Hero: Max Wolkoff
Inspiration and Gentleman Genius
Max Wolkoff liked to say, “Greg, there isn’t one river in Russia named ‘Wolkoff,’ there are two.”
Max was descended from Russian Jews who had been aristocrats, before the revolution. He and grew up without much in New York City, in the 1920s. Max was the proverbial self-made man. A genius of publicity savvy and human kindness.
I met him when I was a film critic for the Tampa Tribune, in the 1980s. Despite all the hundreds of famous people I interviewed in the U.S. and Europe in my journalistic career, all the movie sets and studio grounds I was welcomed on, all the festivals/awards shows I attended in L.A. (like the Oscars), and Europe (Cannes, Milan, etc.), I am most thankful for my time as a cinema critic for having had the chance to meet Max and become one of his many friends.
I met Max when he was a publicist for Warner Brothers, which he did as a lark, because he loved movies (not because he needed the money; he’d already made plenty as an executive producer of Bud Spencer and Terrence Hill films, popular in Europe and almost unheard of in the U.S.).
Max’s heyday was as the publicity director for the Fountainbleau and Eden Roc hotels in Miami Beach. This Morris Lapidus-designed Fountainbleau is where Jackie Gleason based his 1960′s TV show, where Sinatra sang (and Elvis and the Beatles visited), with its 17,000-square-foot lobby and haute cuisine French restaurant, the La Ronde Supper Club. The Eden Roc has its own lavish history. Also designed by Lapidus, this is where the Tonight Show was sometimes done, where Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Liberace played.
in the 1950s, Max not only took weekend flights to Havana with celebrities, royalty and millionaires, as part of his job. He also came up with outrageous publicity stunts. In one, he had “the world’s longest strand of firecrackers” hung from the Eden Roc’s roof and lit it on the ground in front of the Peking Opera touring company. As the press photographers snapped away, the stunt created so much noise and smoke that the fire department was called. But it made for front page news, and the shows at the hotel sold out.
Max was so famous as a publicist that he received a call one day in Miami. “Mr. Wolkoff,” said the voice, “I’m from the Hughes Organization. Mr. Hughes would like you to consider being his publicist.” Max was flown to New York, picked up by a limo, and taken to the Four Seasons. It only took the Mormon Mafia 15 minutes to officially offer Max the job (that’s how charming he was). Max said, “I’ve got the job already?” They said, “Yes, sir.” Max excused himself from the table, saying, “Then if you don’t mind, I’ll skip lunch. I’ve got to catch a cab back to the airport so I can have dinner with my wife tonight in Miami.” (Max doted on his wife, who unfortunately preceded him in death, in the 1990s).
When Max told me he had been Howard Hughes’ publicity man for three years, I said, “But, Max, Howard Hughes didn’t want publicity. He was the world’s shyest man.” Max, said, “Exactly, Greg, dear boy. My job was to keep Howard’s name OUT of the papers.” After three years of eating free expensive meals all over Vegas (when you worked for Hughes your money, like Jack’s in “The Shining,” was no good), and playing the occasional round of golf, Max grew tired of doing nothing. “When it rains in Vegas, that’s news,” said Max. He moved back to Miami. Of course, he never met Hughes. But on his last day there, he convinced Hughes’ security guard to let him take the private elevator to Howard’s floor. As the doors opened, Max moved forward, and the guard’s hand pressed his big chest. “You’ve seen enough, Mr. Wolfkoff,” said the man. Max said he wagged his head to each side, only glimpsing an impossibly long hallway with a giant door at each end. So close, yet so far: Howard Hughes, only 100 feet away.
I spent many great days talking film, life, and poetry with Max. And many nights having great meals, and way too much booze with him. When a French restaurant only had wine (no hard stuff), Max and I would drink champagne, and he’d smuggle in a bottle of brandy in one of the big pockets of his Abercrombie and Fitch bush jacket, so we could enjoy mind-blowing French 75′s.
That’s how I remember Max: 6-foo-two, barrel-chested, white hair, tan, pale blue eyes, rumpled white button down, the A&F bush jacket, faded jeans, worn white slip-on sneakers with no socks, tooling around Miami in his white, classic ’60s Barracuda convertible. He was friend to a hundred celebrities and politicians, not overly impressed by anyone, and polite to everyone.
It was Max who talked me into moving to Paris, another thing I will never be able to thank him for enough. The picture of Max above I took at a Miami seafood restaurant where I met him for brunch one Spring day in Miami. We started drinking white wine at 11 a.m. Then we had lunch and more wine. Then dinner (with film director Jonathan Demme’s parents, who walked in and were waved over by Max). In one of the 14 hours we ate and drank at the same table, Max convinced me to quit my job as a newspaperman and move to Paris. “It’s something everyone should do, live in Paris, if just once in your life,” he said. “But no matter how long you live there, don’t try to see everything. Leave something for the next time, Greg.” He was right, as usual.
During that fateful evening, I left my Brooks Brothers blazer on the floor of the restaurant near my table for several hours (that’s how hammered I was). The high tide came in at dusk, and the restaurant’s plank floor, built right over the water, allowed the tide in by an inch or so, soaking my jacket. Though I got the jacket dry cleaned multiple times in the coming weeks, whenever it rained the moisture would forever bring out the salty, unmistakable smell of the Miami bay. So, walking in Paris through the mid-to-late ’80s, that odor of salt water, a la Proust’s cookie, would always remind me of Max’s gift to me: the courage to live in the City of Light.
Max, wherever you are: thanks, man — with love, from one of the chosen who miss you still.