In Prohibition-era New York City, a dose of Texas flair enlivened the city’s roaring nightlife. Larger than life in personality and style, actress “Texas” Guinan commanded the nightclub circuit with her saucy wit. She sensationalized her life, blending fact with fantasy.
The child of Irish immigrants, Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan was born on January 12, 1884, outside of Waco, Texas. Her family ran a grocery business while Guinan attended Sacred Heart Academy, where classmates knew her as Mamie. Even in childhood, Guinan craved mischief, pranking local shop owners and irking her teachers. She also cultivated skills in roping and riding, which she’d draw upon later in her film career. Combining her cowgirl skills with the musical training she received in Chicago, Guinan started performing in Wild West theater acts around the turn of the twentieth century. She also entered into a brief marriage with Denver cartoonist John J. Moynahan before following her show business dreams to New York City. Guinan struggled working as a chorus girl in NYC before becoming a regular on the vaudeville circuit and performing in musical shows like The Hoyden. She did this work for about a decade until, in 1917, a talent scout offered her the opportunity for a Hollywood career starring in silent westerns. So she rode off to California and into a new phase of her career.
During her time in New York, Guinan acquired the nickname Texas. The moniker’s nod to her roots and its lone star bravado made it an apt name for an emerging star of western gunslingers. Beginning with The Wildcat (1917), Guinan portrayed heroines in films like Little Miss Deputy (1919) who possessed both strong wills and real gun skills. In 1921, she started her own production company in response to Hollywood’s ageism and beauty standards negatively impacting her film career. As a producer, Guinan displayed the same independence and ingenuity as her onscreen characters. She actively engaged in publicity, rights distribution, and cast actors that fit her films, rather than using a set company. Texas Guinan Productions made a few films such as Texas of the Mounted (1921) that are no longer extant before ceasing operations in 1922. Her silent film career on the decline, Guinan returned to New York and the stage.
During the 1920s, Guinan fashioned herself onstage and off as the grand dame of NYC nightlife. She personified the flashy and excessive spirit of the age. Guinan appeared on Broadway, but it was her rapier wit and brassy style that earned her the job of emcee at the Beaux Arts Hotel. It was a rare position for a woman in the 1920s. Starting in 1924, she reigned over several clubs and speakeasies—such as the El Fey or the 300 Club—first with mobster Larry Fay and then on her own. Guinan took to greeting patrons with the phrase, “Hello, Sucker.” It became her trademark, coming with enough sass to entice patrons to purchase more bootleg liquor. Effortlessly working a room, Guinan comedically blended entertainment and allure. She even turned her continuous arrests for violating Prohibition into a show, complete with music and photo ops. When federal or local authorities shut down one of her clubs, she simply opened up another. Audaciously flagrant, Guinan styled herself and her clubs to be the center of New York’s nightlife. Capitalizing on her reputation, she again took to the screen and the road.
In the late 1920s and early 30s, Guinan created touring shows and appeared in a few films. Her already mercurial fortunes declined with the Great Depression. Guinan’s autobiographical talkies like Queen of the Night Clubs (1929) were not commercial successes, but these films nevertheless kept her profile before the public. She traveled domestically with her club’s shows, but Europe rebuffed her attempt to present her act internationally. Her incendiary character prevented her 1931 European tour from obtaining an audience. Nevertheless, she brazenly turned the experience into a popular satirical show: Too Hot for Paris. It was this life on the road, however, that eventually toppled the imposing Guinan.
She died on November 5, 1933, in Vancouver from either amoebic dysentery she contracted in Chicago or ulcerative colitis. Guinan’s memorial at Broadway’s Campbell Funeral Church brought 12,000 people in to pay their respects. The service exhibited the brash glamour the late star embodied. Initially buried in White Plains, New York, her remains were later reinterred in a family plot at Calvary Cemetery in Queens. The rascally cowgirl from Waco had sauntered her way to big city stardom.