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Kevin Cullen

Scorned by New York, tenor regains a voice

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By Kevin Cullen
Globe Columnist / March 14, 2010

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Ronan Tynan, the great tenor, is hardly the first Irishman to land in Boston looking for a fresh start.

It’s not Ireland he’s just left but New York, the city that embraced him and which he hugged back. He became a star in New York, an inspiration. His legs were amputated below the knee, but he became a physician. And then, in his 30s, he discovered that God had planted in his throat a voice that can make hearts rise and eyes rain.

He sang for presidents and he sang at Yankee Stadium, a version of “God Bless America’’ that made the hair stand up on the back of your neck and Yankees fans stand up and cheer. It was a soothing tonic for New Yorkers who would look to where the two great towers once stood in lower Manhattan and feel like crying.

But then he said something in jest that someone considered anti-Semitic and the reservoir of good will he had built up over a decade drained away in seconds. Strangers who once cheered now sneered. A doctor said he would let him die on an operating table if given the chance.

And worse, worst of all, the Yankees dumped him. Wouldn’t even hear his side of the story.

So, the other day, Tynan picked up a pen with the hand that still wears the bulbous World Series ring with the diamond-studded NY and signed a bunch of papers and closed on a place on Lewis Wharf and is now, as he approaches 50, a Bostonian. And as he tries to figure out where, aside from the Four Seasons, he can get a good meal in this town, he wonders where he goes to get his reputation back.

This is what happened in the apartment building on East 54th Street in October: A realtor was showing the apartment next to Tynan’s and asked if Tynan would say hello to some prospective buyers. The realtor told Tynan the prospective buyers were “a couple of nice Jewish ladies.’’ Tynan warned the ladies he often sang in his apartment.

“How’d you like living next to a loud tenor like me?’’ Tynan asked them, jokingly.

Turned out they wouldn’t, and they didn’t buy the apartment. A short time later, another person was looking at the apartment and Tynan was putting the key in his door when a different realtor came out from next door and said they had another prospective buyer.

“Don’t worry,’’ the realtor said, “they’re not Red Sox fans.’’

“As long as they’re not those Jewish ladies,’’ Tynan replied.

The woman looking at the apartment, Dr. Gabrielle Gold-von Simson, stepped into the hallway and asked Tynan to explain himself. Whatever he said, she didn’t buy it.

Gold-von Simson, who is Jewish, called the Yankees and asked how they could let an anti-Semite sing “God Bless America.’’

The Yankees took her version of events and couldn’t be bothered to get Tynan’s. The team has declined to discuss the issue publicly, saying it’s an internal matter.

“I never took a dime, singing for the Yankees, and I did anything they asked,’’ he said. “But they wouldn’t even let me give my side.’’

Tynan called Gold-von Simson and apologized, saying he was sick to his stomach, thinking that she would think him a hater. He offered to make a donation to the charity of her choice. Showing far more class than the Yankees, she accepted his apology, and a short time later so did the Anti-Defamation League, which had Tynan sing at their annual dinner in Manhattan.

But others didn’t forgive and some didn’t forget. It ate away at Tynan. He grew up on a farm in Kilkenny, and didn’t even know what anti-Semitism was until he landed in New York. He gradually realized he made his name singing a song written by a Jewish guy who had to change his name to Irving Berlin because his real name sounded too Jewish.

“A few of the fellas in my band are Jewish and I consider them brothers,’’ Tynan was saying. “People who judged me didn’t know me. People who know me know I don’t have anything like that in my heart. When it first happened, I didn’t know how to explain myself. I learned a lesson. You have to be sensitive to people, especially people who don’t know you and can’t immediately judge or put in context an attempt at humor. But what I said that day had absolutely no malice.’’

Ronan Tynan was judged and found wanting by a woman who spoke to him for about seven seconds. Rose Mayerson lived in the apartment next to Tynan for seven years. She also happens to be Jewish.

“Ronan isn’t anti-Semitic. Please,’’ she says. “He’s a gentleman. And he has a heart of gold. . . . And he gave me free concerts, through the walls.’’

As for the Yankees, she says, “If the Yankees had an ounce of common sense, they would have at least sat down and heard his side of things. But I’ll tell you one thing, New York’s loss is Boston’s gain.’’

Tynan will make his first performance in his newly adopted city this morning, at Senator Jack Hart’s annual St. Patrick’s breakfast and political roast in South Boston.

He wouldn’t say it, so Mayerson did: “The Red Sox should have Ronan sing at their games. It would be poetic justice.’’

Mayerson is more than a nice Jewish lady. She’s a genius. The Red Sox are playing the Yankees on Opening Day at Fenway, which is really Opening Night, April 4. How sweet would it be for the Yankees front office to sit there and watch Ronan Tynan walk to the microphone on his artificial legs and unleash that voice in Fenway Park?

Tynan has been humbled and humiliated, he has sought redemption, and he has felt the sting of arrogance in pinstripes.

He is, it turns out, one of us.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com