Key West is known for its legendary residents. Over the years, they have included literary geniuses Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams, Tony Award-winning Broadway composer and lyricist Jerry Herman, “A Chorus Line” writer James Kirkwood, and even singer/songwriter Jimmy Buffett — who not only lived on the island, but immortalized it in such enduring hits as “Margaritaville.”
And then there are the political legends. Sonny McCoy was Key West’s mayor when he water-skied from the island city to Cuba (more than 90 miles!) on a single slalom ski. Wilhelmina Harvey served as county mayor well into her 80s, as well as being Admiral of the Keys’ irreverent Conch Republic Navy.
You may recall reading in my previous columns that ageism really doesn’t exist in the Florida Keys — and Wilhelmina, an energetic and beloved “senior grande dame” was a shining example of that truth.
No Key West resident is more legendary, however, than the late Captain Tony Tarracino. Today it would be hard to do everything the outspoken, larger-than-life captain is reputed to have done in his extraordinary lifetime. (Let’s just say that his “professions” supposedly included gambler and gunrunner during the Bay of Pigs invasion.)
Captain Tony landed in Key West in 1948 after departing (some say fleeing) New Jersey. In 1958 he bought a bar on Greene Street that he aptly named Captain Tony’s Saloon. In one of its earlier incarnations, the saloon had been a favorite spot of Ernest Hemingway and his cronies.
Tony served as mayor of Key West from 1989 to 1991. At that time he was in his late 70s, but senior status didn’t mean he’d lost any of his characteristic vigor or irreverence — either in his professional or personal life. (Speaking of his personal life, Tony was married four times and was the father of 13 children.)
But it wasn’t just in Key West that the colorful captain was a legend. The film “The Cuba Crossing,” starring Stuart Whitman, was inspired by his life. Jimmy Buffett immortalized him in his song, “Last Mango in Paris.”
As well as referring to some of the captain’s reputed escapades, the song captured Tony’s exuberant attitude in a line he supposedly spoke: “And Jimmy, there’s still so much to be done.”
From Aug. 8-11 Key West honors this extraordinary legend, who died in 2008 at age 92, with a festival: Captain Tony Days. Produced by his family members and friends, it includes a celebration of his Aug. 10 birthday at — where else? — Captain Tony’s Saloon on Greene Street.
As a fitting part of the festival remembering the individualistic captain, one of this year’s Key West High School graduates will receive a $1,025 “life scholarship” in his honor. The recipient must NOT be college bound, but instead plan to learn from life.
Even after his passing, Captain Tony Tarracino is remembered for his nonconformist viewpoint.
When I knew Tony is the 1980s, I found myself captivated by the stories he could tell. Now, as an older senior citizen myself, I look back on his zest for life with awe. To him there was always “still so much to be done.”