(2 of 7)
He knows how. Buffett's empire rests on the beer-soaked foundation of shows like this one in Cincinnati. He presides over the ritual, a short, balding, joyful character charging around the stage, cracking wise and showing off an uncanny ability to sing, play guitar, smile and kick beachballs all at the same time. Scores of those balls and inflatable sharks are bouncing above the crowd; doctors and lawyers are dancing with their children; sales clerks and college kids are swaying with their honeys; and everyone's singing along with the tight, glistening music. It's a giddy, collective delusion--landlocked Ohioans pretending that they're finally going to cash in their chips and set sail for uncharted isles, just like Jimmy. Come Monday, of course, they'll be back at work. "I look out at my audience," Buffett says after the show, still vibrating from the rush of performance, "and I see people who are caring for aging parents and dealing with tough jobs and adolescent kids, and they look like they could use a little relief. And frankly, I could use a little myself."
The man who long ago dedicated himself to "the light side of life" knows that the dark side has a way of encroaching, even on post-hippie millionaires like himself. He has worked hard to fix a once broken marriage. He watched his father slip into the fog of Alzheimer's disease and his mother suffer a crippling stroke. And Buffett very nearly died two years ago, when the vintage seaplane he was piloting crashed and flipped during takeoff from Nantucket Harbor, leaving him dazed and "hanging like a captured insect" in a cockpit filling with water. After he clawed his way out of the wreckage, he says, "it was time to take a little inventory."
At 51, Buffett looks like an Islamorada bonefishing guide: stocky and squint-eyed, with seaworthy legs and skin that's leathery from the sun. The hair that used to hang in long blond sheets has fallen out; the famously droopy moustache is gone. And though he is 25 years away from the Key West beach-bum days that make up the heart of his myth, he still has gregarious charm, an elfin smile and a bottomless well of stories to tell. That's not the whole picture, of course. "He's incredibly outgoing and confident when he switches it on," says his wife of 21 years, Jane. "But in real life he's shy and reserved." Others describe him as restless and often remote, which is kind of understandable since millions of people would like nothing better than to buy him too many drinks and be his new best friend.
When they're not vagabonding around the world, Jimmy and Jane Buffett live in Palm Beach, Fla., and Sag Harbor, N.Y. They have daughters ages 19 and 6, and a son, 5. And though Buffett seems to enjoy schmoozing with the American elite, Jane says, "If I didn't force him to go out, he would be a total recluse. He is self-contained: up early, writing or fishing or boating or flying, making pancakes for the kids, driving them to school or camp, playing tennis or working out. That's the life he loves."