Mary Louise Cecilia (Texas) Guinan, Broadway personality and Hollywood actress, was born in Waco on January 12, 1884, the oldest child of Irish immigrants Michael and Bessie (Duffy) Guinan. Her parents settled on a small ranch near Waco, where her father was in the wholesale grocery business. She followed the encouragement of her parents to pursue horseback riding and ultimately became an accomplished rider and roper. As a student, however, she was less enthusiastic and often disrupted classes at the private Catholic schools she attended. In 1898 Guinan went to study music in Chicago. After two years there she returned to Waco. She soon began performing in amateur theater productions, namely Wild West dramas, in the West. During this time she met John J. Moynahan, a Denver newspaper artist. They were married in Colorado on December 2, 1904; the marriage ended within two years. Like many aspiring performers, Guinan believed New York City offered her the best opportunities for breaking into show business. By 1906 she had moved there and, after initial hard times, had found work as a chorus girl. She eventually became a frequent performer of Gibson Girl acts on the vaudeville circuit and then earned roles in musical comedies such as Miss Bob White, The Hoyden, and The Gay Musician. She was noticed in 1917 by a scout from Balboa Amusement Producing Company, who promised her a career in Hollywood as a gun-girl heroine in silent western films. By this time her home-state roots had earned her the permanent nickname "Texas."
Her career in the movies began with The Wildcat, a 1917 picture that received little attention because its release coincided with the country's entry into World War I. Mary Guinan herself took a break from Hollywood to entertain troops in France before returning in the fall of 1917 to make three more movies. In her film career she worked with numerous film companies in scores of movies. She preferred and popularized roles that allowed her to portray self-reliant women who were true gunslingers. The titles of her movies, which reflect the image she played, included The Hellcat, The She Wolf, The Gun Woman (1918), and Little Miss Deputy (1919). Though she achieved success in Hollywood, Guinan was ultimately out of favor with producers who favored younger, more beautiful stars. She temporarily countered these preferences by starting her own company, Texas Guinan Productions, in 1921. However, her company made only a few movies, and by 1922 she had ended the business, left Hollywood, and headed to New York.
She returned to Broadway and within a year was hired as a singer at the club in the Beaux Arts Hotel. By displaying a brassy style and determined will, she was able to move from singer to master of ceremonies. Most clubs at this time did not have emcees, but those that did hired only men. Guinan broke this tradition and proved that she could comfortably fill the role. She achieved great success at interacting with her audience, generating an atmosphere of camaraderie, trading barbs and slogans with patrons, and usually convincing them to increase their spending. From the Beaux Arts, she went to work in 1924 at a club run by entrepreneur Larry Fay. There she became one of the best-known personalities on Broadway, noted for greeting audiences each night with her trademark, "Hello, sucker!" Her fame also reached local and federal authorities, who were eager to stop her flagrant violations of prohibition laws.
The remainder of the 1920s saw her move from club to club, as authorities repeatedly closed the establishments that employed her. After several moves in New York, she temporarily worked in Fay's club in Miami, Florida, in 1925. She also performed in clubs in Chicago throughout the 1920s and into the 1930s. Guinan always denied that alcohol was sold in her clubs; despite evidence to the contrary she avoided any lengthy stays in jail and ultimately had all charges against her dropped, primarily because there was no clear proof that she owned any of the clubs where she worked. Although her differences with authorities were hard on business, she was able to capitalize on the notoriety caused by them. In 1926, while her clubs were routinely being raided, she earned $700,000 in ten months. The following year she appeared as the hostess in a Broadway review aptly named Padlocks of 1927.
Building on her fame, Guinan returned to Hollywood and starred in two talking pictures: Queen of the Night Clubs (1929) and Broadway Through a Keyhole (1933). The pictures allowed her to play autobiographical roles, but they were not big hits. The economic catastrophe of 1929 contributed to their failure, as did some resistance to Guinan's associations with nightclubs and liquor and her general flouting of prohibition laws. Between making her two talking movies, she returned to New York and continued to host clubs until authorities closed them. During this time she also toured with some of her shows and appeared in the Broadway musical revue Glorifying the American Girl, directed by Florenz Ziegfeld.
Guinan saw her club profits dwindle throughout the Great Depression. She decided in 1931 to take her nightclub show to Europe to perform. Her reputation preceded her, however, and did not please European authorities. The ship carrying her and her dancers was refused entry at every European country it called on, including England and France. The debacle was later turned to Guinan's advantage when it became the basis for a successful satirical revue entitled Too Hot for Paris. The revue toured New England and was, predictably, banned in some towns.
Guinan continued touring in productions in 1932 and 1933. She also made plans, ultimately unfulfilled, to marry theater manager Mortimer Davis, Jr. Some sources state that she married and divorced critic Julian Johnson and George E. Townley, but no records of the marriages have been found. For many of the more conservative residents of Waco, Guinan's failed marriage, affairs, prohibition violations, and well-documented career as a nightclub celebrity were horrifying. She returned her hometown's ill will; she had earlier moved her parents to New York and declared Waco to be no more than a "city of the past." Despite her tough and flamboyant style, she was intensely devoted to her family and friends and was even known to help her competitors when federal authorities sought them. She also once joined a protest effort led by the National Woman's Party against a New York law that would have limited work hours for women in industry.
In November 1933, while touring in Vancouver, British Columbia, Guinan developed intestinal problems, and on November 5, 1933, she died, at age forty-nine. Twelve thousand people viewed her body at Campbell Funeral Church on Broadway before her burial in White Plains, New York. Her remains were later moved to a family plot at Calvary Cemetery in Queens. Despite some periods of financial prosperity, Mary Guinan did not die wealthy. She left what money she had to her mother, and the rest of her belongings were auctioned off. She was later portrayed in numerous American films, including Lady for a Day (1933), Incendiary Blonde (1945), and Splendor in the Grass (1961).