A sailor with an appetite for life
A sailor with an appetite for life
In 1990 I was in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, doing some editorial consulting for an eccentric charter fleet owner who provided me with a musty berth on one of his dismasted sailboats, and many sundowner rum punches aboard his houseboat, Folly.
At the time I was writing for Annapolitan, a monthly “lifestyle” magazine whose editor had asked for an updated profile on former Annapolis, Md., sailor and entrepreneur George Tyler, who then lived on St. Croix. Many years earlier, he had become known in the sailing world because of his famous Eastport pub named Marmaduke’s.
Whenever I introduced myself in St. Thomas as being “from Annapolis,” the first response was always: “Do you know George Tyler?” It happened so often that I automatically added, “And yes, I know George Tyler.”
Physically a huge, domineering man with big ideas and a bigger presence, Tyler flew in for a meeting. I had not seen him for a few years and he seemed to have grown even larger — a towering behemoth well over 6 feet tall and weighing more than 300 pounds. We had a long conversation and I sent off the story, which was never published because the magazine folded.
A bit of a wild, bold and impulsive man with a gargantuan appetite for all the good (and some of the bad) things in life, George Severn Tyler III, 69, died Aug. 18 of kidney failure at the Easton (Md.) Memorial Hospital. He and his third wife, Cindy, had just bought a summer home in nearby St. Michaels to be near their grandchildren, though they planned to continue to winter at their historic home in Christiansted, St. Croix.
Tyler created Marmaduke’s in 1969 when he bought Connor’s Place, a run-down neighborhood saloon patronized by watermen and workers from the old Trumpy Yacht Yard across the street. He discovered sailing in 1967 and was successful racing a 24-foot Columbia Contender named Tippecanoe. Something of a man of vision, he had sensed a need for a place for sailors to gather.
A collector of antiques and fine oriental carpets, Tyler hung Tiffany lamps to spiff up the joint, and covered the bare walls with barn board. Soon, those who played on boats began to mingle with those who worked on boats. It was a strained relationship at first, but everyone got along fine together.
Preparing for his first Memorial Day weekend opening, Tyler, always a man with ideas, was aware that everyone headed “down the ocean” over the holiday. “What does Ocean City have that Marmaduke’s doesn’t have?” he asked himself. “A beach, sand,” he answered.
So Tyler ordered a dump-truck load of white sand. The truck backed up to the front door, and he shoveled it inside. “They want a sandy beach? I give them a sandy beach,” he said. The staff donned lifeguard shirts and whistles. By the weekend word had gotten around, and the debut was a crashing success, with Tyler himself crashing to the floor, passed out and half-buried in his sandbox.
The bar, known as Duke’s, became a must stopover for East Coast sailors on the racing and cruising circuit. There was a shuffleboard and dartboards, and overstuffed deli-style sandwiches. Later, in an upstairs bar, piano-bar singer and composer Dick Gessner attracted a following of amateur theatrical groupies who sang Broadway show tunes and gave that room a feeling of summer theater.
In the late 1960s Tyler sparred for customers with saloonkeeper Jerry Hardesty, who had opened The Middleton Tavern, the first of the trendy bars in downtown Annapolis. Tyler won first prize at a Hardesty Halloween party when Trumpy yard workers made a large coffin for him and carted his reclining figure across the creek for the contest.
He relinquished control of Marmaduke’s to his father in the mid-1970s after a dispute, but continued in the restaurant field. Duke’s survived in name after a new owner took over, but it was obscenely enlarged and in late 1997 an era ended as the corner property in Eastport became a fancy chain steak house with valet parking.
Tyler went on to open The Captain’s Table with “Dick Gessner at the Piano.” Other Maryland restaurant ventures followed, including the St. Michaels Inn in St. Michaels and Steamboat Landing, and The Backfin in Galesville.
A former Baltimore boilermaker who played semipro football, club lacrosse, and once wrestled a carnival ape, Tyler got interested in restoring homes on Capitol Hill in Washington in the early 1960s. (He later worked on the restoration of the famed Willard Hotel and the Occidental restaurant in downtown Washington.)
I first met him when he had an antiques store near a Capitol Hill saloon named Mr. Henry’s, a luncheon hangout for newspapermen at the nearby, now-defunct Washington Star, where I worked for nearly 20 years. When Tyler bought a sunken 1906 skipjack named Viola in the late 1960s, I daysailed with him and wrote about it for the Star.
Tyler continued sailing and racing, and over the years owned a number of vessels, including a 41-foot Angus Primrose sloop, an Olympic 47, and a 68-foot traditional Dutch steel trawler. His only nautical survivor is a 32-foot picnic boat in Christiansted named Buttercup.
He finally settled on St. Croix after he and Cindy sailed to the Caribbean in 1987 in an Olympic 47, named Childe. They arrived on the island in 1989 and were greeted by Hurricane Hugo, which practically wrecked their liveaboard boat. “[We] restored it while George, an experienced builder, found plenty of work dealing with hurricane damage,” says Cindy. “It was like the Wild West, out of control. We were broke but bought a house with no roof on it.”
Eventually, they restored a 1760 Danish town estate to its former grandeur. It is listed on the National Register as a historic landmark, and has been featured in Antiques Magazine and other publications. The house is filled with antiques and mahogany colonial West Indian furniture — especially high, four-poster beds, about which Tyler became an authority. He also collected Japanese porcelain, and was an aficionado of opera, jazz and fine art — and he loved good wine and Cuban cigars.
“He was a gourmet, a great chef, funny and witty and unpredictable, and he lived life to the very fullest,” says Cindy.
As they planned for retirement, they sold most of their business interests — the quirky 13-room Pink Fancy Hotel and the Schooner Bay Marketplace (a gourmet supermarket) — and built the Stowaway Self-Storage facility as income so they could travel.
In late August a cocktail party and bull roast was held in his memory at the Port Annapolis Pavilion, where friends and family took turns at a microphone telling hilarious George stories. George’s urn was there, too.
Cindy spoke of Tyler’s legendary encounter with a “gorilla” (actually, an adult orangutan) in a Baltimore carnival ring when he was a young man. He enlisted four of his largest boilermaker buddies to enter a cage and spend 10 minutes with “the monkey” for $500.
“George told his biggest friend to grab the ape from behind with a hammerlock,” she says. “And then George walked up and hit the ape very hard under the heart and almost broke his hand. The ape blinked, reached back with his long arms, and threw the big guy over his shoulders and up in the air, and came after George. One slap with his mittened hand sent George doing cartwheels across the ring.
“George told the carnival guy to let them out, but he said, ‘You signed a contract and you have to stay in longer.’ But when George threatened to go after him instead of the ape, the cage was opened, and the big men escaped unharmed.”
Survivors include Cindy, his wife of 25 years; three children, George Severn Tyler IV of Davidsonville, Md., Hamilton Tyler of Millersville, Md., and Caroline Tyler Huddleston of Centerville, Md.; a sister, Carol Baker of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; two grandsons; and former wife Elizabeth Rumsey Finkle of Annapolis. Also, his three Jack Russell terriers — Duckie, Max and Stella.
Another memorial is planned for this winter on St. Croix. For remembrances and information, check www.georgetyler.info.
Jack Sherwood is a senior writer for Soundings and is based in Annapolis, Md.