hand was a rosary and upon the third finger a large diamond. Another diamond of comparable size was upon the little finger of her right hand. Around her neck was a diamond pendant. Part of the silver-colored coffin was covered with orchids.”
The following day, more than 7500 people gathered in front of the Campbell Funeral Church for Guinan’s funeral. But only a few hundred people with admittance cards were allowed inside the chapel.
After the funeral ceremony, Guinan’s body was driven to the Gates of Heaven Cemetery, in White Plains, New York. The police estimated than more than 500 cars joined in the funeral procession.
On December 5th, 1933, one month to the day after Guinan’s death, Prohibition was repealed.