Tara Clancy had an ordinary Irish American upbringing in Queens until her mother met a multimillionaire and their lives were split between working class Brooklyn, Broad Channel in Queens and the multi-million dollar mansions of Bridgehampton. CAHIR O’DOHERTY talks to the unapologetically working class writer about her unexpectedly rich and varied life and her new memoir, The Clancys of Queens.
Nothing in Tara Clancy’s life looked like it was headed for the Hamptons. Weekdays she lived with her mother’s Italian American clan on 251st Street in Brooklyn.
Then on the weekends she stayed with her Irish American cop dad in Broad Channel, Queens, the island off of Rockaway that had no supermarket, no high school and no pharmacy but tons of little bars.
After her parents divorced when Tara was two, her mother’s life took a turn that no one expected. She began to work for a self-made multimillionaire first as a housekeeper, then as a secretary, ultimately becoming his girlfriend.
It was as if a door opened in their lives to a land they’d never dreamed of. Instead of just visiting her dad in Broad Channel (the porta-potty assembly line of America) suddenly Clancy was spending alternative weekends being ferried to Bridgehampton in a stretch limonene or a private jet.
Still a child when her mother’s unexpected new chapter commenced, Tara made the adjustment with the unblinking facility of the young, finding herself as comfortable in Brooklyn and Broad Channel as she was taking dips in an Olympic sized pool in a Bridgehampton mansion.
But besides all the millionaire bling, what the man Clancy refers to only by his first name, Mark, also gives her is his time. He talked to her like an equal, he asked her searching philosophical questions, he sought her opinion and he listened to her replies.
For Mark it was after dinner conversation, but for Tara it was life transforming. She still talks with the you kidding me Queens accent she grew up with, but her life has been enriched and The Clancys of Queens, her new memoir, makes it clear.
A love poem to the borough, her mother and the singular man who showed her a world outside of Broad Channel, it’s a beguiling tale especially well told. Clancy herself calls it the anti-misery memoir.
“I think portrayals of working class women in New York don’t really exist,” Clancy tells the Irish Voice. “Half the reason I wrote this book was because I was not the biggest reader in the world, I did not go to writing school, I was a bartender, born and raised in the bartending business.
“Then one day someone gave me a copy of a Richard Price book called Lush Life that was set in the Lower East Side and featured the 7th Precinct where my father had been a cop.”
It was a birthday book, which Clancy read and became obsessed by. She held up the book to a clerk in the famous Strand Bookstore on Broadway and said, “I want this but written by a woman.” The clerk replied, “Me too, it doesn’t exist.”
In fact, to her incredulity, Clancy figured out that the last notable household name book written by a working class New York woman was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which was written 73 years ago.
“It’s been a lifetime, nearly a century. I’ve been spouting that fact all over town. It was the impetus to go, f*** this, I’m going to give it a whirl. I just have to get this story down. I’m not going to let a measly thing like not having any experience or possibly having no talent get in my way.”
She started writing. Thinking of recent TV depictions of Queens life, she could only come up with two-dimensional stereotypes.
“Here’s this hairdresser, here’s this maid, here’s this Scorsese film with one second of a lady in a house dress before they cut back to DeNiro.”
One thing her own story was not was two-dimensional. The Clancys of Queens confirms what you suspect growing up in Queens is like, while simultaneously blowing your suspicions out of the water.
None of the people in Clancy’s life are working class stereotypes. They’re complex, thoughtful and impressively broad-minded when it becomes clear that Tara is gay.
“Even my dad, a Republican Irish Catholic. He’s had gay friends. He had a moment with me and then he said, ‘All right. It is what it is.’
“People in New York can look down on working class people. If my parents had gone to Harvard and Yale and wore wooden jewelry no one would ask me why were they so accepting? We’re not morons.”
Clancy’s mother emerges as the quiet center of the book, and her kindness and foresight are made plain by example. When she suspects Tara might be gay she flies with her across the country to Los Angles to visit her best friend Rosemary Gallagher, a leather jacket wearing, tough as nails lesbian from Far Rockaway.
“When you’ve got a girl who’s born in Queens who’s a lesbian, and not a little one, a real big one, it’s supposed to be tragic. But it f***ing wasn’t. I’m writing a portrait of these happy people who have a great time and love each other,” Clancy says.
By introducing her to Rosemary her mother was showing her here’s a butch grown woman and you can be this.
“I’m a parent now myself and I understand the length she’d go to as a parent to fly her kid across the country to give her an example.”
Tara’s mother led by her own example, too. Many women would have surrendered what they’d built up for themselves when a man like Mark enters the picture, but that’s not how it played out.
“My mother was never a damsel in distress waiting for a knight in shining armor. Her attitude was f*** you, I’m proud of who I am. She was the first woman in her family to have a career. She wanted to work. She raised her kid her way, on her dime.”
When it became clear that her relationship with Mark was serious, she nevertheless decided he was not going to move in and let him take over her life.
“That meant that 95 percent of my life was a Queens life, the rest was taking a plane or a limo to Bridgehampton.”
Clancy used to call her conversations with Mark, who has now passed, “the moon and the stars” talks because they would reflect life on earth, the infinity of space, and what it all meant. In their own way they were a gift as beautiful as her mother’s determination.
“He talked to everyone like they were his equal because he was this self-made man. He wasn’t old money. Even a 15-year-old kid from a rough part of Queens. What a gift that was.”
Meanwhile, Ireland for Clancy also felt a lot like home. “When my dad remarried he married an Irish woman who came here in her twenties so I grew up going to Ireland to visit my stepmom. She came from Inchicore. What a laugh,” Clancy says.
“We were the same on either side of the pond. It was Queens east!”
In The Clancys of Queens, it’s the small moments that you hardly notice that contain the power to change your life. Forget the dramatic signs or revelations, just a kind word or a second glance at the right moment can be the thing that saves you.
This powerful new Irish American memoir has the power to make you laugh, cry and miss your subway stop. Don’t miss it.