It’s a mystery with a Conch gothic touch that he’s never publicly discussed before, but now he wants to make sure there’s a record and that no one tried to sell the documents after he’s gone. “I just want it known that this is something that was given to me by a friend,” Wolkowsky says.
The missing manuscript has an intriguing history of its own. It’s believed to be an early draft of La Cote Basque, a scandalous exposé of New York society published in Esquire in 1975 that some say caused the suicide of a socialite who appeared, thinly veiled, in the piece. Ann Woodward was acquitted of murdering her husband but Capote’s short story, featuring a fictionalized account of the killing, essentially convicted her.
Wolkowsky kept the original in a plastic grocery bag tucked into a filing cabinet in his penthouse, making one copy so he could frame some pages. But after several sets of friends had stayed in the apartment, he realized the bag and its contents were missing. No one confessed, so he says he placed a “blind” item in a local paper about the disappearance, keeping his name out of it, and circulated copies among his friends. Still, nothing.
It’s the violation of a friendship that still rankles.
“If he believes in you, you get his unwavering loyalty and support,” says Tom Schmitt, former owner of the Rooftop Cafe, who says he was able to open the second-story eatery only with Wolkowsky’s help. “With his eye and his way of looking at things, he can see the potential in something — and in people — that somebody else can’t.”
His personal style is a mischievous mix of high and low. In the penthouse — he owns several properties on the island, though he sold the Pier House in the late ’70s — an expensive Art Deco-style Aubusson rug resides on a floor that, on close inspection, turns out to be made of polished plywood. On Ballast Key, he is famous for serving guests turkey hot dogs and chips while they gaze at the one-of-a-kind view. When he ran the Pier House, back in the ’70s, federal drug agents might be sitting at one end of the bar and smugglers at the other.
He collects art the same way, notes Claudia Pennington, executive director of the Key West Art & Historical Society, who says he’s been known to return from a trip with a shipping container of items he can’t wait to show her. “It’s everything from, ‘look at what I bought in Paris’ to ‘I saw this in the gutter at Stock Island and it was too good to throw away.’ And for the most part he’s right on,” she says.
When asked to talk about his accomplishments, he shies away. Eventually, though, he produces a stack of magazines with stories written about him over the years — “in a burst of modesty” he notes, with a barking laugh at himself — that include a glamorous Italian men’s magazine photo shoot.
His enthusiasm, for the island and for the creative life, seems undiminished by time, notes longtime friend and literary critic Phyllis Rose, who has produced a photo book celebrating Ballast Key. “The persistence of his creative urge, at the age that he’s at, that he keeps undertaking projects —it’s remarkable.”