Wednesday, August 28, 2013

83. Colorful New Yorkers: Diamond Jim and Texas Guinan

Looking a bit glum.  Maybe Lillian had just
rejected him ... again.

      Diamond Jim Brady (1856-1917) is remembered as the most prodigious eater and the most jewelry-adorned man-about-town of the Gilded Age.  Born to a poor Irish family on the Lower West Side of Manhattan, his father a saloon keeper, he started work at a young age as a hotel bellhop and messenger, studied the wealthy patrons, their talk and dress and manner, and set out to imitate them and become one of them.  One of these men took an interest in him, sent him to school to learn bookkeeping and penmanship, then offered him a job in baggage at Grand Central Station.  There he rose quickly to station agent and then general manager of the station, and in time became a salesman of handsaws, and then of railroad supplies, charming his customers as he sold them everything from seat cushions and hydraulic breaks to steel undercarriages.  Remarkably successful in this line of work, he became, with the help of investments in the stock market, a millionaire many times over.  If he sat in his office doing business from 9 to 5 daily, after that he gravitated, as he put it, to "where the white lights glowed."

     A perennial and gregarious bachelor, he was a familiar figure in the Broadway night life, an eager dancer and big tipper, and a frequent patron of the upstairs poker and baccarat tables at the Waldorf-Astoria.  Often dining with fellow lovers of the night, including attractive women above all, he would consume no alcohol but, so legend has it, vast amounts of food.  His breakfast was said to consist of eggs, breads, muffins, grits, pancakes, steaks, chops, fried potatoes, and pitchers of orange juice.  In midmorning he'd devour two or three dozen clams or oysters, then lunch at Delmonico's or some other fashionable restaurant on more oysters and clams, lobsters, crabs, a joint of beef, pie, and more orange juice.  Then, after an afternoon snack of more seafood, he'd typically dine on three dozen oysters, a dozen crabs, six or seven lobsters, soup, steak, and for dessert a tray full of pastries.

     Did he really consume such huge amounts of edibles, or has legend exaggerated his culinary prowess?  One restaurant owner described him as "the best twenty-five customers I ever had."  And a broker friend told of seeing him consume a pound of candy in five minutes.  When he died of a heart attack years later, doctors examining the body are said to have found that his stomach was six times the size of that of an average person.

     What was indisputable was his affinity for jewels ("my pets," he called them), especially the diamonds -- some 12,000 of them -- that gave him his nickname.  He wore them on his buttons, watch, belt buckle, scarf pin, eyeglass case, rings, tie pins, cane, and cuff links.  In the handle of his umbrella shone a gem worth $1500, but the prize of his collection was a 35-carat emerald surrounded by six 14-carat diamonds, the whole made into a ring worth $20,000 (about $420,000 today).  He rotated his pets, displaying diamonds one night, rubies the next, and emeralds the night after that.  And in his pockets, they say, he kept a stash of loose diamonds.  "All that glitters is not gold," Shakespeare opines.  True enough in this case, it was diamonds.  When Diamond Jim went out on the town, he absolutely glittered.  Garish?  Vulgar?  The incorrigible poor taste of the nouveau riche?  Said Brady, "Them as has 'em, wears 'em."

File:Lillian Russell cph.3b20676.jpg

   One of his best friends was actress and singer Lillian Russell, the reigning beauty of the day known for her voice and style and magical stage presence, as well as her hour-glass figure (a wasp waist with amplitudes above and below) and feathered hats.  Theirs seems to have been primarily a long-term friendship, though he evidently proposed more than once and was turned down, Lillian explaining that marriage would ruin their friendship.  If Jim remained a bachelor, it was wisdom; man about town that he was, he wouldn't have been a very good husband.  And Lillian, going through three marriages until she stuck at last in the fourth (she believed in marriage until divorce do us part), was probably not the ideal loving wife, and may have seen in their friendship a needed bit of stability.  What they shared was a love of life and good food, Lillian's appetite all but matching his own, and he generously helped support her lavish lifestyle, which included a bike custom-made for her by Tiffany, its handlebars inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and its wheel spokes displaying her initials set in diamonds.  Which goes a long way toward explaining why they call this the Gilded Age.

Lillian and her gem-studded bike.
Of course one notices the hat.

     But cycling may not have been quite his style.  In 1895 he was the first New Yorker to acquire that newfangled contraption, an automobile, then had his chauffeur drive him in town at a preannounced time and place, so his fellow citizens could gawk.

     The bluebloods of Manhattan would not have welcomed Diamond Jim or Lillian in their elegant parlors, he being the son of an Irish saloon keeper, and she an actress, and both of them guilty of the shameless display of wealth.  But Jim and Lillian didn't care; they were having too much fun.

     An aside on dreads:  Respectable families of the time nursed two haunting dreads: (1) That the son would fall in love with an actress; (2) That the daughter would elope with the coachman.  Good-looking young coachmen must have had trouble finding work.

     In time Diamond Jim's eating habits caught up with him and he was beset with gallstones, heart problems, diabetes, and stomach ulcers.  In 1917 he died of a heart attack, leaving money to various charities, $1200 to his favorite Pullman porter, and the bulk of his fortune to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

     The true confirmation of a legend in this country is its embodiment in a Hollywood movie, and both Diamond Jim and Lillian make the grade, Jim in the 1935 film Diamond Jim, starring Edward Arnold, and Lillian in the 1940 film Lillian Russell, starring Alice Faye.  I saw them both as a child and recall being quite indignant that the Lillian Russell film including some new song about an evening star that smacked of modernity; a budding history buff, I wanted "After the Ball" and others of that vintage, and not some romantic nonsense about an evening star.  (Wherein I erred.  I learn now that the evening star song was indeed of the period!)

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      Another lover of the nighttime Broadway scene was Texas Guinan (1884-1933).  Born in Waco, Texas, to Irish-Canadian immigrants, she later convinced the press that she had ridden broncos, rounded up cattle single-handed on a ranch, run off from school to join a circus, and in 1917 gone to France to entertain U.S. soldiers before they confronted the fearful Hun in battle.  Also, she told of receiving a medal from General Joffre during the battle of the Marne -- an interesting detail, since that battle occurred in 1914, long before we entered the war.  All of this was baloney; she was a gifted liar.

     A mediocre singer and slightly less mediocre actress, she started out in vaudeville, touring the vast hinterland of America, charming audiences less with her warbling than with her Wild West spiel and witticisms.  In 1917 she came to New York, where she landed roles in silent films -- 300 of them, she claimed, though it was really 36 -- and even appeared on Broadway.  But if she hoped to streak cometlike across the firmament of Gotham, so far her career had shown less flash than fizzle.

     All that changed in 1920, with the advent of Prohibition.  Prohibition in the feisty, guzzling Babylon on the Hudson?  Ridiculous!  Impossible!  Fuhgedaboudit!  Almost overnight speakeasies began opening all over the city.  Tired of "kissing horses in horse operas," in 1922 Texas, then 38, sensed her true vocation.  After working up her act as M.C. in two high-class joints, she teamed up with Larry Fay, a nightclub owner with the right underworld connections, whose El Fay Club on West 45th Street featured opulent décor, boisterous entertainment, and abundant overpriced alcohol.  Backed up by a scantily clad chorus line, Texas lured a wide range of patrons that included Wall Street financiers, Ivy League college boys, celebrities, politicos, and mobsters.  Why did they flock?  Because the El Fay Club had something that no other speakeasy had: a bejeweled blonde named Texas Guinan.

     Who came?  Ring Lardner, Damon Runyan, Walter Winchell, Ed Sullivan; Harry Thaw, the murderer of architect Stanford White; Jimmy Walker, soon to be the fun-loving mayor of New York; and a host of others.  "Hiya, Suckers!" Texas would say by way of greeting, and the patrons would chorus back, "Hiya, Texas!"  Armed with a clapper and a police whistle, clad in ermine and sporting an outsized hat, she would circulate among them, sowing wisecracks far and wide; they loved it.

     There was just one catch: this business was illegal.  Whatever Larry Fay's connections were, they didn't prevent the police from raiding his club, then another that he opened to replace it, and then, when that one too was raided, yet another.  Texas, now a celebrity, presided over each of them, and as a result was jailed repeatedly, jewels and furs included, as recorded by the tabloids of the day, but she was never in for long.  "I like your cute little jail," she remarked, upon release from a night in Durance Vile.  "And I don't know when my jewels have seemed so safe."  As for serving liquor, she denied ever having done such a reprehensible thing; the patrons must have brought the stuff in.  The publicity attending these inconveniences brought still more patrons to the next club she opened; they couldn't get enough of Texas.

     Finally Texas decided to break with Larry Fay and strike out on her own.  Appalled at the prospect of losing his meal ticket, Fay threatened her, so Texas hired some bodyguards and acquired an armored car.  Chastened, Fay sent her flowers and good wishes for her new club, the Club 300, which opened on West 54th Street.  It immediately caught on, became a place the elite simply had to be seen at.  On July 4, 1926, some four hundred of them crowded in to celebrate champion golfer Bobby Jones's return from a triumph in England.  Following Jones's lead, others joined him in dancing the Charleston, among them the captain of a Cunard liner, two U.S. senators, and an ex-president of Cuba.  Then, at 3:00 a.m., five policemen in evening clothes and two policewomen disguised as flappers announced that the club was being raided.  Music and dancing stopped, celebrities vanished, and Texas was arrested and then released upon posting bail, whereupon she went home to the West 8th Street apartment that she shared with her aging parents.

     The 300 Club soon reopened and was frequented by George Gershwin, Pola Negri, Al Jolson, Irving Berlin, Gloria Swanson, Clara Bow, John Barrymore, and others, a perfect roster of Roaring Twenties celebrities.  Then, on February 16, 1927, an army of policemen raided her yet again -- Texas's sixth raid.  At the 47th Street police station she entertained a multitude of arrested patrons, reporters, photographers, police, and federal agents in renderings of "The Prisoner's Song," a hit tune of the day, sparking up a party that lasted for nine hours; the public read about it in the morning papers.

File:Aimee Semple McPherson.jpg
     Of course the club reopened yet again, but the next challenge came from a different quarter when Aimee Semple McPherson, the celebrity revivalist, left her home base in the City of the Angels to convert the wild and  wanton city of New York.  Like Texas, Aimee was a superb self-promoter and performer, her services on occasion featuring such embellishments as flying angels, a camel, a police motorcycle.  When it came time for the offering, she would announce, "Brothers and sisters, I don't want to hear the clink of small change.  I want to hear the rustle of those dollar bills!"  Now, white gowned, perfumed, and glamorous, she survived the spectacle in a Village dive of the Black Bottom, then fast supplanting the Charleston as the most popular dance of the day, and toward 3 a.m. made a beeline for the Club 300.  The queen of West Coast revivalism confronting the queen of East Coast speakeasies in her den of iniquity?  Yes, it really happened.

     Undaunted, Texas urged her guests, "Give a hand for the brave little woman!"  Sister Aimee and Texas stood arm in arm, and as the patrons cheered wildly, the new arrival urged them all to look to the well-being of their immortal souls, invited them to attend her meeting later that day, and graciously departed.  So that afternoon Texas and her chorus girls, all properly clothed and in furs, showed up at the Glad Tidings Tabernacle on West 33rd Street, and with cameras clicking, joined in the prayers and hymns, and listened quietly to Aimee's soaring exhortations.  Some accounts have Texas converted by Sister Aimee, but this is nonsense; Texas simply escorted her girls back to the club.

     With 1929 came the stock market crash, and the Roaring Twenties dwindled to a whimper.  In her clubs, each one closed in time by the law, the crowds had long been thinning, and the free spenders of recent years now vanished.  "An indiscretion a day keeps the Depression away," quipped Texas, who in 1931 took her troupe to Paris, only to be sent back home by the French government, who wanted no competition for their own performers in these new hard times.  Desperate, she and her troupe toured the provinces -- a comedown after years of glory -- but in Vancouver she suffered an attack of ulcerated colitis and died there on November 5, 1933, age 49, just one month before the repeal of Prohibition.  Twelve thousand attended her funeral in New York.  A fitting sendoff, since she had said on her deathbed in Vancouver, "I would rather have a square inch of New York than all the rest of the world."

     Coming soon:  Next Sunday, the Titan of the Met (with an account of the fiery Callas, and my choice for the most ludicrous opera production ever staged).  Next Wednesday, more Colorful New Yorkers: the Mad Poet of Broadway, Fernandy, and the Mephistopheles of Wall Street.  Warning: These projections are tentative and assume no more mysterious disappearances of drafts, such as have plagued me recently.  But last Sunday's post on war profiteering had the most views in one day to date: 184! 

©  2013  Clifford Browder


  1. Interesting story about Diamond Jim Brady really the man is lucky i am inspiring with him.
    Diamonds Texas

  2. Very nice post.really I apperciate your blog.Thanks for sharing.keep sharing more blogs.