How David Wolkowsky became Mr. Key West
David Wolkowsky, the entrepreneurial philanthropist who helped restore Key West, and Tennessee Williams, the celebrated playwright who wrote parts of his best-known plays in the island city, were lifelong friends.
And so it’s fitting that Wolkowsky, who died in September at 99, bequeathed to the Key West Art and Historical Society 17 paintings by Williams, including a portrait Williams painted of Wolkowsky, with the inscription: “L’inconnu — C’est Les Yeux (The Unknown — It’s The Eyes”).
Wolkowsky also donated 72 brown paper bag sketches — along with a woodcarving — by Cuban-American folk artist Mario Sanchez, born in Key West in 1908, the son of a Cuban cigar maker and known for his scenes of old Key West.
“Visitors to the Custom House Museum will continue to enjoy ‘Mr. Key West’s’ legacy,” the society said in a statement.
The artworks had previously been on loan by his estate to the Custom House Museum, housed in the four-story, red brick former federal building that dates to 1891.
Wolkowsky was equal parts developer and preservationist, museum officials said, “restoring the charm of the island’s old buildings while thoughtfully considering new ones.”
“What he accomplished mattered to him; it was at the core of his being,” said Cori Convertito, the society’s curator. “Leaving the society this legacy ensures that we will persevere in what he started — ensuring the community understands the importance of our history and culture.”
Williams, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose works included such well-known plays as “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’’ and “The Glass Menagerie,” visited or lived in Key West for more than 40 years, from the early ‘40s until his death in 1983 at age 71.
Before his death, Williams had divided his time between New York, New Orleans and Key West for decades. Williams had a deep connection to Key West, though.
He established a home in Key West in 1949 and in 1950 bought the house at 1431 Duncan St., where he lived for 34 years. The island has a museum in his honor and a theater named after him on the campus of Florida Keys Community College. Literary experts believe he wrote the final draft of ‘Streetcar’ while staying at the La Concha Hotel in Key West in 1947.
Williams took up painting in his later years. He rarely sold his art, instead giving his pieces to close friends, according to the society.
Wolkowsky was one of those friends. He invited Williams to his home at the renovated Kress five and dime store building on Duval Street and to his private island, Ballast Key, located off Key West.
In 1983, Wolkowsky was one of the pallbearers at Williams’ funeral.
“Due to David’s close friendship with Williams, he felt it imperative to donate the paintings to the Society so we can safeguard them and ensure that the largest audience possible views them,” Convertito said.
The paper bag sketches by Sanchez that Wolkowsky donated provide a look into everyday Key West island life — outdoor street scenes he took from his own memories. Sanchez taught himself to paint and make wood carvings.
Wolkowsky commissioned the woodcarving, “Old Island Days No. 23 ‘Golden Era’,” in 1975 and portrays the men’s clothing store Wolkowsky’s father and grandfather operated on the corner of Greene and Duval streets at the turn of the 20th Century. Sanchez’s paintings are known for their vibrant colors and detailed street scenes.
Wolkowsky admired the artist’s sense of humor and ability to visually and accurately archive the island’s history, said Convertito.
Wolkowsky was a longtime benefactor to the society, and often brought dignitaries, friends, would-be donors, and local islanders to the Custom House Museum, 281 Front St., near Mallory Square.
“This community was so blessed to have him,” said Convertito. “It is not about the money; it is about his positive attitude and his mentorship of people who he felt would carry on his legacy.”