Legendary New York City barman Tom Vaught died on Saturday (11.03) from complications of cancer. Vaught was not a “star-tender” of the contemporary era, but he was indisputably an icon of bartending. The man belonged to Old New York, a paternal therapist cum bartender, better suited for Joseph Mitchell’s cadre of characters than the pages of a glossy ‘lifestyle’ publication.
And, he liked it that way.
“A good bar is already a little bit like time travel. When Tom was behind it, the bar was a Leadville mining saloon, a Brooklyn waterfront dive, a punk bar, an old-man bar, every kind of good bar,” Vaught’s friend Dave Wondrich told NP. “None like him.”
Vaught was a child of Gotham, born in St. Albans, Queens in 1968. Like many other boomers, his parents elected to move the family to the greener pastures of suburbia and Tom spent the majority of his childhood in Westchester, NY. Like the children of many boomers, Tom reacted with rebellion, opting to dip his toes into the world of creative disciplines. He first matriculated in the School of Visual Arts, then flirted with acting, music, and writing.
Vaught’s work in the creative arts continued throughout the remainder of his life both as a vocation and an overarching influence. However, in 1991, he stepped behind the stick at Stella’s and found his calling. Tom would later work at WXOU, The Magician, and the Brooklyn Inn.
Vaught was a barman. But, while he slung drinks with the best of them, the job was not about alcohol or mixology. Rather, the bar was merely a vessel for his oversized personality and love of community.
The watering hole was the center of a collective that Tom governed. Within those darkened rooms, he offered advice to a steady stream of ink-stained wretches stuck on stories. He aided NYC’s remaining regional raconteurs as they struggled with the City’s rising rents. Other times, he was the one providing the story to a rapt audience. On many occasions, his patrons and friends discovered that beneath a gruff exterior lay a tender should to cry on.
Tom Vaught was not a product of the internet era. To the contrary, he was an analog social network and encyclopedia. If his guests had a question, they could ask Tom—no smartphone required for answers. His reality was neither virtual nor augmented. He embraced actual life fully in all its splendor and shittiness. That ethos meant that the bar was a stage befitting his theatrical roots and every shift was a performance.
“Tom ran the bar like a trawler captain runs his ship. He was salty, decisive, a little bit rough-and-tumble and always very funny,” recalled Wondrich. “But he was also deeply curious: not so much in the modern world, which could have evolved specifically to constrain the likes of him, but in the wide-open America of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. There, he was up on all of the terminology and technology. His knowledge of railroads and their history was unparalleled. He knew ships and boats. He knew all kinds of archaic crafts. Not that he was some sort of reenactor or dweeb–he was more of a kindred spirit with the badasses of the past than an imitator.”
Given his passion for trains and ships, it was not surprising that Vaught also loved travel. His destinations ran the gamut from the blues delta of Mississippi to the bluegrass mountains of Colorado. In both locations, he we was greeted like family. Yet, the sailor’s life was his great calling and Tom seemed most at ease when spending time by the ocean in places like Block Island and Kismet, Fire Island.
Anyone who spent time with the Skipper in these locales knew that although the man served adult beverages, he had a way with children. Vaught was a mentor to adults and a downright mythical figure to children. By the ocean, he embraced his pirate persona and the local youth became his crew. For his sailors, he orchestrated annual treasure hunts on the beach and daily adventures across the islands.
Now, Tom Vaught has set sail on his final voyage. His farewell was evocative of Nelson plotting course for Trafalgar—proud and unwavering in his convictions no matter his knowledge of the grim outcome. In his final months, Vaught found solace in the words of William Ernest Henley’s ‘Invictus.’
“Out of the night that covers me; Black as the Pit from pole to pole; I thank whatever gods may be; For my unconquerable soul.”
Details on memorial services are forthcoming and we will update this post as they become available.
Editor’s Note: Thanks to Dave Wondrich and his excellent piece in Punch for help with biographical details.