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Texas Guinan

by Luke Warm

She may have been Waco's Answer to Mae West -
but no one remembers the question.
"I would rather have a square inch of New York
than all the rest of the world." - Texas Guinan

She was born Mary Louise Cecilia "on a ranch near Waco," and her birth year was supposedly 1884 although she adjusted it frequently. He parents were both Irish immigrants who had met in Colorado. Educated at the Loretta Convent in Waco, she claimed that she once climbed the church steeple to remove the bell clapper. Which, for those who haven't tried it, is a pretty neat trick.

She claimed a lot of things. She said she had ridden in "round-ups" (which was what they were calling rodeos back then) and that claim and her obvious skill with a gun were probably true. One biographer says that she practiced her marksmanship at the shooting gallery next to the Katy depot at Waco. She would later say that she received a medal for entertaining the troops in WWI - when in truth she never left the U.S. during those years.

Known for a short time as Mamie, she closely studied Lillian Russell and Mae West. And while all three women could sing and act, only Texas could ride a horse (named "Pieface") and shoot. Her self-assurance was legendary which made her a natural for the embryonic movie industry. She was called by some "the female William S. Hart" and for those that can conjure up an image of "Bill" Hart, they know it wasn't much of a complement.

Texas went to New York City but didn't stay at first. Instead she took a ten-year trip on the Vaudeville circuit, honing her one-liners and wisecracks before returning to NYC. Her first marriage with a newspaper cartoonist lasted just five years. Later husbands included another newsman and an actor. She explained her marriage philosophy with the line: "It's having the same man around the house all the time that ruins matrimony."

There was a brief "scandal" involving a weight loss advertisement that used her figure as a successful "after" photo. The ad referred to her as "God's Masterpiece" and although she never weighed more than 136 lbs.(she was 5'6") the ad had her saying she had been 204 pounds before using the product.

With the arrival of Prohibition in 1920, she saw a chance at getting out of "kissing horses in horse operas" and went to work as Mistress of Ceremonies at the Beaux Arts, a popular nightclub. Soon the Knickerbocker Hotel hired her to MC the show at the hotel's King Cole Room. Frequent guests there were Rudolph Valentino and John Barrymore.

She became a blonde and started wearing diamonds and sequined gowns (with Stetson hats). Before long she opened a nightclub in partnership with an ex-cabbie and part-time hood named Larry Fay. Their club became a hangout for people wanting to see and be seen and those wanting to rub elbows with or grease the palms of influential people. Even with the rather unimaginative name of El Fay, the place was packed.

Mayor Jimmy Walker, Ring Larder, Damon Runyon and Heywood Broun (who later served as one of her pallbearers) were seen frequently. Tom Mix and George Raft showed up and columnists Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan took notes at the club almost every night.

Texas, with her police whistle and her oversized hats didn't greet patrons as much as she insulted them. Since it was part of the act they all took it with smiles on their faces. "Hello sucker!" was her trademark greeting, but she's also credited with inventing the phrase "Give the little girl a great big hand" and the term "Big Butter and Egg Man" which George S. Kaufman used as the title of one of his plays.

Busted for the sake of propriety, Texas was never convicted of violations although she was present during at least one shooting. She claimed she was on stage and never heard a thing. Her longest stint in jail was nine hours, which was actually little more than an autograph signing party for the precinct cops. "I like your cute little jail" was a memorable line for years until 1960s stripper Candy Barr (sent to Huntsville) upstaged her with "I've always wanted to live in a brick house."

After splitting with partner Fay (and promptly buying an armor-plated car) Texas shared an apartment with her parents in Washington Square. She was a good girl from Waco - what did you expect?

When Aimee Semple McPherson, the famous Evangelist (with Marcelled hair) from Los Angeles visited New York, she insisted on visiting Texas' club.

Texas welcomed McPherson and the two formed a sort of mutual admiration society. It was a promotional dream - just two Irish girls in different types of show business. Aimee thanked Texas and invited her to her Glad Tidings Tabernacle the next day. Texas and her chorus girls showed up (before going to work) surprising everyone.

The police padlocked her club for a whole six months in 1927 and she turned it into a stage production called Padlocks of 1927 with her chorus line wearing padlock belts (and little else). It was a flop.

But the Great Depression hit and the crowds disappeared overnight.

She took her troupe to England and France but England wouldn't let them disembark since she was on their list of "barred aliens." France didn't want American acts competing with the Follies Bergère since times were hard in Europe too.

Texas laughed it off saying, "It all goes to show that 50 million Frenchman could be wrong." The steamship line allowed them to return to the U.S. at a reduced rate. She attempted to use this French incident to her advantage to launch a show called Too Hot for Paris, but it too flopped.

She returned to touring but in Vancouver in 1933, she was hit with an attack of amoebic dysentery and a perforated bowel after emergency surgery. She died on November 5, 1933 at the age of 49, but not before saying "I would rather have a square inch of New York than all the rest of the world."

Ironically, Prohibition was repealed one month to the day after her death. Twelve thousand people filed by her coffin at the same funeral chapel that had held Rudolph Valentino's services. She wore her sequined gown and large diamonds (which her family removed before closing the casket) and was buried in White Plains, New York. Bandleader Paul Whiteman was a pallbearer as well as two of her former lawyers and writer Heywood Broun.

After her death her possessions were auctioned off for pennies on the dollar. Jeweled cigarette cases went for seventy-five cents to a few dollars and her bullet-proof car was purchased by a Pennsylvania coal mine owner for his daughter for only $800.

Although her name doesn't carry the weight that it did, in recent years the bartender character on Star Trek TNG (Whoopie Goldberg) was named "Guinan" after Texas.

© John Troesser
"They shoe horses, don't they?" March 25, 2004 Column
Texas Guinan: Queen of the Nightclubs by Louise Berliner
Hello, Sucker: The Story of Texas Guinan by Glenn Shirley, Eakin Press, 1989
The Handbook of Texas Online
Damon Runyon: A Life by Jimmy Breslin, Dell Publishing, 1991

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