The Town That Camp Built

Vintage large letter postcard illustration, 1940s. (Photo by Found Image Holdings/Corbis via Getty Images)

At The Bitter Southerner, Michael Adno profiles renovator and land developer David Wolkowsky, age 98, whose particular brand of charm, philanthropy, joie de vivre, and camp has permanently shaped Key West, Florida’s unique allure.

Wolkowsky tells me the story of how he came to know the word: “camp.”

At a party in Philadelphia while Wolkowsky was still a student, he recognized Lucien Beebe, the bicoastal polymath who had started Nevada’s first newspaper. Beebe approached, and “I just handed him my drink,” Wolkowsky tells me. Beebe laughed and replied, “You’re such a camp.” That was the first mention, the flowering, the thread of solidarity that has stuck with Wolkowsky since.

“Michael, the most important thing is camp,” he tells me. “Very few people have it.” He assures me I have it — “but not completely.”

Pausing the movie, we parse the idea of camp — pulling up websites, laying books on their spines, running through examples to ask: What is camp? Or, more specifically, how do we articulate Wolkowsky’s idea of camp?

He agrees with some denotations we find online — theatrical mannerisms, exaggerated humor, a mingling of high and low that challenges the status quo in art. Of course, as many have tried, the word, its sensibilities, and its proxies have remained elusive and difficult to pin down. But camp is as plain as day in Wolkowsky’s home, with its faux paintings that are nearly indiscernible from the real things, the levity with which he addresses all things, his coded language.

In the town, itself, camp seems essential to Key West’s sense of place. While Susan Sontag was heavily criticized for her explication of the word as a sensibility, as a style, she put it well when she wrote in 1964, “Camp is esoteric — something of a private code. To talk about camp is therefore to betray it.” In other words, depending on where and when or with whom, the word holds different meanings, evading classification for decades, maybe deliberately. And while increasingly difficult to articulate, Key West’s brand of camp reflects Wolkowsky’s understanding — never on the nose, always sideways, a place where anonymity feels like an innate right.

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