The Misery Tenor

Tynan in better times, at Lincoln Center on March 17, 2009.

Ronan Tynan’s apartment on the Upper West Side is chaotic, messy, and thoroughly lived-in, with old CDs (lots of classical music, lots of U2), copies of Tynan’s autobiography Halfway Home scattered everywhere, and Yankees memorabilia littered about. (There’s a signed photo of Derek Jeter in a frame: “Great, Ronan.”) He lives like a man whose apartment is more a storage place and practice studio than a shelter and safe haven. And for about three months, he has been locked inside.

Tynan’s life changed in eleven seconds on October 16, right outside his apartment door, when he was coming back from grabbing coffee downstairs. It can happen that fast here.

The once-beloved Irish tenor, most famous for his rousing (and lengthy) renditions of “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch of Yankees postseason games throughout the 00’s, watched his reputation fall apart after being accused of making a “Jewish joke” to a woman in his Upper West Side building the day before. That day, the tabloids screamed of “tenor’s anti-Semitic slur” and blasted Tynan’s supposed “burst of bigotry.” The Yankees canceled his appearance at that night’s Game 1 of the ALCS against the Angels, and Tynan found his career in shambles. “No one ever called to get my side of the story,” Tynan now says in his first public comments since the controversy exploded. “Everyone ran with it and just printed horrible, horrible stuff.”

Tynan, who moves around slowly but fluidly after having both his legs amputated at the age of 20 (he’s a former Paralympic champion), still can’t quite comprehend what happened. Here’s how he tells it: Three weeks earlier, two older Jewish women were looking at an apartment on his floor. They were fussy, and clearly not ecstatic about living down the hall from someone singing loudly all the time. The Realtor, a friend of Tynan’s, joked with him that they had “very particular needs” and clearly weren’t going to take the place. Three weeks later, on October 15, a different Realtor was showing a different woman, Gabrielle Gold-von Simson, a doctor at NYC Medical Center, the same apartment. That Realtor, knowing Tynan from Yankees games, saw him and said, of the Simson family, “at least they’re not Red Sox fans.”

Accounts differ from there. Simson claims Tynan said, “I don’t care about that, as long as they are not Jewish.” Tynan claims he said something more to the effect of “at least they weren’t those Jewish ladies,” apparently mixing up his Realtors. Simson asked him what he meant by that, and he, not quite understanding that she was offended, laughed and said, “Well, that would be scary.” That was the end of it.

Five hours later, Tynan received a call from Yankees president Randy Levine, saying Simson had called the Yankees and various media outlets to claim the Irish tenor had made an anti-Semitic remark and demanding he apologize. A three-minute phone call with Simson, in which he apologized and promised to make a donation to the Kids of New York, ensued, and Tynan thought that was it. “I called her and I said, ‘My name is Ronan Tynan and I believe we had a very brief encounter where I believe my humor didn’t go down with you,’” he says. “I explained every single thing again about my encounter, and she said, ‘I accept your apology.’ That was it, it was very straightforward.”

An hour later, a reporter from NBC was in his apartment, asking him if he had any Jewish friends. The next day, the papers had a hold of the story, and his Yankees career was over.

Tynan is adamant he’s not anti-Semitic — he sang at an ADL dinner, and the group absolved him, saying “He is a good man who understood that he had made an inappropriate comment” — but that doesn’t really matter anymore. He says he is still yelled at by bystanders on the street, has lost countless engagements, and admits he’s considering leaving New York altogether. “At this stage, all I want to do is get on the next plane to Ireland and never come back,” he says.

He says he hasn’t talked to Simson or the second Realtor since the incident — “suffice it to say, they’ve been told not to talk to me” — but does admit to chafing a bit while watching an interview with Simson at a Yankee playoff game (she was given free tickets) during which she jokingly confessed she was a Mets fan. “This is my life, you know? I’m not sure what’s funny about it. It was a little flip.”

Tynan’s timing could not have been worse. The story broke the day before the ALCS was supposed to begin, so the Yankees (who say they have no plans to bring Tynan back) were particularly keen not to distract from the team’s first postseason in two years. (It also didn’t help that Tynan got his gig from Steve Swindal, the onetime heir apparent to the Yankee empire who lost his position when he and George Steinbrenner’s daughter Jennifer divorced two years ago, leaving Tynan with no natural allies inside the organization.) By the time the Yankees won their 27th championship, Tynan was forgotten. “It’s so incredible that someone can have so much power to destroy someone in so quick a time,” he says. Tynan was replaced by various active military members for the playoffs, and ultimately Game 6, the clinching game of the World Series, was sung by South Pacific star Kelli O’Hara. “They all did a wonderful job,” he says. “It was strange to watch them, though.”

The culture surrounding Tynan and the Yankees has moved on, too: It might have been time for a change anyway. Tynan began singing for the team right before September 11, and afterward, his rendition of “God Bless America” became a soaring anthem for New York patriotism and loss. The tenor became a symbol of that time, singing at “countless” firefighter funerals, making appearances with Rudy Giuliani, and singing at President Bush’s second inauguration.

That time has passed. We don’t do our mourning so out in the open anymore, and neither Giuliani nor Bush are so popular around these parts. (Tynan says the only letter of support he received from a political luminary was a sympathetic note from George H.W. Bush.) Tynan’s booming baritone is the soundtrack to an era we’re eager to move on from.

Not that any of this means anything to Tynan, who still sings at Buffalo Sabres games and tries to figure out what to do next, what happened to the New York that once so warmly welcomed him. “I became friends with [former FDNY commissioner] Tom Von Essen before 9/11, and I sang at so many funerals, it was nothing but heartbreak,” he says. “My buddies from the Irish Tenors call me the ‘Misery Tenor. You only sing at hardships.’” Tynan sighs and looks out his window at a synagogue across the street. “That was a long time ago.”

The Misery Tenor