by Jason Mellard / Center for Texas Music History at Texas State
This Week in Texas Music History we spend time with New York’s Waco-forged “Queen of the Nightclubs.”
On November 5, 1933, stage icon Texas Guinan died in Vancouver. Born in Waco in 1884, Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan charted a colorful career. As fits someone who took the name “Texas,” though, it can be a challenge to untangle biography and braggadocio. As a young woman in Waco, she may or may not have learned to ride and shoot on a family ranch and parlay those skills into circus performance. She may or may not have been classically trained at Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music. We do know she took up musical theater in Denver, moved to bigger stages in New York, and then onto the silent screen in Hollywood. Between 1918 and 1922, Guinan crafted her brash “Texas” persona in films such as The Wildcat, The She Wolf, and The Gun Woman. Silent film hardly suited a singing talent, though, and Guinan returned to New York. Prohibition was in full effect, and Guinan was a hit in the illegal speakeasies, first as a guest, and soon as the city’s most popular cabaret hostess. This career meant a constant game of cat-and-mouse with the authorities, one Guinan embraced. When federal raids descended on Guinan’s clubs, she would instruct the band to strike up fellow Texan Vernon Dalhart’s hit “Prisoner’s Song,” which patrons would belt out on their way to jail.
A notorious scofflaw in prohibition Manhattan, Guinan also wrote guest columns for newspapers, cultivated influential friends in government, and became a flapper icon. The lifestyle had challenges, though. After disagreements with business partners in organized crime, Guinan took her show to Europe in 1931, only to be turned away as an undesirable in port after port. Undeterred, she returned stateside to create a touring company called “Too Hot for Paris.” She mounted a show at the Chicago World’s Fair, returned to Hollywood for film cameos, and was touring the West Coast when she died suddenly, in 1933, the same year Prohibition ended. Known as the life of the party, Texas Guinan’s ability to navigate show business at the edges of legality showed her famous wit to be even more than meets the eye. “The true wisecrack is one that hits bottom,” she said, “that touches the fundamentals of human nature. Yet on the surface seems superficial.”
Louise Berliner. Texas Guinan: Queen of the Nightclubs. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1993.
Laurie E. Jasinski, Gary Hartman, Casey Monahan, and Ann T. Smith, eds. The Handbook of Texas Music. Second Edition. Denton, TX: Texas State Historical Association, 2012.