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A Hooch 'n Hellraisers blog post: Entrepreneurial women thriving in Prohibition America


“Give the little girl a big hand”

The Wild West Years

Mary Louise Cecilia “Texas” Guinan, born in Waco, Texas, in 1884, was the first female Western movie star, a gun-slinging, bareback-riding cowgirl in three-dozen silent films in Hollywood (such as Two-Gun Girl and Lady of the Law).

As her reputation and notoriety grew, Texas set her sights on 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 Prohibition. All over the city, speakeasies, usually small dives, sprouted up. For those seeking entertainment to go with their liquor, a profusion of gaudy nightclubs beckoned. New York’s famous restaurants—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.


The ‘hello, sucker‘ years

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 1923, Guinan was hired as a singer by Emil Gervasini and John Levi, owners of Beaux Arts speakeasy. According an article written by Majorie Corcoran in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on December 18, 1927, Guinan was paid $50,000 to sing at the speakeasy. That’s the equivalent of almost $715,00 today — not bad for a 1923 singer/manager/hostess/actress.

Having seen her perform at the Beaux Arts, New York show producer Nils Granlund introduced Texas to Larry Fay, a notorious rumrunner. She became the hostess and mistress of ceremonies at Fay’s El Fey club, one of the famed illegal speakeasies in New York. The club, on 46th Street near Broadway, opened from midnight to 5 a.m. It stood at the top of stairs leading to a door with a peephole. Inside, the silk-walled club seated about 80, with a small stage for chorus girls.

At the El Fey, Texas originated a live bantering routine for patrons. Standing or seated in the middle of the club, she would greet customers with her line, “”Hello, Sucker! Come on in and leave your wallet on the bar.” She might lead everyone in a song, promise the crowd “a fight a night or your money back,” or crack, “You may be all the world to your mother, but you’re just a cover charge to me.” She referred to rich guys as “butter and egg men.”

Her guests included celebrities of the day: Babe Ruth, Charles Lindbergh, Charles Chaplin, Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow, Gloria Swanson, England’s Lord Mountbatten and Edward Prince of Wales, plus various gangsters and seedy types. Once during a raid, Texas is said to have had the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII)) don an apron and cook some eggs to pose as an innocent employee and prevent his arrest.

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.

As the twenties began to roar, the El Fay Club attracted anyone with money to burn and a yen for illicit fun. Texas reeled in customers as did no other speakeasy hostess during the Prohibition years. Pleasure-seeking patrons, respectable 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.

Rare footage of Texas entertaining the crowds at El Fey. 

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

How famous was Guinan? The eminent Edmund Wilson described her as “a formidable woman, with her pearls, her prodigious gleaming bosom, her abundant yellow coiffure, her bear trap of shining white teeth.”

Journalist Lois Long (herself quite a formidable woman—she was the quintessential flapper/reporter; her nom de plume was “Lipstick”) wrote about Guinan in the October 9, 1920, issue of The New Yorker: “Mind you, there is one woman who gets away with vulgarity. And that, of course, is Texas Guinan . . . . The club is terrible. It is rowdy, it is vulgar, it is maudlin, it is terrifically vital . . . . At any rate, the place, after two o’clock, is always jammed to the doors . . . . Oh, it is a tough and terrible place, but everybody should go once in a lifetime.”

After authorities raided and closed the El Fey, Guinan and Fay opened Texas Guinan’s Club on West 48th Street, and when police closed it, they returned to the old location of the El Fey. She drank coffee, not alcohol. In 1925 she produced and starred in a vaudeville act, “Texas and Her Mob.”

She and Fay later opened the Del-Fey Club in Miami the same year. By her own account, they once took in $700,000 in less than a year

She left Fay (with the aid of mobster Owney Madden, who convinced Fay to let her be) and opened her own place, Texas Guinan’s 300 Club, on West 54th Street. She led a revue on Broadway called Padlocks of 1927 that fell flat with critics. Her company performed an irreverent song, “Oh, Mr. Buckner!” about Emory Buckner, the U.S. attorney of New York and enthusiastic prosecutor of speakeasy owners in the mid-1920s.

She was arrested in 1927 at the 300 Club on suspicion of a Volstead violation. Freed on $1,000 Bail with Nine Employees After Nine Hours of Mirth in Cell,” screamed typical headlines.

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.

“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.”

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.

Time to take the show on the road‘ years

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 1929, Guinan played a character based on herself, a nightclub owner named “Texas Malone,” in a movie melodrama, an early talkie, Queen of the Night Clubs (the film footage is lost, but some of the audio survived).

In 1933, months before her death, she was in the movie Broadway Through a Keyhole, in which the director showcased her bantering to customers as she did in her speakeasy days and delivering her “Hello, suckers!” line. She took a performing act, “Too Hot for Paris,” on a national tour to record crowds.

But on November 4, 1933, while backstage after a show in Vancouver, she fell ill with ulcerative colitis and died the next day while undergoing surgery – exactly one month before Prohibition ended. Twelve thousand people attended her funeral in New York.
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.”

The casket was open at Guinan’s request, “so the suckers can get a good look at me without a cover charge.”

“T” for Texas, “G” for Good Times

Other blog posts in the Hooch ‘n Hellraisers series:

Coming soon….

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