Cartoon by Julia Wertz

The other day, I gave a talk on the Irish history of Greenpoint, and a long-time Greenpointer offered me a new twist on a famous old Greenpoint legend.

Before diving into the story, lets get acquainted with the story’s protagonists. The legendary scandalista Eva Tanguay was a Vaudeville legend who came to perform at the B.F. Keith’s Theater at Manhattan Avenue and Calyer Street sometime around the turn of the century. Notorious as the “I Don’t Care Girl”—the title of her signature song—Tanguay established herself as the queen of Vaudeville in 1901 with the New York City premiere of her controversial show “My Lady.” The Lady Gaga of her day, Tanguay was brazen, impudent, and shameless in the eyes of the Prudish. Some of her hit songs like “It’s All Been Done Before But Not the Way I Do It” and “Go As Far As You Like” boldly suggested illicit pleasures. She wore a shockingly revealing dress made entirely of pennies and filled her act with racy double entendres. Greenpoint’s Mae West, who later became equally notorious, was an early admirer who later incorporated many elements of Tanguay’s act into her own suggestive performances.

If West was a fan, then Monsignor Patrick O’Hare of St. Anthony’s church was not. A stern moralistic priest, O’Hare’s parish was only a few doors away from the theater. He often attended the first performance of the theater to make sure that its fare was wholesome enough for his flock. When he did not approve of an act, he often had the power to ban it.

I have heard two versions of what happened next. One version is that Tanguay was such a big box office draw that even O’Hare could not ban her. He excoriated Tanguay and her act from the altar, and in response, Tanguay came on stage and changed the words to her signature number, taunting the cleric by singing, “Monsignor O’Hare, I don’t care,” which caused outrage in Greenpoint.

I just heard a different version of the same story. Tanguay appeared on stage and began to sing, but O’Hare was so incensed that he jumped up on the stage and chased her off during a performance. However, she returned the next night and mocked him by singing, “Monsignor O’Hare, I don’t care,” in triumph. I have never seen the story in print, but I have heard it so many times from so many Greenpointers that elements of it must be true. Keith’s Theater is long gone, but one thing is for certain: were O’ Hare to come back today, there are a lot of local acts much more shocking than Eva Tanguay’s.


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