Captain Tony Tarracino: LEGEND

This   conversation   with   Captain   Tony Tarracino is  being  published  in  memorial  to  a  man  who brought  a  lot  of  smiles  and  joy  to  a  world  that  sometimes takes things a little too seriously.

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 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

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