Carmen Vega Greiss, 91, dancer, singer, Jacobs ally

Carmen Vega Greiss and Abe Greiss in 1956, bottom, and in the early 2000s, top.
Carmen Vega Greiss and Abe Greiss in 1956, bottom, and in the early 2000s, top.

BY ALBERT AMATEAU  |  Carmen Vega Greiss, dancer, singer and community activist, who fought to preserve the Village alongside her late husband, the artist Abe Greiss, and neighbors like Jane Jacobs, died Aug. 14 in her home on Greenwich St. She was 91.

She sustained a stroke in April and had been confined to home since then, according to her daughter, Victoria Greiss.

“She sang folk and protest songs with the likes of Pete Seeger and was part of the movement that defeated Robert Moses’s plans that would have destroyed the Village,” Victoria said. “A peace activist and marcher in the cause for civil rights, she was a member of the Communist Party,” her daughter added.

Carmen Irma Vega was born Aug. 31, 1922, in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico, to Ramona and Pelegrin Vega. At the age of five, Carmen came to New York with her aunt and her older brother, Antonio. Her mother had come to the city earlier to prepare the way by working as a seamstress in a garment factory.

“As the story goes, my mother almost fell out of the porthole of the ship they were on. But my aunt caught her by the feet just in time,” Victoria said. “At the time she told me this, I was 12 and I thought that if that happened I could never have been born,” Victoria said.

“She met my father around 1954 at the fountain in Washington Square Park. She was playing the recorder and her best friend, Maya, was playing the guitar,” Victoria said. Abe Greiss, a sculptor who had an art gallery on Charles St., was in the park at the time with an old Army friend who was going out with Maya.

“My mother was engaged at the time to a Russian dancer and actor, Gregor Taksa, and was supposed to meet him in San Francisco,” Victoria recounted. “She even had a plane ticket. But when my mother met my father, she ditched the fiancé, tore up the ticket and never left New York.”

Carmen at the time was a flamenco dancer with Margarita Flores’s company. She had also acted in a play at the Cherry Lane Theatre and was a supernumerary in Metropolitan Opera productions of Carmen, La Bohème and other presentations. Later, she sang with the New York Labor Chorus.

Carmen and Abe got married in 1956 and lived in their Greenwich St. house that shared a backyard fence with Jane Jacobs.

“My sister and brother and I played with the Jacobs boys and went on demonstrations together with our parents,” Victoria recalled.

“Around the time my parents met, my father sketched a picture of my mother with her friend Maya, the way she must have looked that day in Washington Square Park. It was the start of many portraits, statues and paintings of my mother. I didn’t realize until later that my mother was actually his muse, the subject of all his nudes,” Victoria said.

“I always thought my mother lived a life from a romance novel, a true heroine,” she added.

In addition to Victoria, another daughter, Aviva Petersen, of Jersey City, and a son, Jeffrey, of Bucks County, Penn., survive.

The memorial for Carmen Vega Greiss was on Aug. 17 at Redden’s Funeral Home, on W. 14th St. The family plans to combine Carmen’s and Abe’s ashes and bury them at Washington’s Crossing Memorial Park in Titusville, N.J.