Guinan, Texas (1884–1933)

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Guinan, Texas (1884–1933)

American star of vaudeville and silent films until the Roaring '20s, when Prohibition cast her as reigning queen of New York City nightclubs, where her outsized personality and heart took in everyone within reach. Name variations: Mary Louise Cecelia Guinan; Mayme Guinan; Marie Guinan. Pronunciation: GUYnan. Born Mary Louise Cecelia Guinan on January 12, 1884, in Waco, Texas; died on November 5, 1933, after intestinal surgery, in Vancouver, British Columbia; daughter of Michael Guinan and Bridget "Bessie" Duffy Guinan; married John J. Moynahan, on December 2, 1904; no children.

Appeared on the Broadway stage and in vaudeville (1909–17, 1929–33); appeared in at least 37 films (1917–33); hosted several New York City nightclubs (1923–29).


Fuel of Life (1917); The Gun Woman (1918); The Heart of Texas (1919); Little Miss Deputy (1919); South of Santa Fe (1919); Girl of the Rancho (1920); The Lady of the Law (1920); Outwitted (1920); The Code of the West (1921); Queen of the Night Clubs (1929); Broadway Thru a Keyhole (1933).

"Hello, Suckers!" The excitement was palpable. It was one o'clock in the morning, and the restless crowd had been waiting for hours. Now, Texas Guinan, the loud, brassy, maternal (and always sober) queen of the night clubs, took her seat on the stage; the real party was about to start.

Texas Guinan's life in New York City—breakfast at midnight, up until dawn in the Prohibition-era night spots—could hardly have been imagined by her forebears. Both her grandfathers had left Ireland during the potato famine of the late 1840s and settled on farms in Ontario, Canada. Her father Michael Guinan seemed to have shared his daughter's penchant for adventure: he left home at age 20, crossing the border into the United States at Detroit on May 2, 1877. By 1881, he was living in Georgetown, Colorado, where he met and married Bessie Duffy (Guinan) , who had also come to the U.S. from Canada. The couple set out for Waco, Texas, a booming trade town with electricity, phone service, 44 churches, and almost as many saloons (though it was the 1885 invention of Dr. Pepper, the soft drink, that brought Waco its lasting fame). In this climate, Mike's hard work paid off: he soon was co-owner of a wholesale grocery.

My big kick in life is crowds of humanity. When I can get them with me, rooting for me, I am drunk with the joy of it.

—Texas Guinan

In 1882, Mike and Bessie's first child, William, was born, followed two years later by Mary Louise Cecelia, then called Mayme, later called Texas. Bessie had five more children, but only two (Pearl, b. 1887, and Tommy, b. 1891) survived. Mayme was the liveliest of the lot. She adored her mother, sharing her strong will and devotion to the Roman Catholic Church, and would do anything for her attention. Writes biographer Louise Berliner : "She was constantly being ousted as new characters joined the Guinan cast. Poor Mayme would do anything to regain the spotlight.… [She] had a wild laughing streak in her, a prankster side, and Bessie didn't seem to mind." But Guinan's hometown found her hard to take. Waco, home to Texas Christian University, was a Baptist stronghold. Even though Catholics were a small minority in the South, the town took pride in the Convent School of Sacred Heart. It is probably the only school Mayme Guinan ever attended, although she repeatedly told stories of her higher education. She was popular but full of imagination; parents, if not their daughters, were wary.

From their staid perspective, parents had every reason to worry. Once, after reading one too many girls' adventure books, Guinan decided to reenact a scene wherein a brave young wife escaped her villainous husband by taking their baby and crossing river rapids in a leaking boat. Borrowing a neighbor's baby and another neighbor's leaky, wooden tub, she set out in the swollen spring waters of the Brazos river, which ran close to her own backyard. Guinan might have needed a real rescue had she not been caught by a suspicious Bessie and the baby's mother. Guinan got a whipping, but, instead of remorse, she was furious at them for spoiling her scene and refused to speak to either woman for days.

In 1900, when Guinan was 16, the family moved back to Colorado. Guinan later claimed that while her family went to Denver, she headed East, to attend the prestigious Hollins Institute, a finishing school in Virginia. In reality, she spent four years in Denver, where she blossomed into a beautiful young woman with a sense of style and many suitors. The Denver Post took note on its social pages: Mayme Guinan, "fortified by a beauty of the fresh brunette type, a strong personality, charm and a decidedly friendly nature, stormed the social fort and gained admission."

She was nearing the age when most young women settled down with a husband, and, indeed, it may have appeared to be the best adventure around. At any rate, evidence suggests that she truly loved the man she chose: John J. "Moy" Moynahan, a Denver journalist she had known for several years. Married in December 1904, they moved to Chicago, where Moy took a job as a cartoonist for a newspaper, and Marie, as Mayme had decided to call herself, put all of her housekeeping skills to work. Later, she would maintain that she had studied voice at the Chicago Conservatory, after winning a scholarship sponsored by Marshall Field, the Chicago department store magnate. "Exaggerate the world," Guinan wrote in 1931. "Dress up your lives with imagination.… [D]on't lose that purple mantle of illusion." In reality, the Moynahans had moved to Cleveland in 1906, the year Marie claimed she attended the Conservatory.

Keeping house in Cleveland was even more tedious than keeping house in Chicago, and Guinan was apparently getting restless. The Moynahans' separation was relatively amicable. They remained friends, as well as husband and wife, for the rest of her life. (He was to remarry several years after her death.) In 1907, age 22, Guinan headed for New York City. "Better a square foot of New York than all the rest of the world in a lump—better a lamppost on Broadway than the brightest star in the sky," she was to say. "Texas" had come home: to the bright lights of Broadway, the throngs on the sidewalks, the congestion of double-decker buses, hansom cabs, and trolleys.

Struggling actresses have never had it easy, and the early days of show business were particularly difficult. Competition was keen, and, once cast, actors and actresses were expected to spend from three to ten weeks in unpaid rehearsals, with no guarantee of their show's success. Despite these daunting obstacles, Guinan arrived on Broadway at one of its finest hours. There were 41 legitimate theaters, more than anywhere else in the world, and owners were scrambling month after month to top each other with bigger and more lavish shows. The most extravagant of them all, the Ziegfeld Follies, was born that year.

One of Guinan's favorite tales concerned her emergence in New York, though no one knows how much of it is embellished, or simply fiction. She claimed to have met the composer Reginald De Koven enroute who had offered her a job on Broadway. Upon her arrival at the New York train station, she hailed a cab to his house

and found him in the middle of a dinner party, which was made up of artists from the Metropolitan Opera. She pulled up a chair, enjoyed the dinner, and, after a brief consultation with her host, was told to report to his operetta, The Snowman, the following morning.

Guinan found a room in Greenwich Village for $2 a week, indulged in bright, flashy clothes, fake jewelry, and frequent escorts, and lived on rye bread and milk. But the life of The Snowman, which opened on Broadway as The Girls of Holland, was brief. She then turned to vaudeville, where W.C. Fields, Mae West , Charlie Chaplin, and Fred Astaire were also getting their show-business starts. The medium allowed entertainers to develop their own style, and Guinan was becoming a spirited soprano and promising actress. She was handsome, though plump, and intent on attracting notice.

Guinan was a hard worker, much like her Irish immigrant parents. Less than two years after her arrival in New York, before her 25th birthday, that hard work began to pay off in tangible ways. A prominent producer of the day, John P. Slocum, cast her as the lead in The Gay Musician, with a four-year, $500-a-week contract. After two years, the two became partners. Guinan replaced her fake jewels with the real thing and bought a seven-room apartment in her beloved, bohemian Greenwich Village. She would soon move her parents and younger brother to New York.

Slocum treated her like a star, showered her with gifts, and spoiled her. "Don't let anybody get away with the impression that you're not the greatest thing in show business," he told her. "Talk big, think big—be big. Remember nobody is as important as you—keep thinking that way and you'll be important." But the Los Angeles Times of November 24, 1909, notes: "Miss Texas Guinan is in the budding prima donna stage. Her whimsical little egotisms are calling loudly for a strong stage manager to put an end to them. A pretty and vivacious girl, she loves the spotlight too much." She loved the spotlight, and she hated that review, so much so that months later, at a luncheon in Los Angeles, she complained about it to the handsome man seated next to her. At dinner that night, he confessed to being Julian Johnson, L.A. Times drama critic and author of the review. It was the beginning of a solid, eight-year relationship; Johnson was a kind, cultured man who taught Guinan much about literature, art, and managing her finances.

Though she spent more time in Los Angeles, New York was always home. Her career continued to flourish there: she had starring roles on Broadway every season and changed roles almost as often as she changed costumes. "Tex knew she was not the great operatic star she had set out to be, nor was she a great dramatic actress," writes Berliner. "However, she knew how to entertain, how to make people laugh. Her critics declared her a good singer and clever actress and noted her enthusiasm."

All the qualities that made Guinan a good entertainer made her an asset to the country in 1917 when the United States entered World War I. Box-office receipts fell drastically, since much of the money spent on theater tickets went into Liberty Bonds. The "stage-door Johnnies" who had habitually haunted the theaters were either working overtime in factories or enlisting in the armed forces. By December 1917, the government had ordered a Broadway blackout. Entertainers threw themselves into benefits, fostering patriotism around the country with songs such as "Over There" and "I'm in the Army Now." Texas Guinan was an ideal antidote for the European conflict.

Despite the war, the pace of popular culture had been quickening for several years. It was the beginning of the Jazz Age; Americans were dancing to a faster beat. The film industry, based in Hollywood, was attracting more interest, and in 1917, shortly after the U.S. joined the war, Guinan made her first silent film, The Fuel of Life. Her second, The Gun Woman, the following year, began a five-year journey that would make Guinan a true pioneer: she created a new role for women: a self-reliant heroine, a gunslinger who, as Berliner writes, "had feelings like a woman, but shot like a man. … [A] bad woman with a good heart."

By 1922, Texas Guinan was 38. Prohibition, as the 18th Amendment was called, had been in effect since January 16, 1920. Prohibiting the manufacture and sale of all beer, wine, and liquor, the law had reduced only the quality, not the quantity, and had contributed to the giddy tenor of the times. People were frequenting speakeasies, clandestine night clubs that were made more mysterious and inviting by secret passwords and peepholes. New York had more than 5,000 speaks: almost every basement in the theater district had one. In the early days of Prohibition, drinking was the main event, but as the years went on, with no repeal of the law, the quality of entertainment became more important.

No one knows where Texas Guinan first took the stage, probably at Gypsyland, a club on West 45th Street, but she had no act other than her own persona. She laughed, told silly stories and bawdy jokes, and called out to patrons, many of whom were friends, introducing them to each other and indulging in matchmaking. Wrote journalist Colgate Baker: "It was self-expression, a thing she did unconsciously by force of breeding, training, environment and heritage." Notes Berliner: "Hostessing allowed Tex to be a friendly, talkative arranger of others' destinies; a meddler, a nosy (and noisy) 'old' lady; and someone who liked to see others enjoy themselves … someone who knew how to read audiences and give them what they wanted."

Entertaining all night at top speed proved to be difficult, but it so suited Guinan that she made it work, using young dancers in scanty costumes, celebrity guests of honor, and other tricks to get the audience involved. But she was the center of the show, and soon became an owner, rather than an employee, of her succession of clubs. One of the first was the El Fey, also on 45th Street, opened by a rumrunner named Larry Fay who was looking to polish his image. The club was relatively elegant, more nightclub than speakeasy, and Guinan perfected her act there. But all of the clubs were illegal, of course, and after ten months, the El Fey was padlocked. Somewhere else, another would open: the Texas Guinan Club, the Del Fey, the 300 Club, Club Intime, and the Salon Royale. This became a familiar ritual.

Guinan would leave work at dawn, return to her apartment at 17 West Eighth Street, walk her dog, and go to bed. Even her home could be said to resemble a club: dimly lit, it was furnished with exotic tapestries from the Far East and filled with photos of herself and other celebrities. It was also filled with an odd collection of bottles, hotel towels and china. One thing her home lacked was people. Her family had lived with her only briefly, and, though she had a series of mostly younger escorts during her 30s and 40s, the relationships were not serious. So she slept most of the day, rising at 11 pm for breakfast in bed and paperwork. She was back on stage by midnight, smoking and drinking coffee but never liquor. By all accounts, she never had a drop of liquor in her life.

But the federal agents were becoming increasingly tough on New York's clubs. Guinan's nightspot had endured many raids, some dramatic and some not, and she made occasional trips to the police station. After one widespread raid in June 1928, she was charged with being a public nuisance. Although the long, well-publicized trial ended with a widely celebrated verdict of not guilty, her legal troubles—much as she made light of them—marked the end of her reign as queen of the clubs. Organized crime had become increasingly active in the clubs, and although Guinan had long looked the other way at mob involvement, she did not approve. Turning her attentions elsewhere, she opened a club in Valley Stream, Long Island, made the first of her three "talkies," and began to take her troupe on tours around the country and in Europe.

Then she opened a club in Chicago, called the Green Mill, where she spent much of the next four years. She was also a major attraction at the 1933 World's Fair. Though she missed New York City, the climate was still not right for her return. There was a somber mood after the stock-market crash of 1929. There was also the potential for legal troubles and the unfriendly gangsters. Instead, she toured the Northwest in the fall of 1933. Despite severe abdominal pain, she played four shows in one day at the Beacon Theater in Vancouver, British Columbia, and did not stop until the third show of the following day. She was forced to enter a hospital, where abdominal surgery revealed an advanced state of peritonitis. Guinan never recovered from the anesthetic and died on November 5, 1933, two months shy of her 50th birthday.

At last she was back in New York. More than 12,000 mourners walked past her casket at Campbell's Funeral Home on Broadway at 66th. Wrote Heywood Broun in the New York World Telegram: "It would be a fearful error in taste if by any stipulation Tex were barred from the knowledge that the police had to fight back the thousands." One month after Texas Guinan died, Prohibition was repealed, and her "suckers" were free to drink in the daylight. Several years earlier, Guinan had chosen her own epitaph from an Oscar Wilde poem, "The Harlot House":

And down the long and silent street
The dawn with silver sandeled feet,
crept like a frightened girl.


Berliner, Louise. Texas Guinan: Queen of the Nightclubs. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1993.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women 1607-1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Elizabeth L. Bland , reporter, Time magazine