Texas Guinan was a pistol. Her name may not mean much to us today, but in the 1920s it was synonymous with flash, booze, and bawdiness.

Mary Louise Cecilia “Texas” Guinan was born in 1884 into a Roman Catholic family. She attended parochial school and made her sacraments. As a young woman, she worked in vaudeville and as a chorus girl before landing a role in a silent picture called The Wildcat in 1917. She tried to make a name for herself as a singer and an actress, but her real success came during Prohibition, when she opened a speakeasy called the 300 Club in New York. Wealthy socialites and celebrities like Mae West, Irving Berlin, and John Barrymore frequented the club. George Gershwin is rumored to have occasionally played the piano for the patrons.

Long before the Playboy Mansion was even an idea in Hugh Hefner’s addled brain, Guinan had established the 300 Club as the epicenter of the sexy, sophisticated modern bon vivant. While Hefner wrapped lasciviousness in tuxedos and pipes, Guinan sold it through the myth of the frontier. She relied heavily on a fictitious version of her Texas childhood in which she rode broncos and toured with a Wild West show. She flaunted the idea that the new woman — the free woman — was hard-swearing and hard-drinking just like the men, as well as being self-reliant and sexually adventurous.

Guinan loved to shock people. “Hello, suckers,” she was famous for saying as she entered the club each night. She wore outlandish outfits — Western get-ups complete with cowboy hat, spurs, and six-shooters; flapper dresses and pearls with bejeweled bracelets (one famously had 586 diamonds on it); furs with a clapper and a police whistle.

The chorus girls at her clubs were very scantily clad for the time and were chosen not so much for their dance moves but for their other assets. Guinan would take friends and guests on tours of the red-light district in New York after hours. In everything she did at the club, sex was always the subtext, as well as the moneymaker. The banter and the music were a thin veil of respectability tacked onto an operation that thrived on selling drunkenness and the promise of easy access to women who would not say no.

Guinan rubbed elbows with gangsters, elected officials, and celebrities in about equal measure, and she always persuaded them to open their wallets. She made at one point the equivalent today of $6 million in a single year, though she would later lose it all when the Prohibition gravy train finally came to a halt. “A politician is a fellow who will lay down your life for your country,” she said. She saw little difference between the show that respectable community leaders put on during the day and the one that she put on in the club at night.

“Marriage is alright, but I think it’s carrying love a little bit too far,” she once said. She would know, having been married and divorced three times. She had a quip for everything, but saved much of her best material for what she saw as the humdrum boredom of the typical marriage. “It’s having the same man around the house all the time that ruins matrimony.”

These are the things that Texas Guinan is remembered for. They are the reason why she was famous enough to have a Wikipedia entry, and a character named after her on Star Trek: The Next Generation. But they are not what make her story worth hearing.

In the early 1930s, Guinan was reeling from the Depression and from a series of failed attempts to reignite her movie career. She began to appear in a touring show in cities around the United States and Canada, but the pace was brutal and the reviews were not kind. After a show in Vancouver in 1933, she experienced an attack of ulcerative colitis. This led to an unsuccessful surgery, precipitating her death on November 5 at the age of 49.

The day before she died, as she was being prepared for surgery, Fr. Louis Forget of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Vancouver was summoned to her bedside, where he administered the Sacrament of Extreme Unction and blessed her. Fr. Forget, later Monsignor, was quite a figure in his own right. He served St. Patrick’s as pastor for 43 years, establishing three schools and raising up more than 100 men and women into vocations to the priesthood or the religious life.

If Texas Guinan has become a footnote in history, Fr. Forget is barely an asterisk. His very surname betrays what has happened to his legacy through the sands of time. But what he lacked in brashness and sex appeal, he seems to have made up for in compassion. His patient ministry undoubtedly saved many souls. His ministrations to Mary Louise “Texas” Guinan on her deathbed were considered enough of a kindness by her family that they donated a tabernacle to St. Patrick’s in gratitude. It is still there today.

I will not be so crass as to assume that in those final hours of Guinan’s life, Fr. Forget moved her to a deep and abiding conversion. Nevertheless, it is both hopeful and not outside of the evidence to think that she may have died in a state of grace. When Guinan’s body was prepared for burial back in New York, amidst the glitzy accoutrements placed upon her, a rosary was put in her hand. Its beads pointed to the reality of a far greater covering she wore that no one could see, one that had been placed upon her at her baptism when the blood of the Son of Man had been poured out in her name.

Guinan’s story is tragic in many ways. She was far smarter than the character she showed to the world. She is reported to have read a book a day. Her dream had been to sing and act, but when that did not go the way she wanted she adjusted. Up until the day she died, she swore to many people that she had never taken a drop of alcohol. Given her penchant for telling tall tales, this may have just been another in a long line of famous fibs, but the fact that she said it even to her doctor on her deathbed suggests that it was important to her on some level. There was, perhaps, an inner sanctum she was striving to hold onto, instilled in her long before fame and corruption had taken their place, motivating her during the height of her club years to spend long days in silence at a Long Island beach.

As we live through a moment of great turmoil in our culture, wherein the Me Too movement has finally brought to light some of the startling and sad failures of the sexual revolution, it is worth remembering that the fallenness of sex and celebrity is nothing new. It goes all the way back to the Book of Genesis when a man abrogated his responsibility to love and serve his wife, causing her to look elsewhere for what she needed. Texas Guinan did not invent the marriage between lechery and respectability that has been the hallmark of power in all the great societies of our world, but she came along at the right moment to use it to her advantage. She was as much a victim of an upside-down world where women are treated savagely by men as any of the brave women who have been coming forward with their stories today. It must have seemed to her that the best answer to that problem was to perpetrate right back in equal measure, to show the world that women could be just as horrible as men if only given the chance.

Yet the truth remains that Mary Louise Cecelia Guinan was created as a child of God, made in his image and likeness, and loved by him beyond all possible measure. Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God, died for her on the cross and rose from the grave so that she might one day rise with him. All her sins and all the sins committed against her are but fading ash compared with the light of Christ that was given to her in the Sacraments of the Church. That is the interesting part of her story, that after all the glitz and light had faded, in a bleak hospital room in Canada, a priest standing in the person of Jesus placed a healing hand on her head and marked her as Christ’s own forever. It was just an ordinary day for him, but for her it was extraordinary.

 

About The Author

Jonathan is a chaplain at St. John XXIII College Preparatory School in Katy, Texas, and cohost of the podcast God and Comics.

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