hello sucker

"Texas Guinan combined the curious and admirable traits of Queen EIizabelh, Machiavelli, Tex Rickard and Ma Pettingill . . ."
                                                                                                                                                —STANLEY WALKER

texas guinanTexas Guinan never lost patience with the "revenooer" posses that rode her down for selling "likker" on the Glittering Gulch called Broadway. Quite the contrary, she tried to make them feel at home; sometimes she had the band strike up "The Prisoner's Song" when the Federal men arrived to haul her before the bar of justice. She kept the customers in high spirits too. Once she came back to her night club from court and sang this ditty:

Judge Thomas said, "Tex, do you sell
I said, "Please, don't be silly.
I swear to you my cellar's filled
With chocolate and vanilly."

texas guinan Texas always insisted that she didn't have to sell the hard stuff because she got as much for sparkling water as people paid for Scotch before Prohibition. She said the customers brought their own whiskey, on their very own hips, and what could she do except provide set-ups? Of course, you could buy a booster in her joints if you knew the headwaiter, or if you looked as if you knew him, or if you knew somebody who was pretty sure he knew him, or maybe just if you were thirsty and didn't have the seedy look of the Dry agent.

champagne Miss Guinan, a garish blonde with a brassy voice that could penetrate even the din of her own clubs, had a name for the customer—"Hello, Sucker"—and a slogan to go with it. "Never give a sucker an even break," she used to say. Hayseed or Wall Street broker, she flattered them all with the same high prices: $25 for a fifth of Scotch or $2 for a pitcher of water if you brought your own; $25 for champagne, $20 for rye. The "couvert" charge—an invention of the Lawless Decade—might run anywhere from $5 to $25 per head, depending on what the traffic would bear at a given time. Everybody paid with a smile. Well, nearly everybody; there were bouncers on hand to deal with the penny-pinchers.

Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan came off a ranch in Waco, Texas. Her parents hoped for a musical career for her but she went away and rode bronco in a circus instead. Then she drifted into vaudeville and on to Hollywood, where there was a demand for girls who could handle a hoss and lariat. For a while she did well enough in westerns to be called "the female Bill Hart," and she certainly was one of the more authentic lady gunslingers on the celluloid prairie. In those days she had a mop of black hair menacing enough to scare off the villain texas guinaneven without a six-shooter. But the movies were mute and Miss Guinan wanted to be heard. She came East for a Broadway musical early in the Twenties, discovered the night clubs and got herself hired as mistress of ceremonies at the Beaux Arts. There her wisecracks and lung power caught the attention of Larry Fay, sometime entrepreneur, sometime racketeer, and he set her up at the El Fey Club.

booze That was the beginning of a profitable partnership. Miss Guinan went from El Fey to the Rendezvous, the 300 Club, the Argonaut, the Century, the Salon Royal, the Club Intime and any number of Texas Guinan Clubs, depending on how often the Prohibition people shut her down. Opening new joints after raids, Tex wore a necklace strung with gold padlocks just to show the Federals there were no hard feelings. One of her diamond bracelets featured a little gold police whistle.

texas guinan The Guinan traps—and seventy or eighty other Manhattan spots of the time—were the forerunners of the sardine-packed night clubs that came in with Repeal. Her floors were so jammed that the dancing girls had to exhibit their wiggles, high-kicks and other charms right in the customers' faces. The "big butter-and-egg men," as Texas always called them, didn't seem to mind.

Miss Guinan's celebrated closing line for the chorus, "Give the little girls a great big hand," was topped only once. A gentleman in the audience arose and said, "Give the little girl a great big handcuff." It was another pinch, but the hostess laughed with the crowd: she owed her fame to her brushes with the Eighteenth Amendment. She would have been known to nothing more than a select group of free-spenders in the Big Town except for the fact that someone was always trying to put her in the pokey.

The frolicsome hostess didn't complain. She made a pretty good living out of her troubles—up to $4000 a week. Where it went, no one ever knew. When the thrice-married Prohibition queen died in 1933, at forty-nine, there was $28,173 in her estate.