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Farewell to Tanya Saunders, Longtime Owner of Beloved NYC Lesbian Bar

The Cubbyhole is a genuinely welcoming place in a world that can feel anything but

Marjorie Ingall
June 04, 2018
Courtesy the Cubbyhole
The CubbyholeCourtesy the Cubbyhole
Courtesy the Cubbyhole
The CubbyholeCourtesy the Cubbyhole

Tanya Saunders, the longtime owner of the much-loved lesbian bar Cubbyhole, died on April 29 at 82. I read about her death last night in The Villager, my also-loved local free neighborhood newspaper, in an obit that also ran in Gay City News. And seemingly nowhere else. Which is a shame. When lesbian bars–few and far between in the best of times–seem to be disappearing in NYC at a rapid clip (R.I.P. Meow Mix, The Duchess, Catty Shack, Crazy Nanny’s, etc.), Cubbyhole was a stalwart.

Of course I’ve been there, because everyone has. Part of the allure is cheap booze in an expensive city. (Its $4 drink specials include The Ellen, which is whiskey, Sprite, and a splash of grenadine; on Tuesdays a strawberry or blood orange margarita will set you back $2.) Part of the allure is the madcap décor, consisting of approximately one million tacky things hanging from the ceiling–parasols, paper lanterns, glittery snowflakes, marionettes, plastic dolphins, fake fruit, glass chandeliers, Barbies, nylon fish. Part of the allure is a beloved longtime bartender named Deb. But mostly people love Cubbyhole because it’s a genuinely welcoming place, for everyone, in a world that can feel awfully…not. “I wanted a real mix of people,” Saunders told The Villager in 2004. “I live my life that way, and I wanted it in my bar. We’ve got men and women, gay and straight here.”

Cubbyhole has been called “easily the dopest bar in all of NYC for girls who like girls,” but Saunders was conscious of wanting to create a refuge for everyone. A lovely New York Magazine piece by Claire Landsbaum, written in the wake of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, described the writer’s first, tentative, anxious visit to Cubbyhole after coming out: “I liked it. And the more I looked, the more I liked it, and the more I saw women like me—short hair, drop-crotch pants, aggressive boots—and realized that the aesthetic I’d been projecting for months to stand out everywhere else meant that here I fit in. This might not seem remarkable; everyone has their tribe. But until that first visit to Cubbyhole, I hadn’t realized mine existed. Being there, I was overwhelmed by such a sense of rightness that at one point I had to stop talking mid-sentence to stem the flow of tears running down my cheeks.”

It’s not too much of a stretch to wonder whether Saunders’ own history made her extra-conscious of people’s need for refuge. According to The Villager, she was born on May 13, 1935 in Wiesbaden, Germany. She and her mother escaped the Nazis in 1939 in what she claimed was the “last ship of Jewish exiles admitted into the U.S. before this nation began turning them away.” She grew up in Queens and in the early 1980s moved to Greenwich Village, where she was a huge supporter of the LGBT community and also of animal rights. In 1987 she opened DT’s Fat Cat, at the improbable yet actual intersection of West 4th and West 12th Streets, and later bought the name Cubbyhole from the owner of a shuttered lesbian bar of the same name.

No less a personage than Bravo’s Andy Cohen rhapsodized in 2012, “It’s just always fun in there. It’s fiesta central in a neighborhood bar.” A poetic Yelper described entering Cubbyhole on a typical Friday evening: “Suddenly what feels like the longest week of your small, miserable life melts away as you begin to sing along to Cher and Robyn and (previously) Lez Lohan…there is no other way to describe your anamorphic transformation from work scum except to liken it to Beyonce swimming in her martini glass during Naughty Girl when she ditches Usher to dance with all of her sparkly friends that materialize to turn this party out, because she knows that everyone wants her body. Relatable, I’m sure. Spoiler: This is a dyke bar. Keep it poppin’ because they are dropping like flies.” Amen.

Cubbyhole will purportedly live on; Saunders left the bar to her good friend and coworker for the last 18 years (that’s chai, for those into gematria and numerological hopefulness), Lisa Menichino. (Given the number of recent Yelp reviews from women complaining about a misogynistic, imperious bartender named Kevin, though, Menichino might want to ponder some new staffing decisions.)

I’ll give the last word to Cubbyhole’s much-loved bartender Deb, who reassured the young New York Magazine writer despite the pulse shooting, “We love each other. No one is ever going to take that from us.” Everyone deserves a refuge. Saunders needed one, and then she provided one.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.