Flashback: Song and dance queen Texas Guinan a showstopper

Ron Grossman, Chicago Tribune

Texas Guinan had no reason to be concerned about her health when she left Chicago in 1933. The city’s medical authorities were slow to trace an outbreak of amoebic dysentery to the Congress Hotel, where visitors in town for the city’s World’s Fair had stayed. Most guests didn’t become ill until returning home.

Besides, at 49, Guinan took pride in still being able to sing and dance her way through a nightclub audience, pausing only to rub a bald man’s head while salaciously whispering in his ear. She and her troupe of showgirls had put on four appearances a day at the Century of Progress, as the lakefront exhibition was titled.

The fair’s management was uneasy about booking Guinan because of her reputation as a risque performer with mobster admirers. But one venue, the Pirate Ship, was sinking in red ink. So they took a chance, and her “Century of Whoopee” revue packed them in.

“The old Guinan girl is both a persona and a personage, not only a great showman but a great show,” wrote Ashton Stevens, the Chicago American’s critic.

From Chicago, Guinan took her act through the Midwest and up the West Coast. By Los Angeles, she felt unusually tired.

She’d long fantasized about a second career as a evangelist, and in a Tacoma, Washington, church she gave it a try. “What a sap the pastor and the congregation must have thought me,” she wrote to a friend.

In Portland she already had been having severe stomach pains. During a performance in Vancouver, she asked to be taken to a hospital where she died of intestinal ulcers on Nov. 5, 1933.

“The ulcers may have been caused by amoeba,” Guinan’s physician in Vancouver telegraphed the president of the Chicago Board of Health.

“The wire was received just as her body passed through Chicago en route to New York for burial,” the Tribune reported. The train paused just long enough for local friends to pay their respects. Guinan would take refuge in Chicago when she was in trouble with the New York police.

“The show woman called Texas has headed for the last round up after years of bizarre notoriety,” the Tribune’s farewell tribute read. “The story of her sensational life, garnished with the wisecracks in which she specialized, is becoming part of the legend of the prohibition period, now at its close.”

Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan was born on Jan. 12, 1884, in Waco, Texas. Her Irish-immigrant parents supposedly operated a nearby ranch and she claimed that’s where learned to ride and shoot.

Buffalo Bill, the famed cowboy showman, might or might not have told her father: “Guinan, I’ll bet that little girl Texas was born in the saddle and cut her teeth on a six-gun.”

“Exaggerate the world,” Guinan advised showbiz hopefuls. “Dress up your lives with imagination.”

She certainly didn’t run away from home with Hank Miller’s 101 Wild West Show, as she suggested in later life. Her biographer, Louise Berliner, couldn’t find any records of a Guinan ranch, and Texas Guinan’s timeline and Miller’s were out of sync.

“I concluded that Tex didn’t exactly rewrite the past, just reimagined it, shuffled the pieces a little,” Berliner reported in “Texas Guinan, Queen of the Nightclubs.”

Guinan first emerges from the clouds of mythology in 1905. She was a newlywed and newly arrived in Chicago, living first in a furnished room on Goethe Street, then in an apartment at 410 N. Dearborn St.

Her husband got a job as a cartoonist at the Chicago Examiner newspaper, and Marshall Field awarded her a scholarship to the American Conservatory of Music, as she told the story. Neither Field’s department store nor the school had any record of that.

But she seems to have taken vocal lessons somewhere, because she had a trained singing voice by the time she left Chicago, and her husband, for New York in 1907.

There she started as a chorus girl, became a star and eventually was the producer of her own lavish nightclub shows.

But en route, her career took a hit from a 1913 Tribune headline, “Actress Quack Plays ‘Fat Lady’ To Get The Money.” The accompanying article said that she lent her name to a scheme to bilk weight-conscious women with a phony “Texas Guinan’s World Famed Treatment for Corpulency.”

She claimed her “new, fairy slenderness of figure” had wowed a famous theatrical manager who’d said she was fat. The American Medical Association said that the useless product sold for $3 cost only 30 cents to make.

She gave evidence against her partner in the scheme, so the feds went relatively easy on her. But lawsuits for damages cost her plenty.

“Every time I ran down the aisle of a theater and kissed a baldheaded man he would stick a summons down the back of my gown,” said Guinan of the ensuing lawsuits.

So she added Hollywood gigs, often a playing a cowgirl, to her nightclub appearances and touring productions.

“The Guinan is by way of becoming an institution in New York,” a Tribune correspondent reported in 1927. “Tourists have them on their lists of things to be seen if possible and all our natives want to see them at least once.”

She was then starring in “Padlocks of 1927,” which the Tribune’s critic described as “a lively burlesque. Not too bare but bold as brass — brass that is beginning to tarnish.” The title was an allusion to clubs padlocked for selling liquor during Prohibition.

Between acts, the critic wrote, Guinan would introduce anybody in the audience who was somebody. One evening it was Philadelphia’s censor of plays, whom she introduced as Doc and badgered into repeating a little joke.

“ ‘I only told her,’ the flustered Doc muttered, ‘that we were a little strict in Philadelphia. We insisted that all naval displays must be held in the river.’ ”

She welcomed customers with her trademark greeting: “Hello, sucker!” Reporters were her club’s regulars. Guinan was a font of snappy quotes.

In 1929, Guinan was tried for violating the ban on booze. A jury needed only an hour to render a verdict of not guilty.

The Tribune wanted to host a debate on WGN radio between her and Mabel Willebrandt, the Justice Department’s Prohibition enforcer. Told that Willebrandt was indignant, Guinan quipped: “I didn’t know she had any dignity.”

Yet, despite her wisecracking, Guinan was troubled. While she got laughs, her audience didn’t look like happy people, though they could afford the stiff cover charge. Could they need new kind of gospel — one of joy and happiness rather than the fires-of-hell message they usually heard?

Guinan’s theological speculations date to the night Aimee Semple McPherson visited a Greenwich Village speak-easy. Guinan introduced the famous evangelist and was fascinated by her stage presence. She worked an audience just like she herself did.

“Stop before it is too late,” McPherson urged Guinan’s patrons. They responded by banging the wooden noisemakers with which they’d applauded a chorus girl writhing like a Hawaiian hula dancer.

Guinan’s initial reaction was jealousy. She challenged the evangelist to a debate. It was rejected, just like the invitation to the Prohibition enforcer. But during her final tour, Guinan visited McPherson’s Angelus Temple in Los Angeles.

“I’m not good enough to save souls now,” Guinan said, kneeling at the altar. “But I see the time coming when I will take the evangelistic trail when I retire from the show business.”

She didn’t get the opportunity. She died shortly after preaching at the Tacoma church. Her funeral in New York was pure showbiz — lots of glamour with a bit of illusion. Fans and celebrity worshippers besieged the Campbell Funeral Church on Broadway.

A phalanx of flowers, mostly chrysanthemums, flanked the coffin in which Guinan lay dressed in a gray chiffon gown.

“On her hands were diamonds as big as headlights — or at least they seemed to be diamonds,” the New York Daily News reported. “A detective from the pickpocket squad who stood in line to gaze on Tex expressed his doubts.”


Have a Flashback idea? Share your suggestions with Editor Colleen Kujawa at ckujawa@chicagotribune.com.


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