Back in the late 1970s, adventurous men rode motorcycles stamped with his signature, ogled Lamborghinis designed for him and even slapped their cheeks with his namesake aftershave. He graced television screens in ads for his brand of cigarettes, in a Croatian campaign dubbed A Man and His World. And until his namesake cologne was discontinued, European men literally smelled of Walter Wolf.
Born to a German and Slovenian couple in Austria on the verge of the Second World War, Mr. Wolf immigrated to Canada in his early 20s and built his fortune in the oil-services industry, staffing offshore rigs with scuba divers in places such as the North Sea, the Arabian Gulf and the Nigerian coast. A jet-setting, pistol-owning playboy, he was the first Canadian to own a Formula One team. And he helped alter the course of the country’s political history.
“If you want to do a real story on Walter Wolf, this is nothing you can do in a week,” warned German businessman Karlheinz Schreiber, whose path fatefully crossed with Mr. Wolf’s. “A good expression in Canada would be, ‘He’s a strange bird.’ ”
And today, Mr. Wolf is a wanted man, accused in an arms-related bribery scandal that recently helped bring down the Slovenian government. Interpol, the world’s largest international police organization, posted his head shot to its website in March with this caption: Wanted by the judicial authorities of Slovenia for prosecution/to serve a sentence.
Mr. Wolf swears he’s innocent and promises to face justice after undergoing a heart procedure in Toronto later this summer.
I tracked him down by telephone on his 7,000-acre property about 45 minutes outside Kamloops, B.C., nestled along the South Thompson River as it snakes through moss-covered hills. Five days later, I was welcomed to Wolf Ranch for a two-night stay (no pictures of him allowed), hoping to get a fuller sense of this mysterious figure with global reach and a significant legacy in Canada: He helped pave the path to power for Brian Mulroney, and later opened the door to the alleged Airbus scandal by bringing Mr. Schreiber into the Mulroney fold.
Abroad, more colourful things have been written – claims, for example, that Mr. Wolf gathered information for the CIA about the flow of Russian capital, and that he smuggled arms into Yugoslavia. When those allegations were raised, he chuckled and said, “People are watching too much James Bond.” He acknowledged only that he sent gas masks from Poland to Yugoslavia, and introduced Croatian and Slovenian politicians to people in the Israeli arms industry.
“I’m not ‘connected.’ I just know people,” Mr. Wolf said as we dodged the rain on our first of two afternoons together and headed into Bolacco Café, a nearby Sun Peaks Resort coffee shop recommended to him by former Canadian Olympic skier and now B.C. Senator Nancy Greene.
While he is known to exaggerate, his own list of his friends and acquaintances reads like an international Who’s Who: Franz Joseph Strauss, the late Bavarian state premier and chairman of Airbus; the notorious former Haitian president Jean-Claude Duvalier a.k.a. Baby Doc; Mr. Mulroney; former prime minister Pierre Trudeau; Austrian ski champion Franz Klammer and the “Crazy Canucks” alpine-race crew; former Miss Austria Elisabeth Kawan (now his ex-wife); former PEI premier James Stewart’s great-granddaughter Barbara Stewart (also his ex-wife); F1 driver Gilles Villeneuve; Arnold Schwarzenegger; and so on.
Sometimes Mr. Wolf plays down these relationships and sometimes he boasts of them, depending, it seems, on whether he’s spinning a yarn or angling to distance himself from a political hot potato. That’s the kind of person he is, a man who alternates dramatically between sentimentality and ruthlessness.
“I am the way I am,” he said, clad in faded jeans and a black Walter Wolf racing jacket, over dinner and a $10 bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo on his terrace. “I’m not an actor. I don’t give a shit. Quite honestly, I don’t owe anybody anything. I can eat steak. I can drink whatever wine I want.”
Mr. Wolf – Wally, as his friends call him – was by turns chivalrous (carrying my luggage and greeting me at his door to shield me from his jowly Cane Corso canines) and crass (“Sometimes a woman is so gorgeous that you’re in bed with her, you finish and you think, ‘Jesus, it’s too bad she’s not a cigarette. I would light her up and get rid of her!’ ”).