Two Stars

  By William Bolitho

 

Which appeals more to men?—the jolly good fellow like Texas Guinan, or the softly feminine type like Helen Morgan

 

Helen Morgan and Texas Guinan are the two ends of Broadway. In the distance between them, therefore, lies the whole region of interest and importance to all women. For, of course, Broadway is just as feminine as Wall Street, for example, is masculine, no matter how many stockbrokeresses there may be, or actors, and however true it may be that the ultimate consumers of riches are women, or that the emotional purpose of the night life is not to glorify the actresses, but to amuse the men.

Broadway has grown from a mere symptom to a symbol—a universally understood name for the only natural alternative to that other elemental career for women: marriage. A wife and a star are the only two careers which belong exclusively to women in modern society.

Even if they have irrevocably chosen the one and renounced the other, they must all at times be curious about the alternative. A woman with a porch of her own, on the quietest street, in the muddiest prairie township, who has babies, and a church, and a routine, and loves them all, may be at moments teased by this magical word, Broadway, just as the oldest nuns now and then wonder about human love in the crevices of their prayers.

I will not do more than hint at the shocking similarity in the psychological nature of the two apparently contrary careers. A loved wife is a one man star. A real star is the world’s sweetheart. The one will give him children. But the children of the Broadway idol are tunes and memories of all sorts, the timbre of a voice, the shape of a smile, which live long in the hearts of the men who paid to see her, perhaps as long as they live, whatever their spiritual quality may be. In some men—the majority, if men are mainly stupid—this queer sort of love-at-a-distance composes the virtual whole of their emotional life, or ideal. They prize women in so far as they remind them of their favorite star. In their deepest emotional moments the remembered voice or face will float up, and that will be the summit of the beauty and the meaning they will see.

You will be sure there is more in being a star on Broadway than the mere satisfaction of vanity, or the mere acquisition of wealth. Silks and perfumes and furs, the excitement of being focused, the comfort and even deep reassurance of flattery by a crowd, which one man’s love can never quite give, all these things, which the star-life bring, no doubt satisfy deep and natural needs of the unreasonable depths of the feminine. But the core of Broadway magnetism is the other thing.

So a rather philosophical study of the technique and psychological structure of Helen and Texas (which, as was said, are to the right and the left of the profession) is just as worth while at least as that, which serious men delight in, of great businessmen like Rockefeller and Ford, or great heroes like Napoleon Bonaparte or Alexander. No intelligent woman should allow herself to be laughed out of it. The astronomy of Broadway is at least as useful as the other; and a pretty deep study, too, if that is what the everlasting schoolboy in most men needs before he respects a subject.

Texas Guinan is the easier case. For she is just natural. Her attack on life is frontal. She has no more repressions or reflections than a plate of corned beef. She is just a square meal for men’s need to be dazzled. Therefore, I almost said, she is blond. It would take long to explain, and indeed, to think out, why the admiration for yellow hair in a woman is simpler and more rudimentary……have anything to do with a Nordic race instinct, because the swarthy peoples feel it at least as strongly as the rest.

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

I remember guiding a perfect golden-head, with blue eyes, round the agitated streets of Naples, and she might have been a live lobster on the end of a string for the embarrassing attention she aroused. Light blondes, if they have any regard for the comfort or even the safety of their escorts, ought to wear wigs anywhere in the south of Europe. And thick veils in North Africa. The strange thing about it is that they attract both the simplicity of the poetical and the worst feeling of the brutal; it is the coloration of both Tatiana and Delilah.

If to this you add a generous smile, one of those which in the limelights of a cabaret dazzles like a deposit of rock crystal in the desert sun, and a thick encrustation of jewelry, which takes up and splits its reflections into a million blinking foci, that is the material contents of Texas Guinan’s tool bag.

As Texas Guinan wears diamonds, there is a not very advanced art to it, to be sure. Speaking artistically, she has composed of herself a sort of Christmas tree for grown-up men, and I am not joking when I say there is a lot of innocence in the conception. It goes perfectly with the essential juvenility of the rest of the treat that she provides: herself a Christmas tree or a birthday cake; dolls; celluloid balls to throw from table to table at midnight; little tinsel dancing girls; and rattles; and that least adult of drinks—champagne—for the big hobbledehoy butter-and-egg men she entertains in her cabarets. She is the spirit of staying-up-late; the fairy Disobedience, patron of unruly children. You ought to see now more clearly why she stands up to the police; and why (no crime commission has ever thought of this) she always gets the verdict.

Most of her fame is not caused by, but concentrated and consecrated in the phrase, “Hello, sucker.” It is what lies behind that phrase that is the basic reason for my saying her technique was frontal or elemental. In the great exploitation of man, this phrase is the classic. If there is a sex war, this is fighting with bows and arrows; a gallant archaism that makes a fool of them, just by admitting she is doing it. How near genius are most of women’s wiles, when they do not theorize! The school of Texas Guinan does not theorize. She simply does the theoretically impossible; catches the bird by showing it a gun, surprises the big, suspicious moose—men who have been able to come to town, just because they have never been cheated—by making a very loud noise as she approaches. We are all very fond of Texas.

Helen Morgan is the opposite end. That is, she is dark, wears no jewels, has a voice which, in its high notes, at any rate, is as good as anything at the opera. Texas, of course, uses a hoarse, amusing croak. How far Helen is away from the other boundary is clearest if I tell you she is a real artist. There is the difference of a civilization between them. But even that is not the deepest significance of the contrast. First let us complete the more visible differences. Helen, then, is dark, and affects black dresses with as much suggestion of past beauties of the fashion, crinolines, puffed sleeves, as the most scrupulous conformity with the spirit of fashion permits. Hardly a pearl. I sometimes fancy her neck is a trifle too short, and certainly her nose is. But the rest is perfect, small, aerial, far removed from the earthly charms of Texas Guinan.

Helen Morgan.  Photo originally published in The Lawless Decade by Paul Sann.

I now carefully remind you that the measure I have taken these two to reckon by is by no means the whole range of star possibilities. Broadway is not the world. The Milky Way, if you like, and not the firmament. For Broadway, long as it is, is perfectly limited. It stands, let us say, specifically for the toughest, hardest, possibly richest branch of the great business of amusing and dominating men. On Broadway, no one, for example, looks for loyalty, and the stuff they serve is particularly hard on the looks.

Now if Texas Guinan represents the direct conquest of this formidable way, by her sheer courage and vitality, then Helen Morgan, on her piano top, is the little girl who asks for mercy, who conquers by weeping. For the strategy of women includes a thing not seen in the stupider wars men wage: she can conquer by surrendering, as well or better than by the offensive. The only other creature that knows this trick is a puppy, who, if you press it too far and frighten it, will turn over on its back and waggle its little paws till you give in. In a spiritual metaphor, this is just what Helen does; and her success is much greater than Texas Guinan’s.

Helen Morgan is the poor little girl who gives in. Her voice (especially in those upper notes) is full of unshed tears. Every look and every song of hers admits defeat. I do not know how much is a natural way of hers and how much sheer art. But the burden is always the same. A little girl lost, in Broadway, in life, in love, finding it all too hard, and yet—this is the acme or the attar—not asking mercy. “Give the little girl a hand!” shout the red-necked tuxedos at Texas Guinan’s. “Give the little girl a break!” mutter the same men, when Helen tells them musically about how hard it is on her. And they feel a resolute impulse to make it all right to her, to mend her, to light a fire for her, to warm her poor, brave little hands, to find her a job, and fire the brute who broke her heart. It is fine stuff.

New York recently saw the two sisterly techniques in action side by side—they are related mysteriously in spite of their opposition. Both the stars were in a bad difficulty during the fierce, though short, drive of Mrs. Mabel Willebrandt. The prohibition forces were satisfied with their case against both of them—keeping a cabaret supplying liquor. It certainly looked as if both Texas and Helen were going to be made an example of, and no matter how popular they both were, the law had teeth in it even in those pre-Jones days. Ruinous fines, possibly imprisonment, were much too near both to be funny or playful about.

I do not wish in the least to underestimate their purely legal defense. They had witnesses and documents and arguments on their side. But whatever all this might or might not have done to save them, they won after all with the personality tactics we have been discussing. On the one hand, Texas, whose case came first, brazened it out, denied everything, laughed at everything, cheeked off everything, and got her verdict in the grand manner. Her prosecutors left the court not only beaten but sheepish. 

How deliciously different was the victory of Helen Morgan! Even the reporters felt mean when they photographed her, she was so timid and forlorn. If Texas Guinan broke the great rule that you must throw yourself on the mercy of the court to get what you want, Helen Morgan broke the other, even more established, that you should at any rate pretend you hope to win. The one made her enemies laughable, the other made them detestable; as if, in this matter, they had by accident staged a perfect working example of their essential dissimilarity.

In real life these allegories sometimes appear; never a more noteworthy one than this, to all women who have—at some time or other, in some crucial circumstance or other—to trust to something more reliable than a merely rational plan to outwit the strength and cunning of the male.

All of which it is a useful amusement to know in far more places than Broadway.

 

  Originally published in Delineator, January 1931