Saturday, July 20, 2024

Texas Guinan: From Waco To the Great White Way

Mary Louise Cecilia "Texas" Guinan
Mary Louise Cecilia “Texas” Guinan, circa 1904

By Michael Corcoran

During Prohibition, the life of New York City’s illegal party was a former cowgirl from Waco named Mary Louise “Texas” Guinan. Greeting customers with “Hello, Sucker!” and deci-bellowing “Curfew shall not ring tonight!”, Guinan turned pure brass into gold during the Roaring Twenties. Her talent to foster excitement “from eleven to seven” made her the richest hostess on Broadway. Newspaperman Edmund Wilson described her as “this prodigious woman, with her pearls, her glittering bossom, her abundant, beautifully bleached yellow coiffure, her formidable trap of shining white teeth, her broad back behind its grating of green velvet, the full-blown peony as big as a cabbage on her broad green thigh.” Guinan was a genius at making an impression.

Enamored of the pearls which hung from her patter were columnists Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan, who dotted their columns with Tex’s witticisms. Once taking a chug of water, she said, “This is great stuff… for going under bridges.” She once put down an unnamed Broadway actress by saying “Her brain is as good as new.” She hated prudes and once said, “Some people are so narrow-minded their ears touch in the back.”

Texas Guinan
Texas Guinan

Guinan (b. 1884) left Waco with her Irish immigrant parents at age 14 when her father took a job as solicitor in Denver. There, she married commercial artist John Moynahan at age 20. Guinan had a brief movie career as a cowgirl in 1918-1919, which is how she got her nickname. The Moynahans moved to Boston, where her husband got a job with the newspaper. They had no children.

The former Mary Moynahan, freshly divorced, moved to Manhattan in the early ‘20s to become an actress. But wherever she went, a party broke out, so she was hired as mistress of ceremonies at the Beaux Arts Hotel. There she attracted the attention of Irish bootlegger Larry Fay, who set her up at his new El Fey Club on West 47th St. in 1924.

The liquor flowed illegally, but as long as the bulls were paid off everything was cool. Still, there were frequent busts from the feds. One of Guinan’s signature lines was “Give the little ladies a great big hand” and one night an officer stood up right after and said “Give the little lady a great big handcuff!” As always, the band played “The Prisoner’s Song” when Guinan was taken away for the night.

Ironically, the bold and sassy saloon moll who was the inspiration for Mae West’s routine was a devout Catholic who didn’t drink. Her parents, Michael and the former Bridget Duffy, lived with her at 17 W. 8th St. in Greenwich Village.

Neither Guinan nor Fay (who employed Owney Madden as muscle) would live to see the repeal of Prohibition in December 1933. Fay was shot to death the first day of the year by a liquored-up doorman in a pay  dispute. Texas Guinan died in November 1933 of acute infection of the intestines while on tour with her “Too Hot For Paris Revue” in Vancouver, BC. She was 49.

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