Amid the speculation that we’re heading into the Soaring/Roaring/not-Boring ’20s, it’s worth remembering that the 1920s roared not just because of favourable economic conditions but because people made the most of the frothy times. It’s not so much the Great Man theory of history as the Man looking for a Great time. And in the Jazz Age, Texas Guinan was exactly this sort of Great Woman.
Born Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan to Irish immigrants in Waco in 1883, Texas cast off her given names to take up the objectively more badass moniker of her state. This helped her onto the vaudeville stage and into early films, where she played a gunslinger in reels like Girl Sheriff, I Am The Woman, and The Wild Flower of the Mountain Range.
By 1922, Guinan was 38, unmarried, bleached blonde, and at loose ends in New York City. She happened to be at a nightclub called the Hotel des Beaux Arts when, at 1:30 in the morning, she was invited up to the stage. She sang, told jokes, and generally kept the party going until the sun came up. Spotting an opportunity, the club’s owner hired her on as a hostess, a role she played as a sort of mistress of ceremonies.
By all accounts, it wasn’t her voice or her looks that kept the patrons ordering drinks; it was her wit. Cynical, snappy, and bracing, her patter was a perfect digestif:
Hollywood sounds like something for a Christmas decoration, but it’s just Western for poison ivy.
A politician is a fellow who will lay down your life for his country.
It’s having the same man around the house that ruins matrimony.
He brought me so many orchids that I looked like a well-kept grave.
Her brain is as good as new.
She’d tour the room, being glamorous, cracking wise, and encouraging patrons to order a few more. If one was illegal, why not have three? She lied that she’d been married “twice in earnest and once in Newark.” Interspersed with these lines were her catchphrases, and hearing one with your own ears was proof that you’d been at the party. “Give the little girl a great big hand” was one, and “Hello sucker!” was another.
Like all the Great Wits, she built on the work of others. Of a beau, she said, “Oh, he was all right as far as sweethearts go — and he went,” a nice turn on Saki’s line, “The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go, she went.” Speaking of which, one story has it that the Prince of Wales was once in her club when it was raided, and a quick-thinking Guinan rushed him into the kitchen, handed HRH a frying pan, and put a chef’s hat on the royal head to keep his identity a secret.
When the good times came to an end — “Give the little girl a great big handcuff,” the federal agents allegedly joked — Guinan pulled off a rare Reverse Wilde: Her wit in the courtroom actually saved her. As Dorothy Herrman recounts, “she wisecracked with the judge, treated the Prohibition agents like muddled patrons at her club and was cleared of all charges.”
For the lesson of her life, I’m going to draw the same conclusion as plucked from Yogi Berra’s biography: Play your part. The glamorous, big-talking actress gave the people glamour and big talk. She called them all suckers (and given they were paying the equivalent of $375 in 2021 dollars for a bottle of bootleg scotch, they certainly qualified), but she lived up to her legend.
Still, like Wilde, she suffered a final indignity of dying far too young and far from home. And before she was felled by a ruptured intestine at the age of 49 in Vancouver, of all places, she said, “I would rather have a square inch of New York than the rest of the world.” Vancouver has improved quite a bit since then, or so I have read.
Quick quips; lightning
“The drink in that pub is not fit for washing hearses.”
— Brendan Behan
“A good general rule on wine-tasting to state that the bouquet is better than the taste, and vice versa.”
— Stephen Potter
“I never saw a mob rush across town to do a good deed.”
— Wilson Mizner, the originator of the “Hello, sucker!” greeting.
How surprising does an observation have to be before it becomes a witticism? Or, how commonplace does a witticism have to be before it becomes an observation? As you microdose that incredible thought, consider a few riffs on a recent Twitter joke format du jour. Between these few tweets lies the uncanny valley between meh and aha! Pray that you have the wisdom to know the difference.
If reading the 94th Get Wit Quick was like microdosing Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting, then please do try a macrodose. Why hasn’t there been a remake of I Am The Woman starring Charlize Theron kicking people? Every time you tap the ❤️ below, the Prince of Wales fries another egg 🍳.