When Tanya Saunders passed on April 29th after a long and brave battle with illness, Riverside Memorial Chapel unknowingly revealed her biggest secret—her age. Tanya was the beloved 82-year-old owner of Cubbyhole, the West Village watering hole revered not only by NYC’s lesbian community but by gays, straights, and queers the world over. She was laid to rest at Cedar Park Cemetery in Emerson, N.J., rather than under the Cubbyhole floorboards, as she had always joked about.
Tanya was an amazing friend, boss, and a fierce defender of people and animals. She was a mentor to many, a cheerleader to others, and a mom to us all. She wasn’t a fan of the limelight, but she always held her own at the end of Cubbyhole’s bar with her Ketel One and soda in a wine-glass, later with a flute of prosecco or a bottle of water, and her canine companion, Foster, in her lap. Foster started out as a foster puppy, but we all knew right away he had found his forever home with Tanya.
“Your legacy of compassion, of laughter, of bringing people together, and your activism will live on through us. I know we will all take that pledge willingly.” —Nikki Weavers
Tanya created so many memories, and in innumerable ways, she touched so many people. When the community found out about her passing, the family she helped cultivate came together, sharing memories through Facebook posts, tributes, and conversations. We wept at her service and remembered her afterwards gathered at Cubbyhole. There were spirited toasts of “Poi, Poi, Poi,” (spelling uncertain) followed by the rapping of knuckles on the bar—a salute to one of Tanya’s many signature superstitions. I, a longtime friend of Tanya’s, wore my trademark bow tie at “half-mast” on my left arm in her honor all week. Tanya warmly wove together countless people (too many to name) into the motley fabric of family in what she liked to call her “living room” and what we all consider our second home: Cubbyhole, with its green walls and eccentric ceiling at that improbable corner of West 12th and West 4th Streets in the West Village of New York City.
“You were creative and fun. Generous beyond measure. Strong willed, but never judgmental. I will miss you desperately.” —Anonymous
Well known for her dogged animal activism and indomitable spirit, I decided to take this opportunity to celebrate Tanya’s family values, generosity and humor, as well as her countless contributions to both the Cubbyhole family and our community at large.
Let’s go back to the beloved matriarch of Cubbyhole’s childhood in Germany and retrace her journey to becoming “Our Tanya.” Evidently, Tanya’s parents, Leo and Elfreda Lewek of Berlin, had trouble conceiving. More likely, Tanya just wasn’t ready yet. Friends convinced the Leweks to make the pilgrimage to Wiesbaden, where the waters were rumored to enhance fertility. Other famous visitors included Goethe, Dostoevsky, Wagner, and Brahms: Tanya was already in good, diverse company!
So, in August of 1934, Tanya’s parents made the trek to Wiesbaden with fingers crossed and probably wearing red for luck, another one of Tanya’s superstitions. Tanya made her debut in Berlin on May 13, 1935. Unfortunately, her father died one or two years later. In the fall of 1938, the pogroms of Kristallnacht confirmed it was time for Tanya and her mother to leave Germany. In 1939, they found themselves on a boat to Cuba, then Canada — the last one that reached the U.S. before the government started turning them away.
In a parallel to the present, Cubbyhole staff say that Tanya was very unhappy with the current administration’s immigration policies, and often told them to run down and give Manny, the bar’s 26-year janitor and hanger of all things ceiling at Cubbyhole, an American, who is originally from Mexico, a big hug to apologize.
Tanya and her mother first lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, eventually moving to Forest Hills, where two uncles resided and took them in. Mom was a notoriously bad cook; whenever Tanya showed up with cookies, what she called “all-day suckers,” her uncles always said, “Take them back!” In spite of that oh-so-tragic flaw, Mom managed to remarry in the late 1940s; an era in which a woman’s dinner-making skills served to determine her desirability.
Tanya always had a keen eye for creativity and fashion, which she majored in at the High School of Industrial Art in Manhattan. Starting as a copywriter, Tanya climbed up the corporate ladder in advertising during the ’60s-‘70s. The ’70s-’80s found her working in real estate.
Romance also began to bud: Tanya and her first girlfriend, Geri, met through friends in 1963. They first lived on East 9th Street, later moving to Brooklyn without the benefit of a U-Haul truck (U-Haul wasn’t yet a twinkle in any NYC lesbian’s eye; the business started on the West Coast). To appease her mother and keep under the radar/gaydar, Tanya and Geri married the two gay guys who lived upstairs. Tanya changed her surname to Saunders. Eventually, she and Geri broke up, but remained lifelong friends.
In 1974, Tanya met Nancy, a bartender at Paula’s, a lesbian bar on Greenwich Avenue. They remained together until Nancy’s death in 1996. Tanya forged myriad strong bonds over the years, and several of her non-Cubby compatriots spoke at her memorial service. My favorite story was told by her friend Sunny as she revealed that Tanya was the kind of cohort who would “bring a shovel and help move the body” with no questions asked other than “where and when.” Sunny’s voice broke as she confided that she didn’t know what she was going to do without Tanya and her quirky, beautiful brand of loyalty.
By the 1980s, Tanya had settled down on Horatio Street in the West Village (where she lived until her passing). Successful in both advertising and real estate, she was itching for something more.
THE BAR BIZ
In 1987, on her way home from dinner, Tanya saw a “For Rent” sign at a bar called 12th Night on the corner of West 12th and West 4th Streets. Living around the corner from the landmark building, she had passed the watering hole many times and had often thought of, quite literally, quitting her day job and opening her own bar. In Tanya’s words, “I read too much Hemingway and Fitzgerald and wanted to run an expatriate bar.” Spontaneously, she took down the sign, strode in, and stated, “I’ll take it!”
“Our Tanya” was well on her way.
“If you want to make a difference in this world, it starts with you. Get involved in the community and always helps others . . . Like I did, with this place.”
Tanya took over the lease, acquired a liquor license, partnered with Debbie Fierro, and renamed the bar DT’s Fat Cat. Originally, it was a piano bar, which is hard to imagine, since the narrow establishment is only 824 square feet. Eventually, a series of jukeboxes replaced the live entertainment. Debbie and Tanya ended their partnership in 1993 when Debbie left to open Rubyfruit, several blocks away on Hudson Street.
Around the same time, Tanya’s friend Elaine Romagnoli moved her own bar, Cubby Hole, to a new location, renamed it Crazy Nanny’s, and subsequently gave Tanya the go-ahead to take the name. She rechristened her bar Cubbyhole (now one word), and trademarked the moniker.
In its second incarnation, Cubbyhole became what may have been the first NYC bar to feature a truly “mixed” crowd. The colorful hangout continues to meld customers who identify as gay/straight, represent regulars/tourists, of all genders/sexualities, yellow stripes/pink polka dots, and anything/everything in between. Everyone literally rubs shoulders with each other, since it’s such a long, narrow space.
One night, someone scribbled the now-familiar Cubbyhole logo on a napkin and somehow, it survived.
However, Tanya hated the emblem and its gold/black colors. But too superstitious to change it after the bar became successful, she refused to alter it in any way. Cubbyhole’s now-famous ceiling started growing its eclectic collection of charming kitsch when regulars brought souvenirs from vacations, which originally only hung behind the bar. Well, except for the hats; those Tanya kept, and they became her signature fashion statement. The ceiling blossomed from there, and its decorations now change for Pride and other holidays.
“I was an only child. After my mother died, I had no other blood relatives. The Cubbyhole became my home and its people my family.”
Speaking of superstitions: Staff have to spit three times on the money when putting it into the register at the beginning of a shift; a frog perpetually leans on the cash register; and Lisa (a bartender at the time) almost got fired when she washed the ladybugs on top of the register.
“No words can express how thankful I am for this woman. She gave me part of my NY family, a safe haven to be me, and a kick in the ass to fight for what I believe in. —Hollybeth Plowman
Who in the Cubbyhole community can forget the excitement of watch-ing President Obama win his first and second terms on the bar’s tv, with Tanya leading the cheers? She hosted many fundraisers in the bar (AIDS Walks, theater groups) and often generously added to the kitty. Other events over the years included: creating care packages for our troops in Iraq; the coming together in candlelight after Hurricane Sandy; cheering the passing of marriage equality; and commiserating over the results of the 2016 election. I wonder how many weddings, receptions, baby showers, and birthdays happened there?
2018 ushered in many accolades and firsts for the bar:
• Fodors Travel Guide published an article naming Cubbyhole #1 in “The World’s 9 Best Lesbian Bars.”
• Thrillist.com included Cubbyhole in their article “The 11 Best LGBTQ Bars in New York City.”
• Time Out New York also put the bar at #1 in “Most-loved LGBTQ Spots of 2018.”
• Cubbyhole was also a perennial winner at every GO Magazine Nightlife Awards event over the past 16 years.
THE BEAT GOES ON
About a week before she passed, Tanya insisted on visiting the Cubbyhole even though she had to come in a wheelchair. Much like her parents’ trip to Wiesbaden years ago, Tanya arranged her goodbye.
“Some of the best advice I ever got was, ‘No matter how great and successful you become, eventually there’s going to be someone that comes along who’s better. So get over yourself! You’ll live a much happier life that way.”
Tanya left the bar to Lisa Meninchino, who started as a bartender, then became manager, caretaker, and friend. As her “daughter,” she will keep Tanya’s vision and legacy. I forgot to ask Lisa about the logo . . .
“Cubbyhole wasn’t just a bar Tanya owned. It was a living, breathing thing to her. For 24 years, she nurtured it, fretted over it, loved it. It meant everything to her. It was the beat in her heart. In 2000, she let me become a part of her and her life. For the next 18 years we laughed, cried, gossiped, argued, confided, and depended on each other to get us through life’s ups and downs. It was not long enough. —Lisa Meninchino
“Heaven, get ready to party; drinks on Tanya! —Debbie Greenberg
Hats off to you, my friend. Dapper Hugs!