Archiving Shakespeare, Dickens, R. Crumb

The New York Public Library’s Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.ENLARGE
The New York Public Library’s Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature. STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

It may not say much for my literary tastes. But among the 35,000 items and 2,000 linear feet of archives in the New York Public Library’s Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, the one that excited me most was a copy of underground cartoonist R. Crumb’s “Zap #1” from 1968.

For Crumb enthusiasts, that should come as little surprise. After all, the inaugural work in the “Zap Comix” series included such iconic characters as Mr. Natural, Schuman the Human, Whiteman and two full pages of “Kitchen Kut-Outs,” featuring such lovable characters as “Dick Tater,” “Beatrice Bread Slice” and “Clever Mr. Ketchup.” That’s also the artist’s exuberant “Keep on Truckin’” visual riff.

But contemplate what else was on the table in “the Berg’s” hushed, wood-paneled room: two extremely rare copies of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tamerlane.” “There are only 12 known copies in existence,” Dr. Isaac Gewirtz, the Berg’s curator, told me.

Sitting a few feet from “Tamerlane” was the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays from 1623. And then there was the heavily annotated stage copy, known as a “prompt copy” of “David Copperfield” that Charles Dickens used in his American public readings. Some paragraphs are crossed out completely; others have notes on their delivery, such as “very earnest.”

“It was especially true in ‘A Christmas Carol,’” Dr. Gewirtz explained. “He’d improvise; he’d cross out passages one night that he wouldn’t another night.”

A portfolio of plays by William Shakespeare printed in 1623.ENLARGE
A portfolio of plays by William Shakespeare printed in 1623. STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
The handle of a letter opener owned by Charles Dickens made with his cat's paw and inscribed, ‘C.D. In memory of Bob. 1862.’ ENLARGE
The handle of a letter opener owned by Charles Dickens made with his cat’s paw and inscribed, ‘C.D. In memory of Bob. 1862.’ STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“A Christmas Carol” wasn’t on the table. But that’s because it was down the hall in a Christmas-themed display case in the McGraw Rotunda. (The book and the rest of the case’s contents are being moved to the periodicals room for the duration of the exhibition until Jan. 5.)

The book sat alongside a greeting card from Maurice Sendak to the poet Randall Jarrell and his wife Mary, thanking them for a fruitcake and signed with a drawing of a bat.

There was also a 1965 letter with a pieta drawing in blue-and-red ink from Jack Kerouac to his future third wife, Stella Sampas, on the back of a printed Christmas card. I’d recommend the missive to any writer, or to anyone, for that matter, who feels shy about blowing his or her own horn.

In the letter Kerouac includes himself among America’s “great writers” and adds, “The fact of the matter is I’m not a best seller because people aren’t educated enough yet: just wait and see what the Astronauts of the year 2000 B.C. will be reading on Venus and Mars (‘t’ won’t be James Michener)….” Unless he was being ironic, I assume the “On the Road” author meant A.D.

The Berg collection was donated to the library in 1940 after extended negotiations with Albert Berg, according to Dr. Gewirtz. And the negotiations included details such as the Austrian oak used on the shelves.

Albert shared an East 73rd Street townhouse with his brother Henry. They were both accomplished surgeons and both bachelors, though their literary tastes apparently diverged, at least slightly. “One side of the room is Dickens,” Dr. Gewirtz said of Albert’s books while pointing to the room’s north wall, “and the south side is Henry, with Thackeray.” He was referring, of course, to Dickens’ literary rival William Makepeace Thackeray.

That’s why Dickens actual writing desk is set up in the north corner. (One of the guests at the collection’s opening was Mayor Fiorella La Guardia. “He sat in Dickens’ chair and broke the caning,” since repaired, Dr. Gewirtz reported.)

The collection also includes Dickens’ inkwell, at least one of them, and his steal-nibbed writing pen. However, my favorite item, a gift to the author from his sister-in-law and housekeeper, Georgina Hogarth, is his unintentionally surrealist ivory letter opener. It is inscribed “C.D. In memory of Bob. 1862.” Bob refers to Dickens’ beloved cat. So beloved that the handle is fashioned from one of the deceased Bob’s paws. “He trained his cat to put out his night candle,” Dr. Gewirtz reported.

The collection, which is open to researchers, only has a fraction of its items on view in the Berg reading room. Therefore, Dr. Gewirtz couldn’t simply reach for the nearest shelf when I expressed an interest in R. Crumb.

That required a return visit. “We bought it about a year ago,” the curator explained as he handed me the sacred document, protected by a Melinex sleeve. “We’re documenting the literary aspects of the counterculture.”

He saw Mr. Crumb’s work following in the antiestablishment tradition of such other Berg collection holdings as the Beats, the Living Theater and the Black Mountain poets.

He declined to say what the library paid for the comic, purchased from a dealer. I was asking for somewhat selfish reasons since I also own a first edition of the comic. Nonetheless, the proximity the library offered to some of my literary heroes filled me with a sense of gratitude and uncharacteristic generosity.

Thus, I’m thinking of donating to the Berg a flier that I saved from the original production of “Hair” on Broadway. (The musical also marked the first time I saw a nude woman.) The psychedelic slip of orange paper, decorated with symbols of some sort, was handed out by the actors during the performance.

Dr. Gewirtz at least feigned interest.

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Big Brother Aids Youth With Big Steps

Eric Lopez, left, with his Big Brothers Big Sisters of NYC mentor Fernando Luciano
Eric Lopez, left, with his Big Brothers Big Sisters of NYC mentor Fernando Luciano       RALPH GARDNER/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

When the Times Square area was suggested as a place to meet Fernando Luciano and Erik Lopez, I was surprised. I would have assumed that the challenge for 34-year-old Mr. Luciano would be to keep Erik, 12, as far away from Times Square—even the new and improved Times Square—as possible.

After all, they’re members of Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City, the city’s largest youth-mentoring program, serving 3,600 children below the poverty line in single-parent households.

Shouldn’t Mr. Luciano be taking Erik to—I don’t know—the American Museum of Natural History or the park? Instead, we arranged to meet at Dave & Buster’s , a sports bar on West 42nd Street.

Dave & Buster’s allure would eventually become apparent.

First we talked. I ordered a beer, the gentlemen drinking nothing more potent than Cokes.

I’ve been familiar with Big Brothers since I was a child (after 110 years, it’s one of the city’s longest-running nonprofits) from ads that must have run on TV during the ’60s.

Those ads stuck with me. Even as a child, they made me realize how lucky I was to have two parents in the next room. Though my father wasn’t the most understanding soul when he awaked at dawn by the sound of a basketball bouncing off the wall between our bedrooms.

Mr. Luciano has been mentoring Erik, whose father died when he was 5, for the last four years. He picks the boy up once a month at the Queens home he shares with his mother and three sisters, but also keeps in weekly touch with him over the phone.

“Sometimes we’ll have to go over school things—figure out what he needs to do, before we go on an outing,” said Mr. Luciano, a partner in Unique Visuals, a Manhattan printing and graphics company. “We’re going to be speaking a little bit more now to make sure the grades are where they need to be.”

Erik acknowledged with a slight nod that his grades aren’t all they could be at the moment. “He’s much brighter than I think I was at 12,” Mr. Luciano added supportively. “Sometimes you think you’re talking to an adult.”

Erik acknowledged the importance of his relationship with Mr. Luciano, who is married but doesn’t yet have children of his own. “I’d be a different type of person,” he said. “I would be a bad student. If you don’t have a father type like Fernando…people like him show you what’s right from wrong.”

Mr. Luciano said that, with Erik’s consent, he hopes to continue mentoring him for a while. “It would mean a lot to me to see him through high school and college.”

According to Big Brothers, among young people in its programs 97% graduate from high school. Of those, 86% are accepted into college. “Without the program it’s low 50%,” Mr. Luciano said.

Mr. Luciano offered an incident a few years ago as an example of the support he tries to give Erik and his family. “He had a situation at school where he was being bullied,” Mr. Luciano recalled. “Erik’s mother was very concerned.”

Erik declined to discuss the incident—it was apparently still too painful. But Mr. Luciano said he made it clear to school officials, through Erik’s mother, that he would become involved if they didn’t take steps to stop the bullying.

Besides Dave & Buster’s, the two have attended Yankee games—prime field-level seats—and a celebrity-studded Big Brothers gala at the Waldorf where Erik met New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz. “We had tuxedos,” Mr. Luciano reported. They were also part of a group that rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange.

“Big Brothers does a remarkable job of getting activities organized,” Mr. Luciano said. “At little or no cost.”

But this afternoon was on him. “They don’t like us to do extravagant things,” he explained. “If you spend a lot of money, a lot less people are going to get involved.”

We moved across the hall from the restaurant area to a games arcade. It had the excitement of a highflying Las Vegas casino, but with videogames instead of blackjack tables and one-armed bandits.

Games such as “Terminator Salvation.” The goal, I gathered, was to destroy as many cyborgs as possible while not mistakenly shooting any members of your own army.

I was pleased to see that Mr. Luciano didn’t go easy on Erik, defeating him 16-12. However, I like to think I contributed to the young man’s blossoming self-esteem and did my small part to support Big Brothers Big Sisters of NYC by losing to him, 17-9.

—Ralph.Gardner@wsj.com

Going A Little Nuts for Fruitcake

The Wall Street Journal

Chef and fruitcake aficionado Robin McKay removes a fruitcake from the oven.
Chef and fruitcake aficionado Robin McKay removes a fruitcake from the oven.RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

I have an embarrassing confession to make. I like fruitcake.

It’s not up there with my favorite things like candy and soda. But I don’t understand when and why it became a punch line.

I admit it doesn’t have good looks going for it, especially with that radioactive-looking candied fruit. And that it tends to be the consistency of building material. But take a bite and the taste buds react appreciatively.

Fruitcake falls into the same category as Christmas carols. You wouldn’t want to sing them the other 11 months of the year. But they hit the spot in December.

Maybe fruitcake feels the brunt of insults because a little goes an unnaturally long way. But that could also be regarded as an asset. Especially in this age of global anxiety. If they were desperate enough, a family of four could probably live off the grid through spring on a single fruitcake.

One of Ms. McKay’s finished fruitcakes. ENLARGE
One of Ms. McKay’s finished fruitcakes.RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Some people like to keep them for months,” acknowledged Robin McKay, a friend and textile artist turned food professional, who was making fruitcakes for sale when I visited her at her home in Ghent, N.Y., on Saturday afternoon. “I don’t think there’s any set time.”

I didn’t consider it rude to ask Ms. McKay what possessed her to make fruitcake in the first place. I doubt many chefs get out of bed in the morning and say, “I think I’ll make fruitcake today!”

Ms. McKay said she embarked on her caloric, 80-proof adventure under pressure from British friends, including her British boyfriend. “I used to make trifle,” she recalled. “I’d have a line out my door from all the British ex-pats.”

One day she was talking to Ruth Reichl, the writer and former New York Times restaurant critic. “She said, ‘What are you up to?’ ” and Ms. McKay, who works for Ms. Reichl as a recipe tester, explained she was making fruitcake. “She said, ‘Do you want me to put you on my Christmas list blog?’ ”

“Baked to order of locally sourced all-organic ingredients, this is the fruitcake you’ve always longed for,” Ms. Reichl wrote. “ No red and green cherries….”

Chef and fruitcake aficionado Robin McKay mixes the batter.ENLARGE
Chef and fruitcake aficionado Robin McKay mixes the batter. RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

So now Ms. McKay is making fruitcake daily. “I got an immediate reaction,” she said. “The orders started to come in.”

The chef, as Ms. Reichl noted, and undoubtedly to the chagrin of some fruitcake purists, decided to forgo the maraschino cherries and other candied fruits that look like they come from another planet and give fruitcake its festive appearance.

Instead, she’s using organic ingredients—particularly dried fruit, including flame raisins, sultanas, currants, dates, figs, and apricots. There’s also candied orange and lemon peel—Ms. McKay does the curing herself—and an abundance of nuts: almonds, hazelnuts, macadamias.

And, of course, copious quantities of brandy. “There’s a cup of alcohol in each cake,” the chef boasted. “All the raisins and vine fruits are soaked in seven tablespoons of brandy. And then I add half a cup when I’m making the cake.”

Each cake takes three hours to bake and weighs in at 3 pounds. Which may not sound like a lot until you realize that it’s so dense a modest slice will fill you up, while simultaneously suffusing you with a sense of well-being.

Ms. McKay said reaction to her recipe has been extremely positive. Her boyfriend took home a cake to his mother in Cornwall, England.

Michael Albin, the Hudson, N.Y., wine merchant who supplies Ms. McKay with her brandy, and who, she said, “made the most grotesque face” when she told him the spirits’ purpose, pronounced it “the best fruitcake I’ve ever eaten,” when she returned with a slice. “He said, ‘You should name it, ‘The fruitcake you don’t have to regift.’ ”

Ms. Reichl has a fruitcake but hasn’t tried it yet. She’s customizing her cake, watering it daily, according to Ms. McKay who seems to share her mentor’s philosophy: When it comes to fruitcake it’s hard to oversaturate.

“You can brush it every third day with brandy,” the chef explained. “By the time Christmas rolls around it has a lot of alcoholic flavor to it.”

I’ll bet.

The chef offered me a slice from a fruitcake she made a month ago. I was skeptical—as much because of the healthy ingredients as its advanced age—but it tasted great. And uncharacteristically refined for a fruitcake.

And not even especially alcoholic. Though I left her home with one of Ms. McKay’s creations in hand, and after a single sample slice feeling uncharacteristically giddy. The reasons, I suspect, transcended good company or country air. The fruitcakes are available at her website Robinskitchenview.com.

“I don’t know why people wait until Christmas,” to enjoy them, Ms. McKay said. “I’m going to make these all year long.”

As delicious as her fruitcake tastes, I’m not sure that’s necessary.

ralph.gardner@wsj.com

All Aboard for Nostalgia Trip at Exhibit of Old Trains

The Wall Street Journal

By RALPH GARDNER JR.

Dec. 10, 2014 10:28 p.m. ET

Six-year-old Joshua Hold has a trackside view inside a display of old trains and toys at the New-York Historical Society.                    Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

A few years after I moved out of the bedroom I shared with my brother, my mother installed a toy train set there.

Too late for me, alas. By then my interest had shifted from toys to girls.

And since this was a Manhattan apartment with space at a premium, she had a special cabinet made, its front door resembling a drawbridge that, when lowered, revealed—attached to the other side—a landscape of tracks, hills, a train station, even a lake.

We played with the train set this Thanksgiving, for the first time in years. Or at least tried to. The transformer wasn’t drawing current so we had to move the trains along the rails by hand (something of a bummer).

What prompted this revival of interest in rail travel was a show I’d just seen at the New-York Historical Society called “Holiday Express: Trains and Toys from the Jerni Collection”—running (and not just figuratively) through Feb. 22.

Assembled over 50 years by U.S. collectors Jerry and Nina Greene, the collection of toys and trains is considered one of the world’s finest.

A Märklin 5-gauge locomotive from 1905 Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

An antique French train car Kevin Hagen for The Wall Street Journal

The New-York Historical Society previously has not been known as a holiday season destination. But with what they’re billing as this “first annual” exhibition, you may have to add it to your December calendar—alongside the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree; department-store windows; and the better-known New York Botanical Garden Holiday Train Show.

I’ve had my issues with toy train sets over the years. Foremost among them is monotony. Speaking for children of all ages, after watching a train travel the same route over and over again, you’re ready for something different—such as Saturday morning cartoons.

The only thing more boring might be antique trains behind glass. Thus, I was pleasantly surprised when I visited the historical society show to discover that while some of the collectibles are in cases, others are traveling on overhead tracks to distant destinations, at least in the mind’s eye.

There are also large-scale multimedia screens and an ambient audio “soundscape” that syncs up with the displays. So that if a train, ocean liner or airplane happens to be shooting by, you’ll simultaneously hear the toot of a train horn or rumble of an engine as its image moves along the monitor.

In short, this is what happens when you let grown men play with toys.

“You have to imagine how much fun this was for us,” said Lee Skolnick, whose firm, Lee H. Skolnick Architecture + Design Partnership, helped design the exhibition.

At that moment, we were standing in front of one of the displays—a city and country landscape traversed by large-scale trains at the museum’s entrance on Central Park West. (The official “Holiday Express” entrance is on 77th Street and requires you, perhaps not inadvertently, to wend your way through the gift shop.)

“We’re exploring the relationship of New York and railroads connecting to the U.S.,” explained Mike Thornton, the show’s curator. “The rail linked the city to the resources of the West.”

Did I mention that there’s also a crawl space where children, or theoretically anybody small and agile enough, can slither through and emerge into a small dome that puts you at the center of the action?

“This was a way of reanimating these toys that you can’t necessarily play with,” Mr. Thornton explained, as we admired a rare Märklin 5-gauge locomotive that was made in 1905 as a floor display for F.A.O. Schwarz.

Another of my favorite objects was an operational turn-of-the-century toy submarine and a zeppelin-shaped locomotive. “Because of the propeller in back, it was problematic because you couldn’t pull cars,” the curator explained.

I was curious about his and Mr. Skolnick’s experience with toy trains growing up.

“I grew up in Queens,” Mr. Skolnick said. “We had a big setup in my basement that my father put together.”

However, his allegiance was divided between trains and race-car sets.

“The slot-car sets from the ’50s and ’60s started to compete with the trains,” explained Mr. Thornton, whose official title is assistant curator for material culture.

“I’d race a Stingray and a Jaguar XKE all day long and never get tired of it,” Mr. Skolnick remembered.

That reminded me of the summer I spent my entire allowance on Dinky toys. I have no idea what became of the vehicles (does anyone know what happened to their toys?) which included a Rolls and a Lincoln Continental stretch limo.

“Antique toys were my inroad into becoming an historian,” Mr. Thornton confided. “I was really into combine harvesters.”

So was I! A Massey Ferguson, though I can’t recall whether it was Matchbox or Dinky. Or, come to think of it, maybe it was a Corgi toy.

We really need to call an electrician and get the train set running at my mother’s by next Thanksgiving.

Tea with a Countess and An Earl

Lord and Lady Carnarvon sit for a portrait at the Pierre Hotel in New York.
Lord and Lady Carnarvon sit for a portrait at the Pierre Hotel in New York.           CASSANDRA GIRALDO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

When we got together for tea at the Pierre Hotel on Monday afternoon, I didn’t ask the Countess of Carnarvon, who has been referred to as “the real mistress of ‘Downton Abbey,’ ” to reveal any plot twists in the coming season. She’s the wife of Geordie Herbert, the eighth Earl of Carnarvon and Queen Elizabeth II ’s godson. The couple’s Victorian home, Highclere Castle, serves as the setting for the popular television period drama. It’s been in the earl’s family since 1679.

Lord Carnarvon also joined us.

“They will arrive on February the 9th or 10th and stay until July 9th,” Lady Carnarvon said of the cast and crew. “They have to go, reluctantly usually,” when the house opens to the public through the rest of the summer.

There are reasons I neglected to ask the couple to share any of the new season’s surprises. While I enjoy the series, my wife, children and mother are the primary “Downton” devotees in the family.

Perhaps more significantly, tea at the Pierre includes a tray consisting of at least three tiers: the top tier with scones with Devonshire cream and lemon curd; the second layer with such savory treats as tiny blini with caviar, and cucumber-and-smoked-salmon sandwiches; and the bottom tier with extremely tasty cakes and cookies.

And since Lady Carnarvon and her spouse waved off the delicacies, sticking mostly to tea, that meant I was honor bound to polish off as much food as possible. Which is challenging to do while simultaneously trying to conduct an interview.

One would assume—at least I would have assumed—that Lord and Lady Carnarvon, known as Fiona Aitkin before her marriage to the earl, and I had little in common, save our common humanity. They’re aristocracy; I’m not. They own a castle of between 200 and 300 rooms. I don’t.

(In true aristocratic fashion they seem never to have counted them, or know the mansion’s square footage. However, it includes some 50 to 80 bedrooms.)

“But we use 15 to 20,” Lady Carnarvon explained modestly.

It turned out we did share something: an appreciation for a particular chocolate that I’ve found in Great Britain but must also be available elsewhere. It’s a chocolate cream, the filling coming in both perfumed violet and rose.

“Charbonnel et Walker,” the countess said without missing a beat, of the company that manufactures the candy. She remembered that as a child her father was a director of a company that owned the business. She used to attend new store openings, pocketing as much free chocolate as possible.

“They put a little sugar violet,” atop each piece of candy, her husband explained enthusiastically to my photographer, Cassandra Giraldo. “They actually get the scent of the violet.”

Highclere Castle, the setting for the period drama ‘Downton Abbey.’
Highclere Castle, the setting for the period drama ‘Downton Abbey.’ REX FEATURES/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The couple wasn’t in town in conjunction with “Downton Abbey’s” Season Five kickoff, as I’d have guessed, even though the show has transformed Highclere into a major tourist attraction, and also helped pay some of the bills for the maintenance of the 5,000-acre estate.

Actually, we had something else in common: wondering where the money was going to come from to pay home repair bills, though Lord and Lady Carnarvon’s expenses are on a somewhat more grandiose scale than mine.

“There obviously have been times there’s so much being spent I’d wake up in the middle of the night,” wondering how he was going to broach the subject with his banker, the earl confided.

“We have a cup of tea at four in the morning and listen to the BBC World Service,” his wife said soothingly.

As it turned out, the real purpose of their visit was to attend Tuesday night’s fundraiser at the Metropolitan Museum celebrating the 600th anniversary of St. Andrew’s University in Scotland, Lady Carnarvon’s alma mater. Also scheduled to attend were Prince William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who met at St. Andrew’s. Lady Carnarvon said they don’t know the royals, though her husband has met the queen often. His father was the queen’s racing manager.

“We’re giving them an auction prize,” Lady Carnarvon said of the university. “It’s a chance to stay and have cocktails and spend the night with us. I read somewhere many people dream of staying at Highclere.”

The castle isn’t typically available for overnights. “We’re not a hotel,” Lady Carnarvon, the author of “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey,” explained. “It’s open for tours.”

‘Downton Abbey’ creator Julian FellowesENLARGE
‘Downton Abbey’ creator Julian FellowesFRANCOIS DISCHINGER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Their friendship with Julian Fellowes, who created the series, predates “Downton Abbey.” “It’s fun to see the beginnings of some scenes,” the Earl of Carnarvon said. “They’re so precise and so careful.” However, he said he’s long gone by the 10th take.

He also appreciates the way Highclere easily lends itself to the drama. “As it happens the design of the house worked quite well with the geography of the TV program,” he said. “It’s a coherent house.”

And the tourist dollars have also helped toward repairs of the castle, restoration of a Georgian lodge and gate on the property that’s up for a design award, and perhaps even facilitated the purchase of a 1936 Rolls Royce, from a German collector, that had originally belonged to the earl’s grandfather.

“He really enjoys the fact that we’ve managed to get it back and it’s sitting in the garage,” Lady Carnarvon said.

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Mixing Taxidermy and Art

Dec. 8, 2014 8:40 p.m. ET

Kate Clark next to one of her sculptures at her Brooklyn studio. Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal

For those on your holiday shopping list who don’t need another necktie or scarf and possess an interesting sense of humor, I’d like to propose Robert Marbury’s “Taxidermy Art” (Artisan).

It’s a book that features some of today’s leading “rogue” taxidermists, though Mr. Marbury said that not all of them answer to that title—some because of the rogue part, others the taxidermy. They just happen to be artists who incorporate animal parts, and sometimes the whole thing, into their work. And their creations bear only passing resemblance to those practitioners of the craft who will turn your 12-point buck into a trophy to put over your mantelpiece.

I met Mr. Marbury Thursday morning at the Brooklyn studio of Kate Clark, one of the artist’s featured in his book, and a taxidermist. Though Ms. Clark said that it’s taken her a while to come to peace with thinking of herself as a taxidermist.

Unfamiliar with Ms. Clark’s oeuvre until I met her, and unaware that Mr. Marbury’s contributions to taxidermy have come primarily in the use of stuffed toy animals rather than the real thing, I was excited to get together with them for selfish reasons.

I’ve had birds in my freezer for several years, and not of the Butterball variety. These are beautiful, intact though unfortunate victims of our picture windows.

One of Ms. Clark’s sculptures in her studio. Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal

Ms. Clark’s sculpture ‘Gallant’ Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal

I’ve been told many times that I’m out of luck if I want to get them mounted. But I thought there must be some loophole (they are already dead, after all) and if so Mr. Marbury—whose book boasts a practical addendum for the novice taxidermist regarding workshops, legal resources (meaning not lawyers but legally acquired hides, etc.) and even an illustrated step-by-step tutorial about turning a roadkill squirrel into a conversation piece—might have the answers.

But he confirmed my fears that the time had come to give my feathered friends a proper burial or just plain chuck them in the woods. “The reason why you’re stuck is called the Migratory Bird Act.” It protects 800 species, whether dead or alive, and was passed in 1913, the heyday of feathers in women’s hats.

“You’re not able to have them in your freezer without a permit,” he added. “You probably have a freeze-dried animal.”

A professorial conversation ensued between Mr. Marbury and Ms. Clark about the state of my specimens.

“They’re probably freezer burned,” Ms. Clark observed.

“That’s what freeze-dried is,” Mr. Marbury asserted.

The author tried to explain how he found his way into taxidermy. It apparently started while he was living in the East Village and selling pretzels at the Union Square farmer’s market, when he developed a macabre fascination for those teddy bears and other stuffed animals often affixed to the grills of city and private sanitation trucks.

Some generous soul, upon learning of his interest, gave him 800 stuffed animals, which got parceled out to friends when he moved to the Midwest, took taxidermy classes, read books and helped form the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists. “There’s a lot of guilt in throwing out these animals,” he acknowledged, referring to plush bunnies and the like.

Mr. Marbury tried to explain what feels like a renaissance in taxidermy, especially among hipsters; what he calls “ironic taxidermy.” He made comparisons between our current digital age and the Victorian era, when the art of taxidermy reached its apex.

He said it has something to do with the tension between rural and urban existence, and perhaps a desire to return to nature for those increasingly detached from it. “The fact that most classes are in urban settings is pretty interesting,” he said.

“People want that fierceness,’ Ms. Clark agreed. “We’re missing that in our lives.”

Her sculpture plays with that dualism, creating pieces at once beautiful and disturbing. They incorporate human faces into majestic, utterly naturalistic wild animals, such as zebra, greater kudu and a couple of especially arresting baboons.

She said she discovered her calling in grad school. “I read a piece about what makes our faces so expressive.” And wondered, “What would happen if I made minor changes to an animal face? It was a conceptual idea. It had nothing to do with taxidermy.”

She doesn’t practice most of the taxidermist’s art—such as skinning, brain tanning and employing dermestid beetles for housekeeping purposes. “These bugs love dead flesh but are harmless to living skin,” Mr. Marbury writes enthusiastically in his chapter on “skull whitening.”

Ms. Clark, on the other hand, purchases her hides clean, then pins them over sculpted clay. She also has human models sit for her. “I want the visual connection but it’s not supposed to be monstery,” she explained. “It’s tribal.”

An indication of rogue taxidermy’s status is that museums and private collectors are acquiring Ms. Clark’s work, including the client center of J.P. Morgan Private Bank in Chicago, part of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. Its piece, “Tale,” resembles a bighorn sheep with an acutely human face.

An informaton pamphlet published by the bank refers to the “complex relationship” between sheep and humans and goes on to describe the piece—composed of big horn sheep hide, resin, foam, apoxie, clay, thread, pins and rubber eyes—as a ‘majestic hybrid.”

 

Finding Common Ground With Police

Police on the West Side Highway Tuesday as activists marched in response to the grand jury's decision to not indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner.ENLARGE
Police on the West Side Highway Tuesday as activists marched in response to the grand jury’s decision to not indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner. KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

I don’t hang out with cops as much as I used to.

From the late 1980s to around 2007, I visited the 19th precinct on the Upper East Side every Monday afternoon to pore through their crime reports. I wrote the police blotter for a publication called “On the Avenue,” and starting in 1992 for the “New York Observer.”

It took a while to gain the officers’ trust. But once I did, I was able to roam the station house rather freely. I’d pick the incidents for that week’s column, then make my way up the backstairs to confer with the detective squad about cases or crime patterns they were working on.

Part of the reason for my access is that my crime blotter emphasized the lighter, more ironic side of crime. If the column had a mantra, it was one attributed to the crooks—“Manhattan makes it; Brooklyn takes it.”

This was before Brooklyn became the swell neighborhood it is today.

However, getting to hang out backstage, so to speak, with the NYPD taught me a few things about cops. It’s a cliché to say that they’re people just like the rest of us, with families and children, and financial challenges, and bosses looking over their shoulder. But they are.

But there are also differences. It’s been reduced to the fact that policing is perilous profession. Yes, it can be dangerous and go from zero to 60 in a matter of seconds—quite literally if they happen to be behind the wheel of a patrol car responding to a call.

But policing can also be deadly boring. One of the most mundane nights I’ve spent in a long time occurred when I went for a “ride along,” with cops from the 20th precinct, or maybe it was the 24th precinct, on the Upper West Side.

The city was quiet. Even the police radio, which covers several precincts and normally crackles to life every few seconds, was virtually silent.

The experience was something of a surprise. Because the common conception of police work comes from action films, where there’s a life-threatening situation every few minutes, interrupted by a doughnut break and some lively, typically male, bonding.

The bonding part is real. How could you not bond with your partner when it’s the two of you holed up in a patrol car for hours?

But that bonding can also become clannish, reinforced when the officers return to their fortresslike (or is it cocoon-like) stationhouses.

I’m not talking only about the cops having a jaundiced attitude toward criminals, but “civilians” in general. It used to amaze me how tone deaf, even discourteous some police officers could be.

The worst was when victims visited the precinct to file a report because they’d been burglarized, had their car stolen or foolishly left their computer unattended when they went to the bathroom at Starbucks.

Some cops were compassionate, but others behaved as if you were bothering them. Most of us are lazy and bureaucracies have a way of abetting laziness. It was almost laughable. More than a few seemed to create conflict where none existed.

And the antiquated structure of the average station house—with the complainant having to approach the elevated sergeant’s desk in the lobby, as if on bended knee—only seemed to exacerbate the situation.

In the wake of the Eric Garner case, there’s been lots of talk of body cameras and improved training. Here’s a suggestion: hire an expert in customer service.

I realize I’m being simplistic, but why not have the mentality, prevalent in retail, that customer satisfaction is paramount. At least start by giving them the benefit of the doubt.

I know it’s possible. Because I’ve encountered cops with great people skills. I’ve probably known 10 precinct commanders, and almost all have impressed me with their intelligence and easygoing humanity.

I’ve met detectives whose analytical abilities ought to recommend them to Congress—though given the inertia in government, they could probably better employ their talents elsewhere.

Crime has been greatly reduced over the years. Now comes the next step. To convince the public, and especially the cops themselves, that we’re all in this together. To create a culture where the goal is the crime-fighting equivalent of making a sale. Perhaps cops should be working on commission, promotions based not on making arrests but on community building.

It always impressed me, almost gave me a lump in the throat, riding around with the 19th precinct anticrime unit: The city crowds—from which officers were trying to pick out perps—were blameless, law-abiding. Just going about their lives. Trying to get from one place to another. To their next appointment. Or home to their families without incident.

As were the cops.

That ought to be cause enough for common ground.

High-Tech Visit to Santa

Children with Santa Claus during the North Pole Adventure at the Ridge Hill mall TuesdayENLARGE
Children with Santa Claus during the North Pole Adventure at the Ridge Hill mall Tuesday KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The problem with having grown children is that you have to visit Santa alone.

That was the situation facing me Tuesday afternoon at Ridge Hill mall in Yonkers when I joined a bunch of kids and their moms and dads for DreamWorks’ “The North Pole Adventure.” Employing cutting-edge technology, it’s being billed as a “next generation holiday experience.”

In early November, DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg presided over the launch, the first of eight such locations across the U.S. He was joined by a choir from Yonkers’s Lincoln High School singing the version of “Hallelujah” from the film “Shrek.”

Shrek is also one of the characters in the show, escorting kids to the North Pole to visit Santa, together with his sidekick Donkey.

The experience is free. Or rather it’s free to enter. But it can prove rather costly to leave. Because the final stop on the journey is a gift shop stocked with DreamWorks merchandise. By which point any self-respecting kid, hyperventilating after hanging with Shrek and confiding to Santa his or her Christmas list, will want to buy out the store.

Children pose with characters from the movie ‘Shrek.’ENLARGE
Children pose with characters from the movie ‘Shrek.’ KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

There’s also the opportunity to purchase your picture with the jolly old elf. One of his helpers cited the $99.99 “Santa’s Favorite” package as the best deal. It includes three photos with Father Christmas, a video of your private Santa experience, a USB with high-resolution images of your adventure, 20 holiday greeting cards, a computer-generated sleigh you can design yourself, a “Shrek the Halls” DVD, and a miniature collectible plush toy.

I decided to give it a pass. But mostly because nobody is interested in an image of a middle-aged guy with Santa—I resisted the temptation to sit on his lap—and because our family, in uncharacteristic form, has already settled on the image for this year’s greeting card.

Reservations are required because the visits are timed. Even so, I confronted a logjam at the attraction’s entrance, where the wait became too much for 14-month-old Dylan Ryan, who began to wail.

The problem with crying children isn’t just the cacophony. It’s also that they’re often expressing something you’re experiencing but have learned to suppress with age. In this case, it was a desire to get out of the drafty vestibule and on with the show.

You’re given a “passport” that contains family information so that Santa can greet you by name, and facilitates the purchase of photos at the conclusion of the adventure.

Dylan remained inconsolable, especially after one of Santa’s helpers asked brightly, “Ready to see Santa? He’s right behind this curtain. We’re going to count to 3…”

Except Santa wasn’t behind the curtain, dummy. He was at the North Pole. Supervising his elves. There was no possible way he was going to make it to Yonkers before Dec. 25.

Which is exactly what a screen version of Shrek explained; we would have to go to the North Pole to see him.

I was pumped.

Thus, when I entered the design lab to create my virtual sleigh, rather than hopping directly aboard a real one and flying to the North Pole, it seemed slightly beside the point, a painful case of delayed gratification.

But the wait was almost worth it. The real customized sleigh seats nine, and with cushy seats and gold filigree, it feels authentic. As you embark on your animated adventure—facing a wraparound screen—the vehicle starts to buck and roll, wind blows in your face, and you feel the chariot shudder in reaction to events such as exploding fireworks.

I was told that falling snow was also part of the concept. But it had to be discontinued because water was pooling on the floor.

“Sorry for the bumpy ride,” one of Santa’s helpers apologized upon our arrival.

By the way, the immersive experience finally silenced Dylan, who remained well-behaved throughout the rest of the adventure. Which was a good thing, because he moved himself from the naughty to nice list with little time to spare before his audience with Santa.

Kriss Kringle and his study didn’t disappoint. It looked like he, or at least his decorator, had consulted Martha Stewart . Decked in red and gold, the room contained bookshelves adorned with tasteful tchotchkes. There was also a Christmas tree, and in an artful example of product placement, an arrangement of store-brand treats from Whole Foods, one of Ridge Hill mall’s tenants.

Dylan seemed a bit tongue-tied when Santa asked what he wanted for Christmas. But his 4½-year-old sister, Ava, showed less hesitation, answering, “A turtle.” Her parents translated that as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. But if you ask me, she wants the real thing.

As would I. Though my Christmas morning list remains between Santa and me. I don’t want to jinx it.

Escaping Mrs. Astor’s Shadow

The Complicated Family Dynamic of Anthony Marshall, His Mother, and His Third Wife

Anthony Marshall with his mother, Brooke Astor, center, and his wife, Charlene Marshall, in 2002.
Anthony Marshall with his mother, Brooke Astor, center, and his wife, Charlene Marshall, in 2002. WireImage/Getty Images

When I heard the news that Anthony Marshall, the son of the philanthropist Brooke Astor, had died, my initial reaction was sadness. Though for whom or what, I’m not exactly sure.

For Mr. Marshall, I suppose, even though he was convicted in 2009 of swindling his mother’s estate and spent two months in prison before he was paroled because of failing health. His co-defendant in the case, attorney Francis X. Morrissey Jr. , was sentenced to one-to-three years behind bars.

It would be a stretch to call Mr. Marshall a sympathetic figure. Yet what I always felt would have been the most painful part of his odyssey, from scion to felon, as he sat stoically at the defense table alongside his high-priced lawyers, was having to listen to the testimony; to luminaries such as Henry Kissinger and Barbara Walters recalling his mother’s intelligence and wit, and by implication how much dimmer Mr. Marshall’s own light burned.

Perhaps he didn’t share her friends’ high opinion of his mother. At the trial, a personal assistant testified that Mr. Marshall cited the expense when he declined her request to purchase a security gate to prevent Mrs. Astor, in the throes of Alzheimer’s disease, from tumbling down the stairs of her Park Avenue duplex. At the time, Mrs. Astor’s wealth was estimated in the vicinity of $200 million.

Mr. Marshall, who took the name of his mother’s second husband, stockbroker Charles Marshall, wasn’t without accomplishments of his own. He served as ambassador to Kenya and several other nations, wrote books and produced plays that won Tony Awards.

But at the time he got into trouble with the law, his primary career was managing his mother’s money. He started helping himself to too much of it and changing the terms of her will.

If he ever managed to escape Brooke Astor’s shadow, and at the same moment seemed ironically to fall ever deeper into it, that was when he met his third wife.

Anthony Marshall is kissed by his wife, Charlene, as he arrives in criminal court in New York on June 21, 2013.ENLARGE
Anthony Marshall is kissed by his wife, Charlene, as he arrives in criminal court in New York on June 21, 2013. Associated Press

At the time Charlene Gilbert was married to the minister of the church Mrs. Astor attended on Mount Desert Island in Maine, where she spent her summers.

“She was mortified by the affair,” said Meryl Gordon, the author of “Mrs. Astor Regrets.” “The two met at her home. She stayed away from the church for a year because she was embarrassed by it all.”

For all her generosity on behalf of New York and New Yorkers—and not just institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum and the New York Public Library but also lesser-known causes—Mrs. Astor also seemed a bit of a snob, particularly when it came to Ms. Marshall, making unflattering references to her daughter-in-law’s appearance, according to court testimony by friends of Mrs. Astor.

A paid obituary in the New York Times is striking for its emotionalism—these things are typically a dispassionate recitation of the deceased’s successes and appealing qualities of personality—but not if you know the author, who signed it “Your beloved Charlene.”

It details her husband’s generosity and how much he loved her children and grandchildren—his stepchildren and step-grandchildren—making no mention of his own biological children, twins Philip and Alex, who testified against their father at the trial.

A person who answered the phone at Ms. Marshall’s residence on Tuesday declined to give his name but said, “She’s not interested in speaking to any press.”

Anthony Marshall died at age 90. Which sounds old until you realize that good genes ran in the family. His mother, after all, lived to be 105.

It makes one wonder how much longer he might have lived if he hadn’t suffered the trauma of trial and conviction and the resulting stigma.

It seemed that social acceptance was what he wanted above all else; among the changes Mr. Marshall made in his mother’s will were those that gave him the power to decide—and the accompanying social clout—to which causes Mrs. Astor’s money would go.

On the other hand, the couple’s affection for each other never seemed in doubt. Was it possible that he considered everything he suffered worth it for the love of his wife?

Exploring the Queens Art Scene

Visiting the MoMA’s PS1 and Other Cultural Destinations in Queens

Artists Ken Husband and Eddie Rehm reconstructed their studio, which was destroyed by superstorm Sandy, in the Conception Gallery in Long Island City, Queens.ENLARGE
Artists Ken Husband and Eddie Rehm reconstructed their studio, which was destroyed by superstorm Sandy, in the Conception Gallery in Long Island City, Queens. Steve Remich for The Wall Street Journal

When you think of the New York City art scene—at least when I think of the New York City art scene—Chelsea and the Lower East Side come to mind. And maybe Brooklyn, but that’s mostly because Brooklyn seems to have cornered the market on cutting edge.

But what about Queens, several of whose cultural destinations I visited last week. And if so, can the Bronx be far behind? And since artists, seeking cheap living and studio space, traditionally herald the arrival of the next hip neighborhood, does that mean I should buy a one-bedroom in East Elmhurst while prices are still affordable? Or is it already too late?

These were some of the concerns that came to mind as I stood before “Misappropriation of a Modern Artifact” at the Conception Gallery in Long Island City’s Falchi Building.

Exploring the Queens Art Scene

Cultural Destinations in Queens, Including MoMA PS1 and the Conception Gallery

An exhibit at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, Queens.
Works by Mick Peter at the SculptureCenter in Long Island City, Queens.
‘Aquaman,’ ‘Cold World’ and ‘Brooklyn Baby’ by Robert Plater at the Conception Gallery inside the Falchi Building in Long Island City, Queens.
Artist Saul Melman chiseled a giant salt block and covered an old boiler in gold leaf for ‘Central Governor’ at MoMA PS1
Artists Kenneth Ian Husband and Eddie Rehm reconstructed their studio, which was destroyed by superstorm Sandy, in the Conception Gallery in Long Island City, Queens.
The rooftop garden at MoMA PS1.
The Conception Gallery inside the Falchi Building in Long Island City, Queens.
Outside MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, Queens. As for the dumpsters, “the idea is you’re purging yourself of art work you’re ashamed of,” said Zachary Bowman, the institution’s director of visitor services.<br>
‘Art Amnesty,’ by Bob and Roberta Smith, at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, Queens.
Works in the SculptureCenter in Queens.
An exhibit at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, Queens.
Works by Mick Peter at the SculptureCenter in Long Island City, Queens.

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Works by Mick Peter at the SculptureCenter in Long Island City, Queens.Steve Remich for The Wall Street Journal
‘Aquaman,’ ‘Cold World’ and ‘Brooklyn Baby’ by Robert Plater at the Conception Gallery inside the Falchi Building in Long Island City, Queens. Steve Remich for The Wall Street Journal
Artist Saul Melman chiseled a giant salt block and covered an old boiler in gold leaf for ‘Central Governor’ at MoMA PS1 Steve Remich for The Wall Street Journal
Artists Kenneth Ian Husband and Eddie Rehm reconstructed their studio, which was destroyed by superstorm Sandy, in the Conception Gallery in Long Island City, Queens. Steve Remich for The Wall Street Journal
The rooftop garden at MoMA PS1. Steve Remich for The Wall Street Journal
The Conception Gallery inside the Falchi Building in Long Island City, Queens. Steve Remich for The Wall Street Journal
Outside MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, Queens. As for the dumpsters, “the idea is you’re purging yourself of art work you’re ashamed of,” said Zachary Bowman, the institution’s director of visitor services.
Steve Remich for The Wall Street Journal
‘Art Amnesty,’ by Bob and Roberta Smith, at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, Queens. Steve Remich for The Wall Street Journal
Works in the SculptureCenter in Queens. Steve Remich for The Wall Street Journal
An exhibit at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, Queens. Steve Remich for The Wall Street Journal

If I hadn’t been warned of the installation’s iconographic significance by curator Rachel Wilkins-Blum I might have dismissed it as a shack standing in the middle of an art gallery. Or a large, overlooked pile of junk. And I wouldn’t have been far off the mark.

Ms. Wilkins-Blum explained that the work is the reassembled studio of artists Eddie Rehm and Ken Husband, destroyed by superstorm Sandy. “People have been moved by it,” the curator reported. “A couple of people have walked in and been moved emotionally to tears.”

To be honest, I had a hard time distinguishing Sandy damage from the creative chaos of a typical artist’s studio. I assume the tubes of paint spread across the floor were storm-related, but what of the graffiti on the walls? Not to take anything away from their loss. But is it possible Messieurs Rehm and Husband aren’t two of the tidiest individuals? “I had to reprimand them a couple of times for trying to smoke in here,” Ms. Wilkins-Blum confided.

’And the Buddha Cries’ by Sunil Garg at the Conception Gallery.ENLARGE
’And the Buddha Cries’ by Sunil Garg at the Conception Gallery. Steve Remich for The Wall Street Journal

Was there anything about the piece that could only, or best, have been produced in Queens, other than the fact that the gallery seems to have lots of space? The show “Brink,” of which “Misappropriation” is but one of many pieces, is really just a placeholder until the landlord finds a paying tenant, such as Juice Press, the raw-juice and smoothie company, whose production facility sits in the Falchi Building’s lobby.

And how hard is it to get the art crowd to visit Queens? “Obviously, you’ve not got the everyday foot traffic,” Ms. Wilkins-Blum stated. “But the people we’ve got out here have actually come here with a vested interest in seeing these artists.”

My next stop was the SculptureCenter, a few minutes car ride away. Its current exhibition is called “Puddle, Pothole, Portal,” which inaugurates the contemporary-sculpture institution’s newly expanded and renovated building.

“A lot of work was made on-site,” said Ben Whine, the organization’s associate director, as we stood in a gallery roughly the height of an airplane hangar. Perhaps what distinguishes Queens art is that it offers room for artists to think big.

But there were also delicate works on paper by New Yorker cartoonist Saul Steinberg, “on what would have been his 100th birthday,” Mr. Whine noted.

His art was apparently in keeping with the show’s theme, though the connection didn’t leap out at me. “There’s a lot of puddles,” Mr. Whine said as we stood before 1974’s “Rainbow Reflected.”

So there were.

MoMA PS1ENLARGE
MoMA PS1 Steve Remich for The Wall Street Journal

My final stop was MoMA PS1, the contemporary-art space, which I’m almost embarrassed to admit I’ve never visited before. These days any self-respecting museum has a world-class gift shop and PS1’s didn’t disappoint.

I was particularly smitten by a holiday-season snow globe that featured a red-lettered expletive and nothing else. But after anguishing over which of my grown children would most appreciate it, I reluctantly decided to forgo the purchase.

Walking through PS1’s courtyard on the way to the gallery I spotted a series of dumpsters with the words “Throw Your Art Away” written across them. “The idea is you’re purging yourself of art work you’re ashamed of,” explained Zachary Bowman, the institution’s director of visitor services.

The dumpsters are themselves part of an artwork—“Art Amnesty”—by a British artist who goes by the name Bob and Roberta Smith.

But given the contemporary-art scene’s seeming immunity to mortification, I wondered how often the dumpsters needed to be emptied. For example, I was escorted to the boiler room of the 19th century public-school building that has been converted to gallery space, the mammoth boiler having been gilded in gold by artist Saul Melman. “Using semen, sweat and blood,” Mr. Bowman revealed. “Probably say bodily fluids.”

Our final stop was the roof, which boasts a restaurant in more clement weather. As he stood framed by the evening Manhattan skyline just across the East River, Mr. Bowman predicted big things for Queens. “People don’t realize that Long Island City is part of Queens, and Queens is so accessible to Manhattan,” he explained. “We will see so much more of an influx of artists in the next five years. It’s already happening.”

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com