"Hello, Sucker!":  Texas Guinan

by Flapperjane

Copyright 2004 by Sarah Baker.  All Rights Reserved.

Texas Guinan.  Photo originally published in The Lawless Decade by Paul Sann.

Her name was synonymous with gaiety, good times, and the party life. Her name was enough to make a nightclub or musical revue a success. Her name was so notorious, so intimately connected with nightclub excess, she was barred from entering England or France with her troupe of scantily clad chorus girls. She was Mary Cecelia Louise Guinan—better known as Texas Guinan.

The goddess of party life was born into modest circumstances to a middle-class Irish Catholic family in Waco, Texas, 1884.[1] Like any good storyteller, Guinan altered stories of her youth to please the crowd, spinning fantastic tales about her childhood. It is difficult to separate fact from myth, but it is known for certain that Guinan was educated at the Convent School of the Sacred Heart in Waco. Guinan married a reporter, John J. Moynahan, in 1904 and moved to Chicago. Guinan briefly satisfied her show business yearnings by studying at the Chicago Conservatory of Music.[2] But her restless ambition won out and she left “Moy” in 1907 and moved to New York City. Although she had other lovers, Guinan never divorced Moynahan and always spoke highly of him. For his part, he sent Guinan money until she had established herself in New York.

Guinan got her first big stage break in a production of The Snow Man. From that small part, she worked her way into bigger roles, better plays, vaudeville, and finally a starring role in The Gay Musician (1909). [3] She then drifted into film, signing with Triangle Film Corporation in 1917.

Guinan as a Western heroine. Photo originally published in The Lawless Decade by Paul Sann.

Though she was first cast as a vamp, Guinan quickly found her niche as a Western heroine. She did all of her own stunts and was known as the “Female Bill Hart” for the complicated good/bad women she portrayed. Guinan was a huge favorite with children and thoroughly enjoyed making movies—she had formed her own production company in 1922—but after six years of cranking out horse operas, she needed a change.  She was ready to see her beloved New York City again and ready for her next role—her most infamous, which she played for more than a decade until her death in 1933.[4]  

In 1922, during a chance visit to the Gold Room, Guinan fascinated the crowd with the witty banter she engaged in with the emcee. The management promptly snatched her up as their permanent hostess, thereby ensuring the club’s success. She increased attendance by introducing special guest stars, celebrity nights, and movie star nights.  Her first movie star guest, Rudolph Valentino, was a particular success.[5]

In 1924, Guinan partnered with gangster Larry Fay and created the El Fey Club, the “granddaddy of all speakeasies.”[6] They stashed the liquor in a house next door so it was never technically stored on the premises. Patrons bought fake champagne—cider and alcohol—for $25 a bottle, or treated themselves to watered-down whiskey at $1 a shot.[7] With those prices, patrons usually brought their own liquor; Guinan simply supplied the set-up and the fun.

The El Fey Club. The Swastikas were Larry Fay's good luck charm, not at all associated with the Nazis. Photo originally published in The Lawless Decade by Paul Sann.

The El Fey was the first in a succession of nightclubs created by Guinan and padlocked by the police: the 300 Club, the Texas Guinan Club, the Century Club, the Salon Royale, the Club Intime, and the Club Argonaut.  Each club had a shelf life of two to six months.  Each club had a different locale but shared the same elements: pretty, youthful chorus girls in very brief outfits; a hot band; wisecracking waiters; exorbitant cover charges; expensive synthetic alcohol and set-ups; a large crowd of “suckers” waiting to be teased by Guinan; and she herself acting as ringmaster, keeping the crowd merry until all hours.

Guinan guaranteed each club’s success. The night did not begin until she had arrived; her energy livened up the listless crowd, and her quips cracked them up. She was famous for hollering “Hello, Sucker!” at each new arrival and introducing her chorus by asking the crowd to “give the little girls a great big hand.” Wherever Guinan was, was the place to spend the evening. Walter Winchell and other newspapermen permanently ensconced themselves at her club.  Scandals did not officially break unless they broke at Guinan’s. While other clubs stayed open until 3am, hers stayed open until 5am, keeping the party going just a little while longer.

Even her raids were witty and fun. While the police often smashed up Helen Morgan’s clubs, they minded their manners in Guinan’s place. She would always laughingly order the band to strike up “The Prisoner’s Song” while she grabbed her wrap and sashayed to the paddy wagon.

Guinan doing the dishes at one of her nightclubs. Photo originally published in The Lawless Decade by Paul Sann.

Tex was able to flout Prohibition repeatedly by paying fines and opening a new club when an old one was padlocked. The police kept creating and enforcing new laws such as fire code limits and curfews, or sent narcs posing as big spenders to buy booze at Texas’s club. Finally, in June 1928, 160 Prohibition agents raided 15 nightclubs in New York City. Of all those brought in under charges, only Guinan chose to plea not guilty.[8]

Her trial was a burlesque. While everyone knew that Guinan was, to some extent, guilty, they wished her well and wanted her to prevail.  Guinan’s attorney, Max Lopin, was able to get the narcs to break down under questioning. Both admitted they had enjoyed their time at Guinan’s and made several more trips to the club than were needed to nab her.  Lopin also revealed the agents had spent several hundred dollars of the taxpayer’s money to purchase booze in the club—much more than was needed to prove that alcohol was sold on the premises, a fact that disgruntled the public. Guinan often outsmarted the prosecuting attorney, Norman Morrison, as he was cross-examining her, and the press gleefully reported her quips each day. Guinan admitted that she had never touched a drop of liquor in her life.  She was a businesswoman and always needed a clear head for her job.  Therefore, Guinan intimated, she could not be sure if what they sold at the club was indeed liquor.  The jury returned their verdict—Guinan was not guilty of aiding and abetting the sale of liquor.[9]

The trial had brought Guinan an enormous amount of free publicity, and she was offered countless jobs. She wrote columns for a few New York dailies, opened more clubs, and toured the country with her chorus girls.  Due to Guinan’s reputation, the tour was not allowed to disembark in England or France.  So instead, Guinan returned home with the girls and created a new revue, “Too Hot for Paris.”[10] When that tour ended, Guinan became hostess (under much gangster pressure) of the Planet Mars in Chicago. She hosted a dance club at the World’s Fair, then traveled to Los Angeles.  She made a few talkies while on the West Coast and made headlines again when she “got religion” from Aimee Semple MacPherson’s Church of the Foursquare Gospel.[11]

Her relentless energy and ambition began to flag while she was in Los Angeles. She had driven herself every night for a decade, making sure others were merry, flouting the law at every turn, and now she was tired and ill. Despite her ill health, Guinan embarked on a tour of the Pacific Northwest.  Her health quickly deteriorated and Guinan died of peritonitis on November 5, 1933.[12]

Prohibition was repealed one month after Guinan’s death. Often when making whoopee in the clubs, she would holler:

"Thank the Lord for Prohibition!”

“Why, Tex?” the crowd would yell.

“Because without it, I’d be out of a job!”

The consummate hostess, Guinan knew when the party was over. She was an icon of Prohibition and the Jazz Age. She was a product of her era and she gracefully passed with it. As she herself said, “Listen, Suckers, why take life so seriously—in a hundred years we will all be gone or in some stuffy book.  Give me plenty of laughs and you can take all the rest.”[13]

Guinan commiserating with another nightclub hostess, Belle Livingstone.  Photo originally published in The Lawless Decade by Paul Sann.

 To get the dope on Texas Guinan, click here.

[1] Berliner, Louise. Texas Guinan, Queen of the Night Clubs. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993, page 11.

[2] Ibid., page 46.

[3] Ibid., page 57.

[4] Ibid., pages 78-89.

[5] Ibid., page 94.

[6] Ibid., page 97.

[7] Ibid, page 98.

[8] Ibid., page 130.

[9] Ibid., page 149.

[10] Ibid., page 170.

[11] Ibid., pages 175-180.

[12] Ibid., page 188.

[13] Ibid., page193.