Come Up and See Them Sometime
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Laws didn’t mean much to colorful ladies like Mae West and Texas Guinan. And that’s the idea behind an exhibition at Village Restaurant called “Onstage Outlaws: Mae West and Texas Guinan in a Lawless Era,” which runs through mid-September.
Among their most notorious actions, West turned down Billy Wilder’s request that she play Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” feeling it was insulting to play a role about a has-been, and Guinan ran Prohibition-era nightclubs that were raided by federal agents.
Among those paying homage to these figures was Louise Berliner, who traveled from Massachusetts to New York to view the exhibit Tuesday. Ms. Berliner, who is the author of “Texas Guinan: Queen of the Nightclubs” (University of Texas Press), has a personal connection to the show. Her grandfather, Maxwell Lopin, was Guinan’s lawyer, who defended Guinan in 1929 at her “public nuisance” trial for operating a speakeasy. Ms. Berliner’s book was the basis of a screenplay “Hello, Suckers,” which Madonna is considering working on.
The show features a photo of Guinan in jodhpurs and another of her wearing a large Indian headdress at a Beaux Arts ball. There is also a rare song sheet from “Padlocks of 1927,” a musical review featuring Guinan along with George Raft, Barbara Stanwyck, and Clare Booth. Nearby is a photo of the Hippodrome, the large Midtown indoor amphitheater where the review had its debut.
A woman of restless energy, Guinan was born in Texas. She moved to New York in 1907, where she rented a room for $2 a week at 72 Washington Square South, and later moved to 17 West 8th St., where she lived in an antiquefilled duplex.
In the exhibition, there is a photo of the Fifth Avenue Theatre on West 28th Street where Guinan met the producer John Slocum, who helped launch her theater career. Slocum had wanted to find a wild-west act for a play he was working on. Guinan was billed as a “Lone Star Novelty,” and Slocum thought the show would be a cowboy act. But he was disappointed when it turned out to be Guinan singing songs while suspended above the audience in an airship.As he got up to leave, she embarrassed him by shining a flashlight on him and saying, “If you’re going out, bring one back for me!” He sat back down and waited for Guinan to turn the light off. She did not, and continued to sing and tease him.
This was rather bold for a woman who was once the Sunday school teacher of a radio announcer, Lowell Thomas, in Colorado. She cut quite a swath through New York City. In 1917, she rode an elephant down a stretch of Fifth Avenue, as part of an effort by the Friars Club to raise money for the war effort. In her nightclubs, she called every man she didn’t know Fred. Sometimes, the person would turn out to in fact be named Fred and would be impressed that she knew his name.
In addition to furs, ropes of pearls, and other jewelry, she wore bracelets on each wrist with 567 diamonds each. She was driven around in an armored car that once belonged to the king of Belgium.
In her book, Ms. Berliner tells the story about the time that Prince Edward of Wales was at Guinan’s nightclub when Prohibition agents raided the place. Guinan ushered the Prince to the kitchen, put him in a chef’s outfit, and “handed him a carton of eggs, a frying pan, and a spatula, and told him to fry eggs until she returned.” She put his escort, Lord Mountbatten, behind a drum and told him to play music. After the agents had left, she heard a cry from the kitchen, “Texas, for Heaven’s sake, do something about these eggs!” She hurried in to find fried eggs stacked two inches high.
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PRESCIENT ABOUT GRASS
Ernestine Bradley spoke Wednesday night about her memoir, “The Way Home: A German Childhood, An American Life” (Pantheon). She lived in Germany as a child during World War II, and, as an adult, came to America, where she taught literature.
In her talk, she mentioned someone else who lived in Germany during World War II, the writer Günter Grass, who earlier this month disclosed that he had been a member of the Waffen-SS as a teenager.
Ms. Bradley noted how in 1999 she had written a book called “The Language of Silence: West German Literature and the Holocaust” (Routledge). She said in that book she had demonstrated silences in his texts. “So recently I have felt a little bit vindicated, but it’s a sad topic on which to be vindicated.”