Capt. Tony Tarracino; Saloonkeeper, Mayor, Eccentric of Key West

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 16, 2008

Anthony Tarracino, known to one and all as Capt. Tony, spent two years as mayor of Key West, Fla., and 60 years as one of the most colorful characters in an island city full of them. During his 92 years, he was a bootlegger, gambler, gunrunner, saloonkeeper, fishing boat captain, ladies' man and peerless raconteur. He died Nov. 1 of heart and lung ailments at Lower Keys Medical Center in Key West.

Mr. Tarracino survived on his wits and cunning long before his arrival in raffish Key West in 1948 with $18 in his pocket. He spent more than three decades as a charter boat captain and for 28 years owned a dank, musty bar that once doubled as the city morgue.

Capt. Tony's Saloon, an unprepossessing spot on Greene Street, still bears Mr. Tarracino's name almost 20 years after he sold it. It was the original site of Sloppy Joe's Saloon, which was the favorite watering hole of Ernest Hemingway when he lived in Key West in the 1930s.

A huge tree grows in the center of the tavern and disappears through the roof. License plates, business cards and countless women's bras are stapled to the ceiling and walls. In the 1970s, the tropical troubadour Jimmy Buffett performed at Capt. Tony's for tips and beers; he later described his experience in the song "Last Mango in Paris." Until a few months ago, Mr. Tarracino was a regular presence at Capt. Tony's, where he greeted visitors, told stories and signed T-shirts and posters displaying his grizzled likeness.

His most famous slogan, which became part of his successful run for mayor in 1989, was: "All you need in this life is a tremendous sex drive and a great ego. Brains don't mean [a word we can't print in the newspaper]."

Mr. Tarracino ran for mayor of Key West in 1985 but lost by 52 votes to a banker named Tom Sawyer. Locals joked that the race was between someone named for a fictional character and someone who was a fictional character.

Four years later, when Mr. Tarracino ran again, some people objected to his frequent use of a certain four-letter word. He was unapologetic, saying, "I just hope everybody in Key West who uses that word votes for me. If they do, I'll win in a landslide."

He won by 32 votes out of more than 6,000 cast.

His goal as mayor was to limit Key West's growth and to keep its reputation as a refuge for eccentrics and renegades who had found their way to the southernmost point of the continental United States.

"Key West is an insane asylum," he told the Chicago Tribune while sitting behind his new desk at city hall. "We're just too lazy to put up the walls or fences. I want to retain that mystique."

Anthony Tarracino was born Aug. 10, 1916, in Elizabeth, N.J., where his immigrant father was a bootlegger during Prohibition. According to Brad Manard's "Life Lessons of a Legend," a book about Mr. Tarracino published the week of his death, young Tony dropped out of the ninth grade to make and sell illegal whiskey.

During World War II, he left a wife and three children behind in New Jersey and moved to Seattle, where he worked for the Boeing aircraft company.

After the war, he returned to New Jersey and made good money gambling on horse races. But he ran afoul of mobsters and, according to Manard's book, was beaten and left for dead at the Newark city dump. Mr. Tarracino fled to Florida and hitchhiked to Key West on a milk truck.

For 35 years, he ran fishing boats -- always called the "Greyhound" -- out of Key West. He claimed to have been a gunrunner in the 1950s and to have ferried arms, CIA agents and mercenaries to Cuba and Haiti. He said he was briefly jailed after smuggling refugees out of Castro's Cuba.

He ran Capt. Tony's Saloon from 1961 to 1989, when he was elected mayor. His principal achievement was to preserve Key West's daily sunset celebration, at which acrobats, buskers and performing animals appear in an impromptu street theater.

"You know what's shocking to a lot of people?" Mr. Tarracino said. "I'm a good mayor."

But when he lost his reelection bid in 1991, he didn't seem to mind, saying, "I had my time in the sun."

Mr. Tarracino was married four times and had 13 children, the first when he was 20 and the last when he was 70. He outlived his first three wives, Mimi, Mae and Shirley, and one son.

Survivors include his fourth wife, of 38 years, Marty Tarracino; 12 children; 13 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

For years, Mr. Tarracino had a diet of pizza and chocolate bars, smoked unfiltered Lucky Strikes and drank 12 cups of coffee a day, chased with the occasional beer or whiskey.

"When I die, an era's over," he said in 1990. "But that won't happen soon. Only the good die young."

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