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Tippling Point | The Queen of the Nightclubs

In the roaring twenties, America was reeling under prohibition. Alcohol was illegal. It was in those dark times that Texas Guinan, actress, dancer and owner of Club 300, rose to become 'the Queen of the Night Clubs.'
Oct 17, 2020 / 12:20 PM IST

When the police stormed the 300 Club in New York one evening in the year 1928, they never expected such a big haul of celebrities in America. It was a virtual who's who of the country. But alas. The long arm of the law almost had its grip over the glitzy before it found many celebrities vanish into thin air.

It was in the thick of the victory celebrations of the then British Open golf champion Bobby Jones that guests suddenly heard the noise of whistles and boots rushing in; there, they saw the unsavoury sight of police caps bobbing up and down among the crowd. Time to scurry off through the emergency exits. There were ex-senators, ex-president of Cuba, journalists in the club (But the main catch would have been Edward, the Prince of Wales, had it not been for the wise intervention of the proprietor of the club, Texas Guinan).

Guinan was cool as she threw an apron over the royalty and whisked the prince off to the kitchen as a dishwasher.

She then came back to the hall, sat by the piano, played a number before proferring her hands towards the officers for the customary handcuffs. For Texas Guinan, the drama in police raids had long lost its appeal. The whole club - more than 100 people - was shifted to the police station in three police vans.

manu remakant logo the-tippling-point-logo1-RIt was the roaring twenties and America was reeling under prohibition. Alcohol was illegal. But nothing could stop those clandestine operations going on in shady waterholes, called speakeasies, around the country where customers could access bootleg spirits that came under various guises.

It was in those dark times, Texas Guinan, actress, dancer and owner of Club 300, rose to become 'the Queen of the Night Clubs.'

Born in 1881 in Waco, Texas, Guinan came to New York later as a young girl to try her luck in the film industry. She did many roles, mostly as a cowgirl, in Hollywood movies before deciding to try her luck in the theatre field. Though Guinan didn't make any mark on stage, she built a reputation in the town as a quick-witted entertainer. Her charms finally found their ways to get the attention of Larry Fay, an aspiring gangster of the time. Why shouldn't we throw our talents together and build a joint in Manhattan (In the dark days of prohibition you need equal amounts of charm and muscle to set up an illegal club in the city)? He asked.

Texas Guinan liked the proposal and jumped on to the Larry Fay bandwagon.  The El Fey Club was born. Guinan knew that to make her customers consume more alcohol, she must keep them distracted. She hired a troupe of forty showgirls who would gyrate in the aisles to the blaring music. In those days you could catch Guinan herself sashaying from table to table with her iconic numbers: “Hello, Suckers! Come on in and leave your wallet on the bar!” “Give the little ladies a great big hand!”

Who could resist it!

Soon El Fay became a meeting place for not only those shady characters in the town who dared to break the law but also for the glitzy and the glamorous, the powerful and the rich of the country.

Of course, law enforcement was not idle. But Texas Guinan met the police with excuses that she was only selling soda and cola while her customers had brought all the alcohol from their homes. Which she was not aware of!

The cases fizzled out in courts where many judges were regular customers at Le Fey.

Texas Guinan by now had become so confident in business that she decided to end the partnership with Larry Fay to start on her own. The 300 Club was born. Customers would flock to wherever Guinan and her showgirls go, she knew it by now. On the other side, the policemen were already tired closing down her speakeasies, for yet another one would pop up in the town soon. "Hello, Suckers! Come on in and leave your wallet on the bar!” became a catchphrase ringing out all across the country.

While pieces of evidence incriminating her of shady business vanished from police stations, Guinan was getting more and more popular that she even had a column in the New York Post. She opened two other clubs - the Diamond and the Argonaut.

But soon Guinan found that she had run out of her luck.

The stock market crash of 1929 rendered many people jobless and darkness began to set in on all fields of life in America. Guinan's desperate attempts to take her show on the road across the country failed miserably. She turned her attention to Europe. Scotland Yard Police threatened her that they would board the ship and arrest her if she dared to land in England. She was denied a permit to France too.

Guinan's notoriety finally caught up with her.

In 1933, at the age of 49, Texas Guinan succumbed to amoebic dysentery; her show business came to a grinding halt. Around eight thousand people attended her funeral.

(Manu Remakant is a freelance writer who also runs a video blog —- A Cup of Kavitha — introducing world poetry to Malayalis. The views expressed here are personal.)
Manu Remakant
TAGS: #Lifestyle
first published: Oct 17, 2020 12:20 pm

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