Returning to the obsessive and never to be quenched pursuit of what life was truly like in the twenties, let's begin with a quote from Ben Hecht, novelist, playwright, obscenely fast screenwriter and bon vivant. This is from his mammoth and quite interesting memoir "A Child Of The Century" published in 1953.
"New York in the twenties was a bold town with much the same attitude toward political reformers that the Far West once had toward cattle rustlers. It was devoted to pleasure, particularly to the pleasure of not giving a damn. Seriousness was an un-New Yorkish quality. it stamped the hinterland do-gooder, the rogue with a political ax to grind, the social wallflower and the aged. New York insisted that all its idols wear a grin. It regarded all foreign events, including the first World War, as entertainment. It believed that any war could be won by writing the right songs for it, and not losing your sense of humor. Its patriotism consisted of admiring itself ardently. It doted on its own charms--its chorus girls and Mad Hatters, its bootleggers its sports and its wags. A bon mot was the town's signature."
Of all the perennial 20's era figures who usually come to mind when pondering the decade (Fitzgerald, Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsy, Mayor James J. Walker) nobody, to me, quite sums up the spirit of the times--especially as drawn by Hecht in the above marvelous paragraph--more than Texas Guinan. Actress, hostess and nightclub impresario, Guinan was one of the first modern celebrities--famous for being famous rather than for any particular accomplishment. Born Mary Louise Guinan in--where else?--Texas (Waco no less) in 1884, Guinan was a turn of the century regional vaudeville circuit performer who, apparently, became well known for her snappy Texas "patter". She claimed to have grown up on a five thousand acre ranch (which has since been proven to be one of many tall tales the publicity loving Guinan put forth) and to have been the Sunday School teacher of future writer and broadcaster Lowell Thomas when he was just a boy. (This last boast is so strange that it could only be true--Thomas actually confirmed it and the two stayed friends throughout life.) She wound up in New York working as a chorus girl as early as 1906 before breaking through in big-time Vaudeville with her act.
In the late teens and early twenties, Guinan became a movie actress of some popularity--she starred in a pile of westerns with titles like "Girl Of The Border", "The Wildcat", "The Gun Woman" and "Girl of the Rancho". I've never seen any of these--obscure silent westerns not really being my thing, you dig--but I can only imagine their strangeness; Guinan seems about as western as West End Avenue. In any event neither her vaudeville act nor her westerns are what she's remembered for today. Guinan's real breakthrough came with the opening of the 300 Club, a speakeasy which she started in the mid 1920's and at which she presided as mistress of ceremonies--watching over her troupe of barely dressed, barely legal dancers. It was in this role that she came to personify New York nightlife--she was arrested numerous times for serving alcohol but somehow always managed to re-open. She always blithely claimed that she only served mixers and wasn't able to control if her customers snaked a flask in--a transparent lie. Most likely it was her deep underworld connections--specifically with gangster and clubowner Larry Fay-- that she exploited when she was under pressure. Her mixture of swagger, good hearted rough humor ("Hello Suckers" was her infamous catchphrase and she invented the term "butter and egg man") and her tough, "mobbed-up chick" persona earned her the admiration of the twenties elite. Her club was regularly packed with celebrities along the lines of Al Jolson, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, John Barrymore, Jeanne Eagels, Peggy Hopkins Joyce, etc. This mixture of high cuture and low fun was the true beginnings of what later became known as "Cafe Society" (see 1996 film directed by...me).
Unlike other celebrities of her ilk, her fame didn't die with her. Even though she left behind no work as an actress or singer that can be adequately judged as evidence of her talents, the legend of Texas Guinan lived on--in large part thanks to her friends Damon Runyon and Walter Winchell. Alas there isn't any way to recapture the spirit of the surroundings that she provided--what it was like, on those long forgotten Broadway nights, to be under the influence of bootleg hooch in Texas' club, mingling with the swells and watching the chorus girls. The best we can do is try to imagine utilizing the two pieces of film posted below. First is a trailer for a lost film that Guinan starred in in 1929 called "Queen Of The Nightclubs". Directed by the inept Bryan Foy (who also helmed the marvelously awful first 100% talkie "Lights Of New York"), this film couldn't have been terribly good...but oh what I'd give to see it! (Why is the world so stupid so as to lose things like this while carefully preserving the seasons of junk television that turn up on the abominable TVLand?) Second I've posted an excerpt from a short called "A Night In A Dormitory"from 1930 (but probably shot in '29). This is Thelma White singing--or rather trying to be heard--over a bevy of noisy tap-dancing vixens in a seemingly accurate (that is--too crowded) nightclub setting. The routine is so shabbily rehearsed, so barely up to the standard of professional dancing as we now know it that it has a kind of fascinating verite to it--it feels what late night in a twenties nightclub probably felt like given the circumstances and the drinks involved. Thelma White, by the way, later achieved dubious fame playing the role of pot-pusher Mae Coleman in "Reefer Madness". (Later she was an agent for a number of well known actors as well--not one of whose name I can think of at the moment).
Prohibition and the boom years of the twenties made Guinan a fortune, but with the depression her business began to fold. Guinan took her troop of dancers to Europe and offered a staged version of what a night in her club was like. Alas, after years of hard living she died of ameobic dystentary, aged forty eight, only one month before prohibition was repealed. (Is that a disease we still have? It sounds very third-world). After her death, Guinan--as much a product of her time as Winchell and Runyon--was mythologized in a number of books and memoirs--and even a movie, "Incendiary Blonde", with Betty Hutton (you should pardon the expression) playing Texas. This Paramount film from 1945 used to turn up regularly on the old KTLA 8PM movie show but hasn't been heard from, cable-wise, in a hell of a long time. Even Madonna announced a Texas Guinan project a couple of years ago, naturally called "Hello Suckers"--but cooler heads seem to have prevailed. None of the works extant about Texas pretend toward accuracy. Indeed the whole idea of an accurate biography of Texas Guinan misses the point of her boastful self-invented self. She epitomized a New York that was the capital of self-promotion during the age of self-invention. On her deathbed, she reputedly said: "I'd rather have a square inch of New York than the entire rest of the world." A lovely last line...if she really said it.