Tex Guinan

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Originally from:
Waco, Texas

Bar owner

New York

Words by: Theodora Sutcliffe

As more and more 'speakeasies' open, we profile Mary Louise "Texas" Guinan, one of the true icons of Prohibition.

You can take the girl out of convent school. But it's rather more difficult to take the convent school out of the girl. And Mary Louise Cecelia "Tex" Guinan, born Irish Catholic in Texas, became so synonymous with all that was naughty that she and her troupe of dancing gals were banned from entering both France and England.

After making her name on stage in New York, Tex made her way West for a career in movies, playing first vamps then Western heroines on the silent screen. Unusually for a woman then or now, she did all her own stunts, and even formed her own production company in 1922 - after her death, she would herself be immortalised in a film titled Incendiary Blonde.

While Tex's business empire extended to fat reduction pills, it was her verbal wit and manicured good looks that brought her to the arena that would make her name - though whether she got her start at the Gold Room or Jacques Bustanoby's Domino Room is disputed. She went on to open her first speakeasy, the El Fey, with gangster backing, in 1924.

This was the first of a series of clubs, all of which lasted a bare few months before the long arm of the law intervened - and when they did, Guinan would ask the band to play "The Prisoner's Song" as the cops escorted her to jail. Her clubs included the 300 Club, the Texas Guinan Club, the Salon Royale, the Club Intime and the Club Argonaut, and stayed open until a decadent 5am.

Her trademark cry of "Hello, suckers!", and a ready wit that produced lines like "A politician is a man who will lay down your life for his country," enchanted stars from George Gershwin and Rudolph Valentino through to John Barrymore and Irving Berlin.

And Tex also had an eye for publicity, inviting the reclusive 81-year-old heiress Ella Wendel to her club for a good time - the lady stayed until 2am and her visit appeared in the New Yorker.

Her miraculous escape from a trial on charges of aiding and abetting the sale of liquor brought her worldwide notoriety, which she parlayed into newspaper columns, a world tour with her scantily clad chorus girls, and even, though she was well into her 40s, a revival of her film career. Even her face lift made front page news.

In one of those bitter ironies of which human life is full, it was drink that caused Ms Guinan's downfall. Not hard liquor. Not the apple juice and hooch concoction she sold as champagne. But a humble glass of water that left her with a lethal stomach bug.

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