It’s a hot and steamy night in the summer of 1926, and the Del-Fey Club in Miami is hopping with the sounds and sights of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Jazz Age.
Stay awhile and you’ll see young men and women, rising like phoenix from the horrors of the first World War, and recovering from the economic collapse of the early twenties, swinging the Turkey Trot or the Buzzard Lope, the Chicken Scratch and the Monkey Glide, doing the Shimmy and the Bunny-Hug, and ‘losing their innocence again’ with the Charleston.
Of course, at times like these you want your mind to be as intoxicated as your body, and a glass of lemonade just won't cut the mustard. What you need is “alcohol, the rose-colored glasses of life.”
That’s not an easy thing to come by if you’re in the middle of the temperance movement’s greatest hour, the Volstead Act, or, to you and I, desperate for a cold beer or a large whiskey and ginger, Prohibition.
But we’re in luck, because the Del-Fey Club is also a speakeasy, so the evening can and will include an alcoholic beverage, or two. And, we can thank a Texas-born actor for that, whose rise to fame as an entertainer, hostess and bon viveur, means we can enjoy a very full evening indeed.
Mary Louise Cecilia Guinan, later known adoringly as Texas Guinan, was born in 1884, just as the cornerstone of the Statue of Liberty was being laid on Bedloe’s Island. There’s a certain irony to that, as Texas Guinan’s freethinking made Del-Fey’s, and before that the Beaux Arts Club, the El Fey Club, and the Texas Guinan Club, a hub of Prohibition rejection.
So, in the comfort of one of the Del-Fey snugs, it’s art deco lamp’s orange glow adding the perfect light to the evening's surreptitious activity, we can sip our drinks in peace. While we’re so relaxed, listening to Jelly Roll Morton’s band, the Red Hot Peppers, play the Smoke-House Blues, we should probably take a moment to consider how our drinks got here, given the widespread restrictions on alcohol in the United States at the time.
Before we do that though, there is something happening just up the coast on Daytona Beach which may be of interest to you. It's a car race, and it’s being run on a six-and-half kilometer course, made up of a stretch of the beach and a bit of road called the A1A.
These aren't exactly racing cars, though, they are 'stock' cars, which, as you might already know or can guess, are cars that are exactly that. Every part is generally available to the public, and every modification must use off-the-shelf components.
The two cars are battling it out, and the sand and dust and smoke they’re throwing up, the roar of their engines, and the shouts of these pioneering petrolheads, is a far cry from the elegant inebriation of Texas Guinan’s establishment that we're enjoying.
“Hello suckers”, Texas Guinan bellows, which has become her catchphrase, blocking out the argument over bootlegged whiskey prices going on near the bar. She’s a veteran of distraction, and has kept the authorities at bay plenty of times before. Which gives you the answer to our earlier question.
Bootlegging, of course, is why she has alcohol in the place.
Since the American Civil War when soldiers smuggled beer and whiskey into camps in their boots or inside their trouser legs, bootlegging has taken on a different meaning, and we have to go to Appalachia, where our hearts can entwine in the pale moonshine, as American Oliver Hardy and Englishman Stan Laurel’s did in 1913, to find the source of the sauce.
From Virginia to Tennessee, from the Blue Ridge to the Great Smoky Mountains, that moonshine provided the light, and the moniker, for the nighttime distillation of illicit alcohol. And whether you’re making moonshine or corn whiskey, white whiskey or mash, the next step is to get your hooch to Hialeah, your shiney to Shalimar, your choop to Chipley, and, in the case of the Del-Ray Club, your mountain dew to Miami.
And to do that quickly and safely, you need a car, one that’s small, easily modified with off-the-shelf parts to improve its performance and durability, and typically with all but one seat removed to increase capacity.
What came to be known as a stock car.
So after making their delivery at the Del-Fey and settling on a mutually-beneficial price, the guys set-off up the highway to Daytona Beach, to join the first generation of stock car drivers, racing their cars around the circuit to see who’s driving skill and engineering expertise wins the night.
In the first thirty years of the twentieth century, stock cars at Daytona Beach set fifteen new racing records, and the venue soon outpaced France and Belgium as the place to race. In 1948, after several decades of continued growth and prosperity at Daytona, a mechanic from Washington DC, William France Sr, brought together drivers and promoters at the Streamline Hotel, where they formed a new organization called the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, which became known simply by its acronym, NASCAR.
Meanwhile, Texas Guinan, who had given up on her stage career after lending her name to a very public weight loss campaign that was actually a total fraud, and yet still moved seamlessly to movies, is enjoying her life at the Del-Fey, dazzling the patrons with her wit and easy disposition.
But, like all good things, it will come to an end.
Raids by the police and authorities will shut the club down, and Guinan will return to New York to hostess at the 300 Club, where the Lithuanian singer and entertainer Asa Yoelson will sit and sign autographs, once he became Al Jolson, and where William Harrison ‘Jack’ Dempsey, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, would talk you through exactly why he was known as The Manassa Mauler. That is, until the 300 Club was also shut down.
Guinan, having no more clubs to run or host, took to the road to entertain just as the Great Depression was nearing its end. After being threatened with arrest if she landed in England, as she was considered a ‘barred alien’, and being banned from France because the French didn’t want non-citizens working in the capital, she created a revue called Too Hot for Paris and began a tour of North America.
The tour was in full-swing when the entourage went up to Vancouver and Guinan went down with amoebic dysentery, which took her life in November 1933, at the age of forty-nine. More than seven-thousand people attended her funeral, including her parents.
Texas Guinan expired about the time speakeasies began to fade, as prohibition laws were relaxed and bootlegging, though it continued into the mid-twentieth century, was never again the stuff of mad dashes across State lines in cars made for outrunning the law.
While Guinan lies in obscurity in Queens, New York, NASCAR motors on, with the France family now worth about six billion dollars, and the top flight NASCAR teams a cool one-hundred and sixty million dollars each.
NASCAR should never forget where it got its start, though.
With those brave bootleggers, eager for a night out after running the gauntlet in their souped-up cars, looking for the glory of finishing fastest on the beach.
And, with people like Texas Guinan, who greets us now with a smile and a wink, as we sip our martinis, in the Del-Fey Club, on a hot and steamy night, in the summer of 1926.