Tanqueray, by Stephanie Johnson and Brandon Stanton

Just before Stephanie Johnson was released from prison in the 1950s, she asked a psychic and fellow inmate to read her palm. “She told me I’d live my entire life in New York City,” Johnson writes in her new memoir. “And that it would be a tough life. And a lonely life. But that one day a lot of people would know my name.” The fortune teller also told Johnson she would come into big money one day.

It seems she was right. In 2019, Brandon Stanton interviewed Johnson — whose mink coat and matching hat caught his eye — for his Humans of New York blog. Johnson, then 76, shared the wild story of her life as a burlesque dancer known as Tanqueray. She became a media sensation. A year later, when Johnson needed medical attention, Stanton posted 33 chapters of Johnson’s life story on Instagram to solicit help. More than 3 million people read the saga and donated over $2 million.

Just when we need it, ‘Humans’ reminds us what it means to be human

But the story Stanton told was only part of Johnson’s incredible journey. In “Tanqueray,” a bawdy but deeply touching memoir, Johnson bares it all.

She recounts — with Stanton’s help — growing up Black in a White neighborhood in Albany at the hands of a cruel but very stylish mother who worked for the governor’s office. After becoming pregnant as a teenager, Johnson left home but returned briefly one night to retrieve some of her clothes. Her mother caught her and had her arrested for robbery. “The judge gave me a choice. Either I could give the baby up for adoption and go back to live with my mother — or I could do ‘one to three’ in Bedford Hills prison. I agreed to give the baby up. But I wasn’t going back to my mother’s. So I told the judge to send me to prison,” she writes. Johnson made the best of her time behind bars. Artistic from a young age, she crafted marriage certificates for the lesbian inmates and choreographed a dance for family day.

On her release, Johnson moved to New York, just as the palmist predicted, landing a job as a seamstress in Greenwich Village but spending free time up in Harlem, where she experienced racism firsthand. She would go to house parties with friends, where “a guy would stand outside to collect the money in a brown paper bag. It was ten dollars to get in. And if you were darker than the bag, you weren’t allowed inside.”

In her Salvation Army room Johnson would lie awake all night and listen to the city’s sounds. “That’s how New York sounds late at night. … It sounds like you’re going to lose your place in line. And if you don’t get out of bed — the thing that was supposed to happen to you is gonna happen to someone else.”

After fencing stolen fur coats for a while, Johnson landed a role-playing gig in a hotel, pretending to be a maid for department store scion Alfred Bloomingdale, who she says tried to whip her with his belt. Johnson ran for the door and soon found her calling as a dancer, working at the infamous Billy’s Topless in Chelsea. Her stage name came from a single father, a Tanqueray-drinker named Oscar who would come and see her regularly, giving her a box of candy every Christmas with silver dollars glued to the top. Johnson saved all those boxes and their silver dollars. “He never hits on me or anything — he’d just give me advice and stuff. And I always listened,” Johnson explains. “Because the way I saw it — if you’re raising three kids on your own, and you’re getting through it, I’ll listen to how you’re getting through it.”

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Johnson tells of her Italian mobster boyfriend who would be her one true love, driving her to Cape Cod in his convertible where she would watch the sun rise for the first time in her life. He would later fall victim to heroin addiction, and Johnson recounts how the romance fell apart.

Throughout her career Johnson designed costumes for herself and her fellow dancers — an incredible cast of characters including one woman who played the harmonica with her private parts and another who served hot dogs to audience members in much the same way. After coming up with her own stage gimmick (which you’ll have to read the book to learn about), Tanqueray would become one of the most famous strippers in New York, so high-profile that she landed a column in the adult magazine High Society. Her fictionalized sexploits led to celebrating jobs with the NYPD, she says — one time as the featured performer at a party a break in the Son of Sam case (where, she says, the lead detective dressed at drag.) for their bachelor parties but would often have to stop the show to run out on a call.

As Johnson aged, the work fell off, naturally, so she turned to doing makeup for cross-dressers, among other odd jobs. “I hope when I get to heaven God shows me a movie of my life. But just the funny parts, ’cause then we’d both start crying.”

Johnson need not wait for that: There’s already been a bidding war for the television rights to her story. This book is your chance to hear her hilarious — and, yes, heartbreaking — tale on her own terms. The only complaint is the packaging, a small hardcover with large type and mostly unnecessary illustrations, which makes it look like a YA novel. And this is no YA novel. It’s a beautiful, sometimes shocking NC-17 story, kept out of the lily-white, upper crust canon of literature — until now.

Helene Stapinski is the author of “Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History” as well as the forthcoming “The American Way: A True Story of Nazi Escape, Superman and Marilyn Monroe.”

By Stephanie Johnson and Brandon Stanton

st. Martin’s. 192 pp. $24.99

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