Actress and Queen of the Nightclubs Texas Guinan was born Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan 133 years ago today in Waco, Texas. Here are 10 TG Did-You-Knows:
- Guinan was one of seven children. Her parents were Irish-Canadian immigrants. She attended parochial school at a Waco convent.
- When Guinan was 16, her parents moved the family to Denver, Colorado. There she began to appear in amateur stage productions before marrying newspaper cartoonist John Moynahan at age 20. The pair moved to Chicago, where she studied music. She eventually divorced Moynahan and began to perform in vaudeville as a singer.
- Guinan’s singing was reportedly no great shakes, but she had lots of pep and she soon found that she improved her prospects as a performer by regaling the audience with (perhaps exaggerated) tales of her “Old West” upbringing.
- In 1906, Guinan moved to New York City, where she worked as a chorus girl before finding additional work in vaudeville and on the New York stage.
- In 1917, Guinan made her movie debut and soon was a regular in western pictures. She is said to have been the first movie cowgirl (her nickname was The Queen of the West). Guinan would go on to appear in more than 50 features and shorts before she died in 1933.
- With the passage of the 18th Amendment, Guinan became active in the speakeasy industry, serving as hostess and emcee for a long string of illicit (but very popular) nightspots. Her outsized, sassy personality and her skill at evading justice, despite her many arrests for operating a speakeasy, made her a legendary figure in Prohibition-era NYC.
- Guinan’s speakeasies featured an abundance of scantily clad fan dancers and showgirls, but her penchant for pulling the legs of the rich and famous served her just as well. “Hello, suckers!” became her standard exclamation for greeting customers. Her well-to-do patrons she referred to as her “butter-and-egg men” and she coined the familiar phrase “Give the little ladies a big hand” while serving as emcee.
- Texas Guinan’s nightclubs were often backed by gangster Larry Fay and such legendary bad guys as Arnold Rothstein, Owney Madden and Dutch Schultz frequented her establishments—alongside relatively “good guys” such as George Gershwin, Walter Chrysler, Pola Negri, Mae West, Al Jolson, Gloria Swanson, John Gilbert, Clara Bow, Irving Berlin, John Barrymore and Rudolph Valentino.
- Ruby Keeler and George Raft both got their starts in show business as dancers as Guinan’s clubs, and Walter Winchell acknowledged that the inside access Guinan gave him to Broadway’s cornucopia of colorful characters helped launch his career as a gossip columnist.
- Guinan died of amoebic dysentery in 1933, one month before Prohibition was repealed. She was just 49. Bandleader Paul Whiteman and writer Heywood Broun were among her pallbearers.
Happy birthday, Texas Guinan, wherever you may be!
Sadly, there are very few stars of the silent era who are still with us today, but Diana Serra Cary, born Peggy-Jean Montgomery 98 years ago today in San Diego, was, as Baby Peggy, a bona fide star in her day. Here are 10 DSC/BP Did-You-Knows:
- Peggy’s father, Jack Montgomery, worked as a cowboy for some years before entering the movie business, working as a stuntman and extra. He eventually did some stand-in work for western star Tom Mix.
- Young Peggy-Jean was discovered at the age of 19 months when she accompanied her mother to visit her father, who was working at Century Studios in Hollywood. Director Fred Fishbach (later Fred Hibbard), impressed by her demeanor and ability to take direction (from her parents, that is), cast her in a short subject opposite Century’s popular canine star, Brownie the Wonder Dog. Baby Peggy’s picture debut was in Playmates (1921). When it proved a success, she was signed to a long-term contract.
- From 1921 to 1924, Peggy appeared in nearly 150 comedy shorts for Century. These films were often parodies of other popular movies of the day, so Peggy was sometimes asked to satirize popular stars (she did take-offs on both Rudolph Valentino and Pola Negri in Peg o’ the Movies ).
- In 1923, Peggy began to appear in full-length dramatic features for Universal. These films were “A” pictures, dubbed “Universal Jewels,” the studio’s designation for its top-shelf offerings.
- In 1922, Peggy received more than 1.2 million fan letters. She was so popular that between pictures, she was sent on nationwide promotional tours, making public appearances along the way to promote her movies.
- By 1923, Universal was paying Peggy $1.5 million a year (more than $20 million today). Her face also appeared on a wide range of commercial products, from dolls in her likeness to sheet music, jewelry and milk. It’s said that as a girl, Judy Garland owned a Baby Peggy doll.
- You can probably guess the rest of the story: Her parents blew through all that money Peggy was earning, putting nothing aside for her. Her movie career came to a halt in 1925 (she was all of seven years old) when her father had a falling out with a producer over her salary and cancelled her contract. She was successful in vaudeville for a few years thereafter, but with a stage name like Baby Peggy, her career was bound to trail off. It was a relief to her when her career slowed down, but her parents relied on her for their income and kept the pressure on her, so she returned to pictures, playing bit parts and doing extra work.
- Finally, in 1938, Peggy appeared in her last film, Having Wonderful Time, and married Gordon Ayres, after which she changed her name to Diana Ayres (and then to Diana Serra Cary when she converted to Catholicism and remarried—Serra is her confirmation name, and her second husband was named Robert “Bob” Cary).
- In her later years, Diana has authored several books, among them The Hollywood Posse: The Story of a Gallant Band of Horsemen Who Made Movie History, Hollywood’s Children: An Inside Account of the Child Star Era, Jackie Coogan: The World’s Boy King: A Biography of Hollywood’s Legendary Child Star and her autobiography, What Ever Happened to Baby Peggy: The Autobiography of Hollywood’s Pioneer Child Star.
- These days, Diana lives in Gustine, California. There was a push recently for her to be allowed to reside at the Motion Picture & Television Fund’s Woodland Hills retirement facility, but she is in good health, physically and mentally and wanted to remain in California’s Central Valley, near her son and his family. What she needed was financial assistance, not a residence. If you’d like to help her out, you can buy one or more of her acclaimed books (she’s a very good writer), you can send her a Paypal donation using the email address BabyPeggy1920 at att.net (her son oversees that account), or you can send her a card with a check to 738 Fifth Avenue, Gustine, CA 95322.
Happy birthday, Diana Serra Cary, and many happy returns of the day!
A couple of worthy recent stories from The New York Times — one by Dave Kehr about the life and career of silent star Norma Talmadge:
An Independent Woman, Nobly Suffering in Silents
She was perhaps the biggest female star of the silent era. Her dark, depthless eyes gazed from the covers of influential fan magazines, projecting a nobly suppressed pain and longing; in the stories inside, she — or her ghost writers — advised the emerging independent American women of the 1920s on matters of fashion and home décor. She regularly topped the popularity polls, outdistancing rivals like Gloria Swanson, Pola Negri and Mary Pickford. She and her husband, the producer Joseph Schenck, founded their own production company in 1917; by 1924, The New York Times was identifying her as “the highest salaried screen actress.”
Yet Norma Talmadge is barely remembered today. Worse, she is misremembered, having inspired two unfair caricatures that have lived on in a pair of popular films. In “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952), she is parodied as Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen), a silent diva whose Brooklyn accent undermines her talking debut in a French historical drama. (Talmadge’s second sound feature, the 1930 “DuBarry, Woman of Passion,” was indeed a failure, but Talmadge’s faint accent was the least of its problems.)
More malignantly, Billy Wilder used Norma Talmadge as the obvious if unacknowledged source of Norma Desmond, the grotesque, predatory silent movie queen of his 1950 film “Sunset Boulevard.” Enthusiastically interpreted by Gloria Swanson, Talmadge’s rival in the 1920s, the Desmond character draws on Talmadge’s reclusiveness (she left films in 1930, living in a Beverly Hills mansion on the considerable fortune she had earned in her prime), her well-known affair with a younger man (the actor Gilbert Roland, her co-star in several ’20s hits) and her reputation for erratic behavior (suffering from severe arthritis, she became addicted to painkillers and in 1946 married her doctor) to compose the movies’ ultimate symbol of female sexual hysteria.
Norma Desmond has become ubiquitous in American popular culture, but Norma Talmadge has become all but invisible. Although an unusually high percentage of her films survive — “Of her 51 features, 32 are currently thought to be complete and 10 more are preserved in part,” Greta de Groat writes on her excellent Talmadge Web site (stanford.edu/~gdegroat/NT/home.htm) — until now only a handful of her earlier movies have been available on home video.
“The Norma Talmadge Collection” from Kino International corrects that lamentable situation by offering two Talmadge features from her glory years: the 1926 comedy “Kiki,” directed by Clarence Brown, and the 1923 melodrama “Within the Law,” directed by Frank Lloyd. Oddly, neither film is typical Talmadge. “Kiki” is a wholly anomalous comedy, with Talmadge as a Parisian street urchin who becomes a music hall star, and “Within the Law” strays from melodrama into crime-film territory. But there is enough here to get a sense of who Talmadge was and what her gifts were…. [read more]
And another, by Dan Barry, about a century and a half in the colorful life of a small hotel on the Bowery in New York City:
On the Bow’ry
Open the door to a small hotel on the Bowery.
A small hotel, catering to Asian tourists, that used to be a flophouse that used to be a restaurant. That used to be a raucous music hall owned by a Tammany lackey called Alderman Fleck, whose come-hither dancers were known for their capacious thirsts. That used to be a Yiddish theater, and an Italian theater, and a theater where the melodramatic travails of blind girls and orphans played out. That used to be a beer hall where a man killed another man for walking in public beside his wife. That used to be a liquor store, and a clothing store, and a hosiery store, whose advertisements suggested that the best way to avoid dangerous colds was “to have undergarments that are really and truly protectors.”
Climb the faintly familiar stairs, sidestepping ghosts, and pay $138 for a room, plus a $20 cash deposit to dissuade guests from pocketing the television remote. Walk down a hushed hall that appears to be free of any other lodger, and enter Room 207. The desk’s broken drawer is tucked behind the bed. Two pairs of plastic slippers face the yellow wall. A curled tube of toothpaste rests on the sink.
Was someone just here? Was it George? [read more]