An array of famous, talented friends
He has famous friends — a young Jimmy Buffett sang at the Pier House bar, future Florida celebrity chef Norman Van Aken worked the breakfast service at the hotel restaurant, actress Tilda Swinton is rumored to have visited Ballast Key this year — but he dislikes name-dropping. When asked who he has invited to his island, he answers in typical cryptic fashion. “The works. Everything from garbage collectors…” he pauses, then delivers the jab, “down to Vanderbilts.”
He has a practical side, too. Local artist Susan Rodgers says he likes to get to art shows early to buy something, a psychological prod for others. “Then there would be a little red dot by some of my pieces,” she said, “and it would help create this buzz.”
Van Aken, who is writing a memoir about his life as a chef — including a chapter on the Pier House — notes that Wolkowsky, “had a quiet way of managing. He never met with all of us, just walked through the kitchen and said something like, ‘I think you ought to do Key Lime pie.’ ”
John Martini, a Key West artist who notes that he learned much about the art of negotiation from Wolkowsky — sometimes to his own disadvantage — says Wolkowsky knows just how to draw people in: “When he’s struck by someone he thinks will be an asset to the town, he seduces them — in a no-sex way. He makes people feel special and they see the island through his eyes, loving it like he does.”
On a spring day, Wolkowsky is riding shotgun in a small boat bouncing through the choppy waters on the way to Ballast Key. Conversation slows and then stops as Key West recedes and his island, some 24 acres of personal creation, appears on the horizon. The house is gray, suspended above the sand on steel, stilt-like supports, with a tiny widow’s walk on top. A dock stretches out into shallow, crystalline waters. He walks the length of it slowly — a slight concession to age — but then climbs onto the small John Deere all-terrain vehicle awaiting him. As the boat captain and caretaker tote supplies to the house, he cranks up the vehicle and tours his sanctuary, puttering past silvery palm trees and thick mangroves, each turn leading to a new oasis: a thatched hut overlooking the water, a carved bench, a piece of sculpture.
Inside the house, where sunlight drenches pale rooms, he points out a new piece of art next to the metal spiral staircase that leads to the upper bedroom, with its 360-degree water view. In the bathroom, there’s a signed Buffett album on one wall (“Ballast Key was neat for me,” it says) and side-by-side framed pages from Town & Country magazine, 1955, showing the “man of the month.” Wolkowsky is March; Cary Grant follows, in April. He adjusts a sliding glass door to catch the breeze and scans the horizon. There is a beautiful emptiness out there: no people, no boats, nothing but pale blue sky blending into turquoise sea studded by black specks of mangroves.
“I couldn’t bear to sit around and collect baseball cards,” he says. “If you’re not involved and enjoying what’s around you, you might as well get back in the book, like a leaf, and close it.” And he throws back his head and laughs.