New York’s nightclub queen was as big as Texas

Lenore Skenazy

Lenore Skenazy

BY LENORE SKENAZY  |  Hello, sucker!

That’s not an insult to you, dear reader. That’s how Texas Guinan, New York’s “Queen of the Nightclubs,” used to greet her patrons, friends and protégés — among them Mae West, Barbara Stanwyck, Legs Diamond, Lucky Lindbergh, Rudolph Valentino — the cream of the Jazz Age crop.

And I don’t know about you, but I’d never heard of her.

I happened to read about a talk coming up at the Jefferson Market Library in Greenwich Village by LindaAnn Loschiavo,  a historian, journalist and playwright. The blurb said Loschiavo usually gives an annual presentation on Mae West, but this year she’s reaching a little further back in history to the woman who makes Lady Gaga look like Laura Ingalls Wilder. The woman who made a salary second only to William Randolph Hearst in the 1920s. The woman who went to jail dripping in diamonds and slyly thanked the police for giving her one night when she didn’t have to worry about them being stolen. The woman who actually invented the word “nightclub.” I learned all that and more when I called Loschiavo up for a preview.

“She didn’t break the mold, she created it!” Loschiavo whooped the minute I mentioned Texas, which, as you might guess, was not Texas’s real name. Born Mary Louise Cecilia in Waco, Texas, 1884, she moved to New York in 1907 to Washington Square South and paid $2 a week for room and breakfast. Her other meals?

“Milk and rye bread,” said Loschiavo.  

That humble diet didn’t last long. Very soon, Loschiavo said, Texas was telling rapt reporters tales of her life back home on a ranch, where she’d starred in Wild West shows, and attended an elite boarding school.

All lies.

All believed.

The press loved her brassiness. Broadway producers loved her sass.

“And she was a very attractive woman,” said Loschiavo, “so she picked up all these older men who brought her things.”

Before long Texas was living in an antiques-filled duplex at 17 W. Eighth St. She was even making enough to move her family up from Waco, where, for the record, her dad had been a grocer.

By 1917, Texas was out in Hollywood starring in silent-movie Westerns and getting really rich. By 1922 she moved back to the city she loved and finally figured out her true calling.

Queen.

New York was roaring, and liquor was pouring — illegally, in speakeasies, thanks to Prohibition. Rip-roaring Texas was hired to keep the crowds singing, dancing and overspending at ever-swankier clubs, and eventually she opened her own. She even coined the term “whoopee.” With a string of scantily clad chorus girls to liven things up, she made sure everyone was happy — politicians, musicians, gangsters (they were key), college boys, bankers, gossip columnists (also key)…and police on the take.

Nonetheless, her clubs would get raided periodically. And just as periodically she would get off. Each  raid only added to her fame.

At least some of Texas’s trials were held in the Greenwich Village building that was a courthouse then, and is the Jefferson Market Library today — and Loschiavo’s inspiration.

After 1927, the courthouse was exclusively used for women’s trials.

“I live down the block from the library and there’s tons of women’s history there,” she said. “But every time you walk by the building you see a little plaque with men’s names”—the architects. “This used to boil my blood — so many important things happened in this building!”

She started writing about those things — including the obscenity trial that made Mae West famous. And guess who covered that trial for the Journal-American?

Mae’s friend, mentor and role model, Texas Guinan.

Like so many high rollers, Texas did not weather the stock market crash particularly well, and had to take her act on the road. She was in Vancouver when she died, at 49, of ulcerated colitis — but not before declaring, “I would rather have a square inch of New York than the rest of the world.”

Twelve thousand New Yorkers turned out to pay their respects — and in a way, we still do. To this day, what we think of as that innate New York brash is really a bit of Texas.

You can hear LindaAnn Loschiavo’s talk “Onstage Outlaws: Mae West and Texas Guinan during the Lawless Prohibition Era,” Mon., Aug. 17, at 6:30 p.m., at the Jefferson Market Library, 425 Sixth Ave. Free. For more information, call 212-243-4334.

Skenazy is a keynote speaker and founder of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids”

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