This was recorded in Old Town Key West when he was 88-years-old. Captain Tony told us to make every heartbeat count, and as this interview shows-he’s a man who did just that. I’ll never forget that day, the excitement in his voice as “I looked into those eyes,” as he recalled a life few could even dream of.
Sail on Captain Tony.
Special thanks to Koney Ferrell, Jeff Pike, Brent Griffis and Al Kelley.
We’re here in Old Key West talking with Captain Tony Tarracino, a man who is synonymous with the town. I think all stories should start from the beginning. So tell us about the man and where you came from.
Well, Paul you surprised me. When you talked about the background of this man, I said, “That can’t be me.” You know I do have a little ego. There is a beginning; I was born in Elizabeth, New Jersey. In fact, August the 10th, 1916. That makes me 88-years old. That was the year they came out with the Model T. My eyes are going; you know the windshield is going. I have a hearing aid, the horn’s going. I’m a Model T you know, and I shuffle. You know the tires are worn out. I just wanted to let everybody know that the clutch is still working. Long story, I was always a gambler. 88 is a lot of, lot of years. I guess I did everything. I was born; I guess it was like a ghetto. I grew up with the boys. Frank Sinatra and Al Capone were my heroes. It was the time. Like I said, I was always a gambler and as the years go on I found out a way to find out what horse won the race before the bookies did. Could you imagine what that means? Going to a bookie joint and betting on a horse you already know has won, and we got away with it for a while. The boys caught up to me. They break your thumbs and all that. So I had to leave Elizabeth for health reasons. So I left for Florida. I remember seeing my first orange-my God, coconuts and I had a beautiful girl in the car. Of course I went to Hialeah Race Track. Imagine, going to Hialeah in those days was almost like a Jewish person going to Israel, and it was just beautiful! Of course I lost my fanny as usual. I gave the girl the car; I gave her a hundred bucks. I had twelve dollars left and I told her to head back home. I couldn’t go back home. If I went back home, I was a dead man believe me. I saw this sign-“See Key West.” I went to the bus terminal. I missed the last bus, and I think the guy felt sorry for me.
I think the fare was $12 or $7. He said, “Look you can take a bus to Homestead. It’s only 30 cents, and you’ll get a lift down there. The Navy’s down there.” I asked, “What’s Key West like?” He said, “It’s like the Barbary Coast! Wide open, gambling!” and boy that’s for me. I get to Homestead and I got a lift on a Land of Sun milk truck. He said, “I’ll drive you into town. I never had seen the lights until I got to Boca Chica. There was nothing on the Keys. Millions of land crabs, all you could hear was the crunching of the tires. Finally we hit Key West. I couldn’t believe it. We drove down Duval Street. Bars all over. It was a big military town. It looked like cold cream-all the guys in the whites walking down Duval like a wave. I could see the slot machines, crap tables. There were a lot of women of ill repute on the corners. I said, “Boy this is for me.” That was it. I had twelve dollars and I slept in an old beat-up car where the Pier House used to be. There’s a lot of in between stories here. I started heading shrimp. Then I became a shrimper. I didn’t know anything believe me, I was the typical New Jersey boy. I met a couple of old time shrimpers who taught me how to shrimp. I went to Georgia in the summer. For about four or five years, slowly I’m catching on. You’ve got to remember I was a hustler. I grew up selling wristwatches with no insides in it. That was a big deal. Cockroach powder-can of cockroach powder was a dollar, and I’d mix it with ten cans of cleanser. It killed the roaches, it took longer. I kept moving, and I became a charter boat captain. The only experience I had on the ocean was a Staten Island Ferry and Tom’s River fishing for crabs. I kept going and became a very famous captain. I broke records, national records. I just had “it,” I don’t know what it was. God was good to me. I kept going and was always active politically. I ran for mayor, I felt sorry for the people here. They were taken advantage of. It was the times. I don’t think they even knew the United States was here. They weren’t too sure anyway. Slowly, I start making the big time, and I never even lied. Just told the truth. I exaggerated things. Like, “why are you a famous captain?” I told them that I hooked this mermaid. A beautiful mermaid, I brought her to the side of the boat- sweating in July. She had that hair like you know, Clinton’s girl? You know what I’m talking about. I didn’t know where to gaff her and she broke the line. That was it. The press was so good to me, and I was good copy. I got involved in the Haiti thing, the invasion. Then came the Bay of Pigs, I was involved in that. I mean this is all history, you can read about it. In the mean time, I used to hang around what is called Captain Tony’s bar today. Real history. It goes back to 1852. It was a morgue and an icehouse-really was. Somebody said, “Ah you’re full of bull. There was no ice in them days.” What they did years ago, the sailing boats from Maine, up north-they put ice in their hull for ballast. Then when they came to Key West they sold it to the few people who used it for ice and they covered it with sawdust and it lasted for a long time. That’s how the ice got there. It was called The Blind Pig. The Osceola Bar, the General Store, Sloppy Joe’s, and it became the Duval Club. I followed the history very strongly. When the battle ship Maine was sunk, the little wireless station was in Captain Tony’s. We got pictures of it, the pole coming through the roof and everything with the wire over to Western Union. Captain Tony’s Saloon first gave the world the news of what happened in Cuba. This is all history. I don’t know what it is-maybe it’s the Italian in me, but I loved it. It was so fascinating to me. The building was falling apart and David Wilcowski, one of our great locals, one of the prominent families, had gone to Philadelphia to get involved in rebuilding some of the old buildings. Saving the houses and all this. He comes back to Key West, and Captain Tony’s building-428 Greene Street, was tipping over. Falling over. This was really just the way it was. He got together with Dan-Danny Sturr, because it was his grandfather that owned that building. He rebuilds Captain Tony’s. It was the first rebuilding of anything in Key West. Morgan Bird out of Pennsylvania, very, very wealthy man. His parents probably owned old coalmines. He comes to Key West, he’s gay. He opens the first gay bar. It was beautiful. He didn’t even sell beer. I mean top of the line-Old English couches, paintings and everything. I was a famous Captain. My brother Sal was gay. In New York, a very big time, big time gay. In fact, I went to New York with him and lead the first gay parade in Manhattan. I mean, I’m going back. I fell in love with the bar. It was really great. It was all gays, Truman Capote, all of these people-I was right at home with them. It didn’t bother me at all, and I’m a very famous captain. I’m big time now. I met Shirley, one of my wives. I have a beautiful daughter. She was a Navy wife.
I was the scandal of the town, man. Even though the owner of the dock knocked up the head woman at the church that was okay. But Captain Tony, man that was bad. That was a big, big scandal. Every time I’d walk in the bar they would play “It was fascination.” It was a beautiful love affair, and Morgan Bird was one of those great people. He was like Charles Laughton Bly-just like him, the jackets and everything. I could live this. Thank you for letting me do this show, cause I relive all of these things and I want to remember these things. He goes to Pennsylvania to commit suicide-just like that. So the bar closes down. David comes to me, Tony why don’t you open the bar? Ehh, what do I know about a bar. I missed the bar. I know there’s 24 cans of Bud in a case, that’s all. Shirley’s brother ran a big, big bar in California. She said, “I can get my brother to come out and run it.” So I took over Captain Tony’s for Shirley. That was that. It was a great bar. I kept it just the way it was. Could you imagine gays, shrimpers, Marines, Navy, I mean it was a boiling pot. I had complete control. The old New Jersey hustlers there. Anybody started any shit, “come on cool it man.” If he kept it up, “do you want your knee cap broke?” That’s the way it was, but people were different then. They didn’t go to college like they do today. They weren’t brain-damaged yet. You know that’s happening today. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. I was just enjoying it, thinking I could beat the system. I never did, but I wouldn’t join it either.
I was going to ask you about some of the people that are most prevalent in your mind when you think about Captain Tony’s Saloon. All of the people that drank there and hung out there.
We have a tendency in this life, that if a man makes the papers, he makes TV, and this and that he stands out. In the bar, we go from one extreme to the other. We go from Cassius Clay to Walter Cronkite. David Allan Coe, Jerry Jeff Walker. Many, many people. Senator Dirkson.
I had a big sign in my bar and it’s still there. When you walk through these doors, everybody’s a star and I applied that. Women. I remember the woman who had the first sex operation. Names are hard. I helped make some of these people, and they helped me. Shel Silverstein used to play handball with my brother in New York, and he’d come down. What happens here, and this is something that I’ve never said. I’m going to say it for the first time, when I take the bar over-it was always a great time when I talk about gays. The local gays, I’m going back now. The old gays had a little more class than the gays today. Maybe TV did, maybe fight for rights did it. They were special people. They gave so much to the arts, culture. The modern days, things happen. What I’m trying to say is that Key West was a mixture. We all learned to live together. If Harry Truman walked down the street, you would say “Good morning.” You didn’t ask for his autograph. You never dared do things like that. He was nice guy. He was down at Shorty’s having coffee and some toast. You could be sitting next to him and, he would say, “How’s the fishing, Captain?” That’s how Key West was. When people like Hemingway, is a great example, could walk down the street barefoot. They knew he was a big writer, some people thought he was stuck up, but he could do that. That’s why he loved Key West. Tennessee Williams was the same way. They put the gays down in those days, but it wasn’t like today. Education is very damaging, to a point. After the eighth grade, forget it. There were so many great people. I remember Truman Capote, “the Midnight Cowboy,” Evan Rhodes, and “The Prince of Central Park.” Jamie Kirkwood, my God we used to have supper together. I knew these people. You’ve got to remember the breaks. Remember the breaks? I’m hanging up fish one day at the dock. It’s like late 1950s. You hang the fish up so you get more customers the next day. You’re a hustler. Me and my wife were good. I’ve got a little book on the boat and it’s got cities of 125,000 or more. You’d come by, “where are you from?” Detroit?” I’d say, “Just a minute I want to run and get a cigarette.” I’d run down to the book, find out who the mayor was, what the occupation was. I’d come back up. “I was in Detroit last weekend. That’s a great mayor.” He had to come on my boat. This was the hustle. This was how you survived. I’m hanging up the fish and I hear this voice, “Hey Tarracino!” I looked up and it was Frankie Merle. Frankie Merle was my brother’s lover when they were in school-gay. He was my brother’s lover back in Elizabeth in high school. We lived on the same floor. He said, “I’m working as secretary to a guy named Tennessee Williams. He just wrote a play and it’s very popular, “The Glass Menagerie.”
Why don’t you bring the fish over to the house tonight? I want you to meet him. So I met Tennessee Williams as Frankie Merle’s lover. I never met him as a playwright. I never met James Hurlahee or any of these people. Now all of these gays, they were all skinny dipping in the pool. He was like a teacher to them. They were his pupils-all of them, Jamie Kirkwood, Evan Rhodes. I’m talking about the breaks. They started hanging out in my bar and it was just beautiful. I had celebrities in my bar that if you put allof New York they wouldn’t match the people I had. I mean the greatest and they came from all over the world. Then you could just imagine everyone saying, “Hey this is where Hemingway hung out.” I read Hemingway. I read every one of his books twice. To me he was the greatest writer I will ever know in my generation and the greatest playwright, Tennessee Williams and then you throw Shel Silverstein in. How lucky can you be? I stepped into the biggest pile of shit in the world and came out smelling like a rose.
I wanted to ask you about being Mayor of Key West.
That was one of the greatest honors of my life. Could you imagine my father? Came here from Italy in 1900. Could never read and write. He had four sons. They were like Kings. Girls didn’t count. They didn’t put them in buckets like they did in China, but close. Of the four boys, never learned to read and writer. A very tight family, very uptight family. I could write ten books on that, but anyway he was so proud of us kids. My brother was gay, Louie was a barber, Joey was doing plays and I was the Captain in Key West. A captain! A real captain. “My son is a Captain Tony in Key West.” When I made mayor, the only regret I had-he wasn’t there. That was it. Being mayor of Key West? Gotta remember, I ran four times. Four times I ran for mayor, barefoot. But I believed in it. They were the great years. It will never happen again. Too late. You guys are lucky you got in on the fringe of it. The seventies and the eighties, they were the greatest years this country ever knew. People standing up for women, fight for what you believe in. You honestly practice the Constitution. I wouldn’t look at polls.
When you walk down the streets of Key West, and you remember how it was back then and you see how it is now..what do you think?
See, you can’t stop progress. First of all, when you’re
88-I went to the Eighth grade. I’m a genius, believe me. There was no time to be educated. If you want to read the propaganda, you went to college. Because you want to show people you’re not stupid. That’s what happened. I could be wrong with what I’m saying. What happens here is you call it progress. I was in Key West, I fought the oil wells. I fought real hard for the environment. I wasn’t a radical. I wanted to try and save the waterfront. There’s nothing left on the gulf. I mean I could see all these things. I’ll give you an idea of how I got in trouble. I wrote an article, I said in the Florida Keys there’s roughly 80,000 people and they pass everyday one pound of garbage-crap. Now, you’ve got 80,000 pounds of garbage everyday. They told me in school you can’t get rid of matter. So they’re going to put big sewer wells up. So we had a sewer outfall here. I used to advertise, “No fish, no pay.” If you didn’t catch a fish, you didn’t pay. The wind always goes north, east, south, west. This is very true. If the wind backs up the fish don’t bite. I don’t know why, they don’t bite. So I used to go where the sewer pipe was, anchor above wind to get away from the smell. Everybody caught fish. The lobsters, birds hung out there. Since they chemically take care of it, there’s nothing there. Nothing. Like a white sand, nothing’s alive there. It’s all gone. So I was fighting, you’ve got to stop building. They passed a lot of laws, but you can’t beat big money. They beat them all, and that’s what’s happening. That’s what got me in big, big trouble. The government. I told the truth. I said, you go down to Mallory Square and you can catch your supper. You went down to the beaches you see all the guys casting for bait, on a reef, food all over. It’s all gone, all gone. Everything’s gone. It’s hard to believe what I’m telling you. It’s probably happening in your place too, in your state. This is what got me in big trouble. When I started fighting things like that. I kept running for mayor. Finally it happened. I had a tough time running for mayor. You got to remember the word got out that I was bringing the mafia in from New Jersey if I won. People believed that! They believed it! Came the big year. It was the right years. They all got together; even Jimmy Buffett was one of my honorary campaign managers. We had a hell of an election, I mean it was fun. It was really great! We won by 31 votes. 28 hookers. (Tony and the whole room burst into laughter.) How did I feel? When I was sworn in I had to cry. They were like 26,000 of my kids. That’s what they were. I knew them all. I loved them all. I never changed when I was mayor. I stood right there. I did a lot of good I was never given credit for. I’ll give you an example. About 25 years ago, the Navy wanted the Black beach. The blacks had a great beach. They Navy wanted it. So they said, “We’ll build you a swimming pool and we’ll give you the beach.” Which they did, it was fine. After three years they never put water in the pool for seventeen years. For seventeen years! I became mayor and I found money, and I broke my ass and we got a beautiful community pool today. That I feel was great.
I’ve heard so many legendary stories about the saloon. I’ve heard if you throw a coin into the fish’s mouth you’re guaranteed to come back to Key West. I’ve heard that there are ghosts in the saloon. So tell me, is it magical?
They just did this on the Travel by the way. I don’t know if I should tell the story about the tree. The building is so old, I honestly, I lived upstairs I know.. I never stayed in that building alone. I never. I don’t ever remember that I was comfortable. It’s so old, you know! It’s so many years. There’s a big tree there and I was going to cut it down. There was little caterpillars and those little cherries. It was the patio. Some friends of mine were coming down from Miami and they were going to cut it down. This is a true story. Old Man Mr. Roberts, he must have been my age-about 80. It was in the paper that I was going to cut the tree down. It was full of bugs, and branches on the roof and all that. I’ll never forget it, just the way he said it. “I hear you’re going to cut the tree down.” I said, “Yeah Mr. Roberts, you know it’s full of berries and everything.” He said, “You can’t cut the free down.” I said, “Why?” He said, “That was the hanging free.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You know a lot of years ago, we’d come here. We’d sit on the corner with soda pop and sandwiches,” it was real natural talking, “and they hung this woman, she had a blue dress on and it didn’t break her neck and she made noises for a long time.” I said, “Shit, I can’t cut this tree down.” I couldn’t do it! And then some great, great things happened through the years. Whether that story had something to do with it, I don’t know. A woman I lived with for three years upstairs, after three years came back to see me and we talked about it. The Lady in Blue..and we talked about it. We used to cash out, we both would see her. A great photographer in Key West, who disappeared by the way, he had a picture of me and Stacy sitting in a tree and there was a person in the middle of us..like he drew it. You know it’s a person! So I got the priest to come in and bless the place. My daughter Coral, she’s right there. Her best friend ran into this woman in the back room to get a can of orange juice. So it’s not a bullshit story. I was digging in the poolroom, I was digging a whole to get down lower and we ran into a well and there was a body in it and a tombstone on top of it. I covered it; I called the police and all that. It’s just a matter of bones and a bad smell. Where the tree is now, there’s a tombstone. About 20 years ago, a father and son drove by and they dumped it in the street. It’s right there, by the tree. About a month later I saw the son, and I said, “Come here kid. What do you want me to do with your mother’s tombstone?”” He said, “My father’s crazy.” I said, “What do you mean he’s crazy? What do you want me to do with it?” It took four guys to carry it in, it was a patio then. His mother had died. They were married 20 years. His father used to work in a Navy yard. He goes through her stuff, finds a stack of letters. She was meeting her lover at Captain Tony’s every night. He says, “That’s where she belongs, and that’s where she is. ”
Captain Tony, when you think back, with all of the memories you have, what are some things you love thinking about and always seem to be prevalent in your thought?
Well, I could put it this way. There’s a couple of things
that have been very big in my life. Every one of my children. Thirteen times. That’s big time. Being mayor of Key West. That’s big time. But I think the one that I favor, sort of my favorite, The Last Mango in Paris, Jimmy Buffett. That was big time to me. You know? I always called him the kid. I remember he stopped by the bar one day. It was a hot day in July. “Come on Jimmy have, a seat.” Remember the words! “Come on Jimmy, have a seat.” He sat down next to me, “What are you doing Tony, man? You’re up in the years.” I said “Jimmy, there’s so much to be done.” The song. We talked about a lot of things. There’s a lot to that song that only Jimmy and I will understand. It’s sort of very, very personal. Thank God, and it wasn’t anything. So I said, “Jimmy, I gotta go home. My wife’s got supper ready.” I went to the head and the old man disappeared. He came by a month later, he throws this tape at me. “Tony, I hope you like it.” I was leaving for Charlie Rose. I was doing Charlie Rose in New York at the time. I said, “Jimmy, thanks.” I threw it on a shelf because I had enough time to make the plane. So when I get to Washington, with CBS, you know the limo. I’m sitting back and I heard, “I went down to Captain Tony’s.” I said, “Is that Jimmy Buffett?” and the guy driving shuts it off! He said, “Are you Captain Tony?” That’s all I heard. Four days later, when I got back to Key West, I heard the tape. I don’t know what tosay. He did something. You talk about great people. Here’s a guy who plays the guitar, to me did things that I think were fabulous. He saved a generation. He saved a generation..the 70s, the 80s. He saved it. It was still doing it. It’s like a cult. It’s like the Constitution. All of those things we encountered in them days. You know, when I’m at his concerts, I stand up and turn around and look at the people. He gave so much, and he did it the right way. Just a regular guy, “if the phone rings it isn’t me.” Oooh. He just, he did something very beautiful. It’s more than just being big time. He found the forgotten people, and kept them alive. Cause we are the forgotten people, whether you like it or not, cause we did things they wouldn’t dare let you do today, and that was fight for the truth. So that’s about it.
As you know, this show goes out all over the world. So before we go, what do you want to say to the world?
Well, I always say let every heart beat count, but I think the most important thing is be good to your fellow man. It’s so easy to be good. Believe me. Everybody has a god. My God is on my side. The Muslims have a God. Everybody. But you know, I think God looks after everybody. And look at him as a God for everybody. I don’t know. Be good to your fellow man, but most of all be good to your women because they’re the ones that bring the children into the world. Remember that. You know? I always remember that song, “So when she’s weary, everything looks dreary. Just try a little tenderness. I try that with everybody. Everybody. Thank you.
This interview just goes to show that a legend never dies. I hope everyone was as touched by the life that Captain Tony lead as I was. He was proof that you can make every breath count. That was an interview and afternoon we will never forget.
As the 1985 liner notes of the Last Mango in Paris record says, “For all the living legends I’ve ever had to know..there’s still so much to be done.” -Paul