The American Pinup, Fine Art Indeed!

All-American pin-up collector Louis K. Meisel on photorealism

Art collector and author Louis K. Meisel in his home in SoHoENLARGE
Art collector and author Louis K. Meisel in his home in SoHo PHOTO: JASON ANDREW FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Until I met SoHo gallery owner Louis K. Meisel last week, I didn’t know that the all-American pinup is an early example of the art movement known as photorealism.

Mr. Meisel should know. Besides collecting the art, he has published 16 books on either photorealism or pinups. And there’s a show called “The Great American Pin-Up” at his gallery on Prince Street. It runs through May 2.

“I made up the word ‘photorealism,’ ” in 1969, he told me.

I felt better about myself and my taste in art after discovering that pinups are part of a legitimate art movement.

Previously, I’d been under the impression that I was responding more to the quaint lasciviousness of scantily clad young ladies engaged in pastimes such as dusting, bowling, painting, scolding puppies, donning stockings and playing shuffleboard than art-historical considerations and the poetry of the female form.

“There was a great tradition of realism in America,” Mr. Meisel went on. “Going back to the luminists, the Hudson River School. Then you had Hopper and Homer and Eakins.”

From now on, I’ll be able to enjoy such imagery guilt-free.

To be honest, my exposure to the pinup, whose popularity probably reached its zenith around World War II, was pretty much limited to the art of Alberto Vargas in Playboy magazine. And I didn’t pay particular attention to it there either, distracted by photographs of real-life women, airbrushed though they might have been.

I was curious how Mr. Meisel, who was born in 1942, developed his passion for the pinup, assuming it might be traceable to a seminal adolescent encounter.

I didn’t think it a difficult question. Since such moments have a way of engraving themselves onto one’s memory.

But the gallery owner, whose office and home is filled with prime examples of both the pinup and photorealism—including the work of the great Richard Estes and Mel Ramos—misunderstood the nature of my inquiry because he seemed to skip over his adolescence completely.

He launched into a tale about hanging out with the abstract expressionists at the Cedar Tavern.

“Who knew from porn?” he eventually said. “Who knew what a Vargas looked like until you were out of college?”

Works in ‘The Great American Pin-Up,’ a show at Mr. Meisel’s gallery.  ENLARGE
Works in ‘The Great American Pin-Up,’ a show at Mr. Meisel’s gallery. PHOTO:JASON ANDREW FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Mr. Meisel started collecting pinups in the 1970s when he acquired a bunch of paintings by pinup artists such as Gil Elvgren. They’d been featured on calendars by companies such as Sylvania and NAPA Auto Parts but were more prevalent in gas stations than in people’s homes.

“The wife says, ‘The minister isn’t going to like that,’ ” Mr. Meisel said, explaining the pressure of those who found themselves in possession of an original to deacquisition it.

“The first time I saw one they were $300,” he recalled. “Today, they’re $300,000.”

Speaking of wives, I wondered how Mr. Meisel’s wife, Susan, reacted to his taste in art.

I once bought a pop-art painting at Sotheby’s, after it neglected to sell at auction, though I refuse to believe the subject matter had anything to do with it.

The canvas depicts a well-endowed nude whose face, for reasons that will probably forever remain inscrutable, is hidden behind a black cloud. However, the smile parsing her lips suggests she feels she has nothing to ashamed of. And taking my cue from her, neither did I when I bought it.

I’m not sure my wife agreed. Though she eventually warmed up to it and now describes it as a “color field painting.”

“You’re going to see a lot of paintings up there nude and otherwise,” Mr. Meisel said, referring to his loft apartment, located directly above the gallery at 141 Prince St. He added of Susan Meisel: “She was behind it all the way.”

Sure enough, Ms. Meisel, herself an artist and photographer, who was in their kitchen preparing a plate of prosciutto for a cocktail party that night, had no issues with her husband’s taste.

“I think of it as days gone by that were so charming,” she explained of the dozens of pinups that graced the loft’s walls. “The ’50s was a good time, even though I was a baby, given what we’re going through now. Women in them are joyful. They’re very happy with their sexuality. And the fact they were real models. They weren’t figments of somebody’s imagination.”

Then again, Ms. Meisel might not be considered an entirely neutral observer. While not a pinup model herself, there are images of her scattered throughout the apartment—some clothed, some not—by well-known artists, including Chuck Close.

“There’s Susan as Barbarella,” her husband stated proudly. “There’s Susan by a science-fiction illustrator.”

Perhaps the best way to think Mr. Meisel’s passion as foremost about collecting, the randy subject matter almost secondary.

“I have 150 collections,” he boasted as we examined one devoted to vintage photographs of giant torpedo-shaped dirigibles maneuvering into cavernous hangers.

Mr. Meisel contended they were among the most risqué pieces of all.

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Being Smarter Than the Average Bear

Talking with Sherry Simpson, author of ‘Dominion of Bears: Living With Wildlife in Alaska’

Sherry Simpson, at the brown bear diorama in the Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History.ENLARGE
Sherry Simpson, at the brown bear diorama in the Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History.PHOTO: KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

It’s not every day that you can ask a person about his or her favorite kind of bear and not have security escort you off the premises.

But Sherry Simpson handled my question in the spirit of intellectual inquiry with which it was posed.

“Everybody is all about the brown bear,” Ms. Simpson said. “It’s bigger, more aggressive and scarier. But I’m very fond of black bears. They’ve figured out ways to live with us—breaking into cars, eating garbage, getting into bird seed.”

Ms. Simpson is the author of “Dominion of Bears: Living With Wildlife in Alaska” (University Press of Kansas) and she was in town last week to receive the 2015 John Burroughs Medal for Distinguished Natural History Book at the American Museum of Natural History.

I’d be less than truthful if I claimed yet to have completed the tome. It’s 316 pages about bears—black, brown and polar. Plus another 56 pages of footnotes and a 43-page bibliography.

But what I can say, based upon what I’ve read so far, is that Ms. Simpson, an essayist and a professor in the Creative Writing and Literary Arts Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage, is a graceful writer, as well as being very pro bear.

Her argument is certainly more subtle than “bears are more afraid of you than you are of them.” But she believes our fears are overblown, that they’re based more on myth and legend than reality.

“One of the things I write about,” she said, “is that bears in our head are not the same in real life necessarily.”

“They’re very smart,” she went on. “They have amazing senses of smell and good memories. They remember from year to year where they’ve gotten food. In some areas, they show up at the exact same day the protein level of sedges are at their highest.”

I had to ask Ms. Simpson, who spent weeks and months observing bears in the Alaskan wild, what she thought ofTimothy Treadwell, the unlucky— and some might say reckless— subject of Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary “Grizzly Man.”

I don’t think it’s giving anything away at this late date to reveal that Mr. Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard,who were living among grizzlies and thought they’d made friends with the carnivores, eventually became lunch.

Even though Ms. Simpson didn’t know Mr. Treadwell, she interviewed bear-viewing guides at Katmai National Park, where he spent 13 seasons camping on the coast.

She also didn’t think the bears got enough credit, I suppose for not consuming him sooner.

“The things he played on as being remarkable,” such as touching a bear on the nose, “were all the bears’ doing.”

She described his behavior as “disrespectful, it imposes on the bear.”

Ms. Simpson wasn’t the only award winner at the John Burroughs luncheon. I also had the opportunity, while Ms. Simpson was signing books, to chat with Cheryl Bardoe, a winner, along with her illustrator Alan Marks, in the young reader category. Their book was “Behold the Beautiful Dung Beetle.”

Ms. Bardoe said the subject wasn’t a hard sell with publishers. “The idea of poop and bugs is very appealing as a topic for children,” she explained. “They’re instantly engaged.”

When Ms. Simpson was finally finished signing books, she said she resisted putting stories about mauling in her book. “I didn’t want it to be lurid,” she explained.

However, the author shared a close call of her own. She and her husband, Scott Kiefer, who also attended the lunch, were kayaking in Alaska’s Glacier Bay National Park when they encountered a young grizzly coming at them.

“Of course, we’d left our bear spray in the kayak,” Ms. Simpson recalled.

I doubt I’d have placed much confidence in a can of pepper spray against a charging bear, let alone possess the sangfroid to stand my ground. But she described it as highly effective because of the animal’s acute sense of smell.

But since the spray wasn’t readily accessible they had to go to Plan B.

“What they tell you to do is stand still,” Ms. Simpson said. “A bear will come within a few feet of a person and back off. And do it repeatedly. If people have a weapon with them they often use it when they didn’t need to.”

As much as I love animals I can relate to that impulse.

“We just kept talking to it,” she continued. “I sang ‘Amazing Grace’ to soothe him. The more agitated you are, the more it heightens the situation.”

The bear eventually left, though how much the hymn had to do with it is probably anybody’s guess.

After the luncheon, Ms. Simpson headed to the museum’s Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals and the brown bear diorama.

She appreciated the verisimilitude, based on her own observations of bear life.

“I like that they have the footprints and the salmon skeleton,” she said.

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Lord of the Ring and King of the Court

With his fedora and dreadlocks, David Diamante isn’t the typical tuxedoed MC of days yore

Announcer David Diamante, sporting a fedora and dreadlocks, chats with Chuck Creekmur during boxer workouts at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on April 7.ENLARGE
Announcer David Diamante, sporting a fedora and dreadlocks, chats with Chuck Creekmur during boxer workouts at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on April 7. PHOTO: KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

A public workout last week at Barclays Center—ahead of boxing matches that were televised live Saturday night on NBC—boasted five stars. There were the boxers fighting in the two main bouts, and ring announcer David Diamante.

Of the five, it may have been Mr. Diamante, Barclays Center public address announcer, who attracted the most attention from fans and requests for autographs and photographs.

I first noticed him at a Barclays Center boxing event last year. It would have been difficult not to.

Mr. Diamante cuts a striking and rather unorthodox figure—at least compared with the old days, when ring announcers tended to be tuxedoed gentlemen with a lot of product in their hair.

Mr. Diamante favors a fedora and bespoke suits. And then there’s the matter of his hair. Dreadlocks that extend beyond his waist.

“I haven’t cut my hair since 1988,” he boasted. “It’s my signature now.”

I also couldn’t help but think he stood as a symbol of the new Brooklyn. Someone—like half the passengers on the L train—inventing their own style as they go along.

He’s also the Brooklyn Nets’ PA announcer and, whether the sport is basketball or boxing, combines his “Voice of God” baritone with an entertainer’s instincts.

He also owns a cigar shop, Diamante’s Brooklyn Cigar Lounge, located a couple of blocks from the arena.

“I have my own brand of cigar,” he told me during a lull in the action when he wasn’t trying to drum up excitement, and ticket sales, at the public workout last Tuesday in Barclays Center’s lobby. (“Get you tickets right now at the American Express box office.”)

Announcer David Diamante introduces boxer Quillin during boxer workouts at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on April 7.ENLARGE
Announcer David Diamante introduces boxer Quillin during boxer workouts at Barclays Center in Brooklyn on April 7.PHOTO: KEVIN HAGEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Mr. Diamante grew up in Baltimore, but he counts parents and grandparents from Brooklyn. He’s also done some fighting himself. But his voice was better than his jab.

“I loved the pageantry of the announcers, guys like Johnny Addie,” he said, referring to Madison Square Garden’s ring announcer from 1948 to 1971. “I wanted to stay in boxing. I thought this would be a great way to do it.”

I was curious whether Mr. Diamante catches any flak from fans for his unconventional appearance, even though we live in an enlightened age and he works in an enlightened borough. I don’t think it’s disparaging the sport of boxing to suggest that it attracts the occasional vocal Neanderthal.

Indeed, what would a night of boxing be without one or two of them?

“I love the fact that I’ve stayed true to who I am and been wildly successful still,” he said.

Did I mention that he also doesn’t lack for self-esteem? Then again, have you ever heard of a successful ring announcer who suffers from shyness?

“There’s a lot of people who don’t like my hair because I’m not traditional,” he conceded. “It happened a couple of times.”

He meant colorful comments from the peanut gallery. “But I squelched it early on. If you have a microphone, you’re a very powerful person. It’s not good to mess with the guy with the mike.”

Apologies for harping on Mr. Diamante’s hair. But how does he wash it? Or does he? Unbraiding his locks would probably take the better part of a morning.

“I have to separate them,” he acknowledged. “Every couple of weeks I have someone groom my hair. This is not a hippie thing.”

Mr. Diamante, 43, said that his reputation as a boxing master of ceremonies didn’t provide an advantage when he auditioned to be the Nets public address announcer.

“Over 400 people came out,” he recalled. “I was the last man standing.”

He sees his roles in boxing—he has also announced fights for HBO, ESPN and Showtime—and basketball as different.

“As a ring announcer I must be neutral at all times,” he explained. “I work with every promotion company, every network, potentially every fighter. I never big up one fighter over another.

“Basketball, I’m very pro Nets,” he added. “I want to get the sixth man, the crowd, into it.”

But boxing appears his first love. He paused as a fan asked to have his young son’s picture taken with Mr. Diamante.

“These are all my people,” he said. “I announced amateur fights in the middle of the street years ago.”

He was thinking, in particular, of welterweight champion Dusty Hernandez-Harrison, then little more than a child. “He just headlined the Garden.”

Mr. Diamante also finds time to travel. “When the Nets are away,” he said. “I just ran with the bulls in Spain.”

Was he frightened?

“I’m more scared not to live my life,” he said.

He produced his phone and showed me his picture with a bull in hot pursuit.

“I did it with a cigar in my mouth,” he bragged. “A Diamante Toro.”

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Giving Voice to Art at the Guggenheim

Ralph Gardner Jr. recites numbers for an hour as part of an exhibition on the work of Conceptual artist On Kawara

Iris Kim and Ralph Gardner Jr. perform a continuous live reading of ‘One Million Years’ on the ground floor of the Guggenheim Museum's rotunda.ENLARGE
Iris Kim and Ralph Gardner Jr. perform a continuous live reading of ‘One Million Years’ on the ground floor of the Guggenheim Museum’s rotunda.PHOTO: ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

I’m fairly good at certain things. For example, I spent the better part of Saturday afternoon detailing my Subaru. But never, in my wildest dreams, did I think my work would make it into the Guggenheim Museum.

I’m utterly lacking in talent when it comes to painting. And my efforts at sculpture are even more unfortunate. Though I’m proud of a box I made in shop in second grade that’s still holding up.

Fortunately, none of these skills were required when I was invited to participate in the Guggenheim’s current exhibition, devoted to the work of Conceptual artist On Kawara. It runs through May 3.

I was apprehensive nonetheless. Much passes for art these days and it wasn’t impossible that the Guggenheim would ask me to dance naked in its lobby. In which case, I would have declined because my dancing isn’t much better than my painting or sculpture.

Fortunately, I was asked only to recite numbers. And these weren’t numbers I’d have to come up with on my own, to invent from my imagination. The numbers were to be provided; I’d be reading from a list.

The exercise is part of Mr. Kawara’s “One Million Years,” a group of 24 works spanning 12 millennia past and 12 in the future. They’re held in binders, each binder containing thousands of dates.

The continuous live reading aspect of the project, which began in February at the Guggenheim with the dates 816998 B.C. and A.D. 204781, goes back to 1993 and an exhibition at the Dia Center for the Arts. All the readings follow the same format: There’s a male reader and a female reader. The male reads the odd numbers, the female the even ones. Each session begins where the previous one left off.

If you ask me what the point is, I couldn’t tell you even after I’d completed the assignment. But the artist, who died last year, seemed to be even more of a hoarder than I am. The show includes “I Am Still Alive,” a series of hundreds of telegrams he sent to people bearing that message; and “I Got Up,” where he does pretty much the same thing using postcards to tell people the exact moment he awoke. How he got the postcards back from the recipients I have no idea.

I hadn’t given much thought to my participation in the show until I approached the Guggenheim on Wednesday afternoon and began to get nervous. I’ve been nursing a cold for almost a month and was worried that I might have a coughing or sneezing fit in the middle of the reading. And that’s beyond the normal stage fright I occasionally suffer from.

The exhibit on the work of Conceptual artist On Kawara at the Guggenheim in Manhattan.ENLARGE
The exhibit on the work of Conceptual artist On Kawara at the Guggenheim in Manhattan. PHOTO: ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

If I were somehow to falter did the Guggenheim have pinch hitters, so to speak, who could relieve me? And if not, would I be held responsible for destroying a work of art decades in the making?

As I reached Frank Lloyd Wright’s cylindrical masterpiece I heard monotonous male and female voices reciting numbers. Their efforts were being broadcast on an outdoor speaker. If this was a marketing ploy to increase museum attendance I doubted it would succeed.

It was actually much harder to hear the recitation within the museum, which was fine with me.

Mary Hollyman, the Guggenheim representative who runs the readings, introduced me to Iris Kim, who would be playing the female lead in our performance. Ms. Kim told me she works in publishing, was an art history major in college, and has interned at the Museum of Modern Art and at MoMA PS1.

Obviously, she was far more qualified than I was.

We would be reading dates for a full hour. “A lot of people find they want to continue,” Ms. Hollyman stated cheerfully. “A lot of people are surprised when I stop them. It doesn’t feel like they’ve been reading for an hour.”

I wish I could say I was among them.

Ms. Kim and I started at A.D. 240631 and stopped at A.D. 241500. In other words, we covered 869 years.

I tried to play mental games to keep myself focused, since the 2,500th century is a long way off.

Instead, I decided to visualize the final digits, at first associating the years with Lincoln Head pennies, since I collect pennies. On my 10th or 20th go-round I tried to connect events in my own life to the dates—for example, thinking of 240971 as 1971, a good year.

This was dumb because it distracted me.

Finally, I played with different deliveries, though there’s only so much nuance you can throw into a date.

When our hour was over (Ms. Kim and I agreed it felt like an hour had transpired and we weren’t eager to keep going) I decided to tour the exhibition.

Mr. Kawara’s “Date Paintings,” for which he’s perhaps most famous, and consist of nothing more than dates on canvas, were paired with applicable newspaper clippings, which I found increased my interest.

But the most revelatory moment by far came when I spied a lovely Cezanne in the Thannhauser Collection, off the main gallery. And something like a wave of relief washed over me.

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Singing Their Love of Tolkien’s ‘Rings’

Members of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus perform award-winning score

Ludwig Wicki conducts the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra and Chorus on Tuesday before ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.’ENLARGE
Ludwig Wicki conducts the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra and Chorus on Tuesday before ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.’
PHOTO:ANDREW LAMBERSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Disclaimer: I’m epically underqualified to write about J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit,” “The Lord of the Rings” and the movies based on the fantasy novels.

I haven’t read any of them, even though my daughter Lucy did in the eighth grade and assures me they’re great.

Also, I haven’t seen any of the films.

So, I understandably had trouble keeping up Tuesday afternoon as Brooklyn Youth Chorus members Ciara Cornelius, 17 years old, and Rachel Vales, 18, discussed their favorite parts of the movies’ scores.

We happened to be in the bowels of Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater, where Ms. Cornelius and Ms. Vales were preparing to join a dress rehearsal for that night’s performance of “The Fellowship of the Ring,” the first film in the trilogy.

These aren’t your average screenings. They involve 250 musicians onstage, including the 21st Century Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Ludwig Wicki. And they perform Academy Award-winning Howard Shore’s score as the movie plays on a screen above their heads.

Tuesday night’s show had been added by popular demand. Performances run through Sunday, but there are few tickets left. The “Hobbit Package,” which includes a post-concert reception, and the “VIP Gondor Package,” which boasts a “symposium” are sold out.

Members of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus rehearses for a live performance of ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’ ENLARGE
Members of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus rehearses for a live performance of ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring’ PHOTO: ANDREW LAMBERSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Brooklyn Youth Chorus Founder and Artistic Director Dianne Berkun-Menaker ENLARGE
Brooklyn Youth Chorus Founder and Artistic Director Dianne Berkun-MenakerPHOTO: ANDREW LAMBERSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Indeed, I was attempting so strenuously to get up to speed on Ms. Vales’ and Ms. Cornelius’ Hobbit allusions that I neglected to ask where they attended high school. Later, I found out that Ms. Cornelius goes to St. Saviour High School in Park Slope and Ms. Vales is at Manhattan’s Bard High School Early College.

During our talk, however, I was able to glean they’re both seniors, heading off to college in the fall—Ms. Cornelius is eyeing Ithaca College and Ms. Vales is leaning toward Oberlin College in Ohio—and they’ve been performing the “Lord of Rings” movie cycle with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, which provides music education to 500 students since they were in middle school.

“It’s a big deal for us,” Ms. Vales explained. “It’s really nostalgic.”

Ms. Vales qualifies as one true Tolkien geek. She has read “The Hobbit” several times and she and a friend are doing an independent study on the works of the author.

“And we’re watching the movies between every book,” Ms. Vales explained as her fellow Brooklyn Youth chorus members, led by founder and artistic director Dianne Berkun-Menaker, practiced in the background. “We had this conversation about the Ring and why it makes you invisible.”

“What’s happening right now,” Ms. Vales added, apropos the rehearsal, “is the scene where Gandalf falls into this pit and Frodo and his friends are running out of this cave and they believe their best friend just fell to his death.”

OK.

I believe what prompted the invisibility discussion was that Ms. Cornelius was wearing a replica of the magical One Ring. “This is the one thing I can get away with,” she explained. She meant sartorially.

The performers are supposed to be unobtrusive. It wouldn’t do if they showed up in Middle-Earth regalia.

But back to Ms. Vales’s dissertation on invisibility: “The explanation we came up with is when you put on the ring it takes you out of this corporeal world where you’re pretending to be this thing for other people. People can’t see you because they can’t see you as you actually are.”

“I love it,” Ms. Cornelius said.

It was time to go upstairs and join the rest of the orchestra and chorus onstage.

I took a seat in the theater and was instantly smitten. Not by the movie, even though that seemed pretty cool, too—Frodo seemed to be fading fast as Arwen, an elf of Rivendell, dispatches his evil Wraith pursuers by drowning them in a wall of water.

In the next scene, after Frodo’s full recovery, there was a lot of back and forth, and approximately a millennium of back story, about the struggle for the ring between the forces of good and evil.

While it’s hard to get up to speed on a movie trilogy minutes before intermission, I loved the live music, especially the haunting solos by 25-year-old Kaitlyn Lusk. Ms. Lusk later told me she started with the production as a soloist when she was only 15 and has traveled the world with it.

“Every single place this show has gone—Australia, Taiwan, South America—it sells out. Fans of the books and movies are everywhere.”

Apparently.

The role of the chorus is somewhat more humble but nonetheless spirited. “It’s short but important,” Ms. Cornelius explained; Ms. Vales estimated the members sing five minutes spread out across the movie.

“We spend a lot of time waiting to come in,” Ms. Vales admitted, “but not a lot of time singing.”

Their favorite part? “The credits at the very end from ‘Fellowship’ makes me very happy,” Ms. Vales said. “Which is really funny because you have to sit through three hours of the movie first.”

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

A Family’s Obsession With Lincoln

Peter Kunhardt and his family are at the center of HBO”s ‘Living With Lincoln’

Peter Kunhardt, seen with his son, Teddy, narrates HBO’s ‘Living With Lincoln,’ a series about his family’s collection of ephemera related to Abraham Lincoln.ENLARGE
Peter Kunhardt, seen with his son, Teddy, narrates HBO’s ‘Living With Lincoln,’ a series about his family’s collection of ephemera related to Abraham Lincoln.
PHOTO: ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

It was with sincere regret a few months back that I was forced to decline a rare dinner invitation at the home of Peter and Suzy Kunhardt.

Peter, while a highly likable friend since college, isn’t the world’s most sociable person. Given the option of attending a party—let alone throwing one—or retreating to his basement to research his latest documentary, Peter will chose the cobwebs and mildew every time.

Thus, it came as something of a surprise to learn that he stars, or at least appears frequently and narrates “Living With Lincoln,” a small masterpiece of scholarship and family affection. It debuts Monday on HBO.

The documentary explores his family’s connection to Abraham Lincoln. The relationship dates back to the late 1800s when Peter’s great-grandfather, Frederick Hill Meserve, began collecting Lincoln and Civil War era photographs. Over the decades, the collection grew into one of America’s greatest private collections devoted to the 16th president and his times. It numbers 73,000 items—ranging from a snippet of the slain president’s hair to the images used as the basis for the Lincoln penny, the statue in the Lincoln Memorial and Mount Rushmore.

But along with the privilege and bragging rights that went with owning a trove of such impressive historical, not to mention monetary, value came the responsibility, the “glorious burden” as it’s described in “Living With Lincoln” to preserve and protect that inheritance.

That burden has now claimed five generations of the Kunhardt family, including Peter’s grandmother, Dorothy Meserve Kunhardt; nonetheless, she found the time to author “Pat the Bunny,” one of the most popular children’s books of all time.

A framed photograph of Abraham Lincoln sits in the attic of Peter Kunhardt’s Chappaqua home.ENLARGE
A framed photograph of Abraham Lincoln sits in the attic of Peter Kunhardt’s Chappaqua home. PHOTO: ADRIENNE GRUNWALD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“This year it’s selling 200,000 copies,” Peter told me when I visited him and Suzy at their house in Chappaqua recently. “It was published in the 1940s. It’s the bunny that keeps on giving.”

But Lincoln also turned into a not-always-healthy family obsession. Abraham Lincoln was like the celebrity parent who casts a long shadow on his progeny. And spending decades poring over dusty attic archives might have even affected the health of Dorothy and her son, Philip B. Kunhardt Jr., Peter’s father and an editor at Life magazine.

The documentary examines in unflinching detail the toll that their study of Lincoln took on the family, even while it resulted in work that broadened our understanding of the former president.

“It’s the thing that eventually killed both of them,” said Teddy Kunhardt, Peter’s son, and one of the producers of “Living With Lincoln,” along with his father and Teddy’s brother, George.

“They both died of lung disease,” Peter added.

Almost as much as the documentary itself, I was interested in what persuaded Peter, a private person, to serve as the show’s narrator.

“It took a year of convincing by Teddy and the staff to use my own voice,” Peter acknowledged. “We wanted Kevin Kline to be the voice. But I realized it couldn’t be done unless I used my own voice, and said what was on my mind.”

There seems to be a desire, when you reach your late 50s or early 60s, to put things in some sort of perspective—to commit memoir writing. I wondered whether Peter could shed any light, since his documentary seems to do double duty as something of a personal memoir.

My longtime friend said he thought of it in terms of housekeeping, a desire to put things in order.

“I think it’s connected to what do you do with all your things when you get to be our age,” Peter said. “We have all my father’s stuff. He had his mother’s stuff. And she had her father’s stuff. It went back to the Civil War.”

Examining parents and grandparents from an adult perspective also can provide insight on how you turned out. “Lincoln was depressed,” Peter observed, as if speaking of a family member. “My grandmother was depressed. My father was depressed, and we’re all partially depressed.”

“It was almost creative depression,” he went on. “The process of working themselves up sends them into real depression.”

But after visiting the Kunhardts’ art-filled home, I had a palpable sense that the burden was finally lifting. And for good reason: Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library and the Yale University Art Gallery have acquired the Meserve-Kunhardt Collection for an undisclosed sum.

On the afternoon of my visit, the Kunhardts were packing up such artifacts as a carte de visite of Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth, with the writing by an unidentified hand on the back “Do recognize him somewhere and kill him,” a portrait of Lincoln’s dog and a Lincoln life mask.

“They covered his face in wax and put straws in his nostrils,” Peter explained as he examined the mask.

There was also a photograph of Lincoln’s youngest son, Tad. “One of the nice things about having the pictures is we can touch them,” he said.

Not for long. Yale expects the collection to arrive this fall.

But perhaps the best proof that Lincoln is loosening its grip on the Kunhardts is that Peter, who is a reluctant traveler, accepted an invitation to visit us upstate this spring or summer. Suzy insists he’s serious.

Write to Ralph Gardner Jr. at ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Losing Connection and Finding Civilization

Ralph Gardner Jr. on safari in northern Botswana

If you want to get away from New York City—and I mean seriously get away—I’d like to suggest a safari in northern Botswana’s remote Okavango Delta.

My wife, Debbie, and I have wanted to take our two daughters on safari even before they were born—since we spent almost a month in Kenya on our honeymoon back in the ’80s.

The opportunity finally arose when we visited our younger one, Gracie, a junior at Kenyon College in Ohio who is spending the spring semester at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Nonetheless, I didn’t fully realize how removed we’d be from civilization until the small plane we were on circled Duba Plains, the camp where we were staying.

This wasn’t because of air traffic, but to make sure there weren’t any elephants or giraffe crossing the airstrip as we prepared to land.

Actually, that’s not when our isolation hit home. It was when we arrived at the camp, founded by wildlife documentary filmmakers and conservationists Beverly and Dereck Joubert. We were greeted by a line of staff members, one of whom presented us with cool towels to wipe our faces after the long journey.

And then they informed us that the camp had no cellphone or Internet service. In case of emergency, there was a satellite phone to contact the outside world.

Perhaps this shouldn’t have come as a surprise. But I’d returned to Kenya in 2010 and was impressed to discover the camp where I was staying on the Maasai Mara came with Internet.

As I contemplated four unconnected days—belated apologies to all for neglecting to leave an email “away” message—I realized that no Internet may be the true mark of removal from modern society.

In a sense, New York, London, Paris, Rome, Dubai, Tokyo, etc., have all become extensions of home—as long as you know that your friends, family and business associates are no farther away than a few clicks on the cellphone in your pocket.

Which isn’t to suggest we were roughing it. That became clear as we took our first game drive that afternoon. After a couple of hours watching water buffalo, kudu, a herd of elephants and a couple of dozing lions, our guide Ipolokeng “Cops” Mokopi asked us if we wanted to stretch our legs.

As we did, he lowered the Land Cruiser’s grill, which doubled as a table. He then lay down a tablecloth and produced a cooler containing chilled pewter goblets, wine, beer and vodka as well as canisters filled with hors d’oeuvres.

This was to become our routine at Duba Plains and later at Zarafa, another camp we visited in Botswana that was run by the Jouberts’ company, Great Plains Conservation. The days started with a morning drive punctuated by a coffee break—after Mr. Mokopi made certain there were no predators lurking in the bushes; an excellent lunch back at the camp; a midafternoon nap followed by an evening drive; and an even more sumptuous dinner.

I spent much of the vacation—when I wasn’t watching young tsessebe, an antelope that reach speeds of 50 mph, at play on the plain or lions drinking at a stream—trying to articulate to myself why it was so important to me that my children have the opportunity I’d had to go on safari.

It goes well beyond the 36 kinds of mammals and reptiles, and the 89 species of ostentatiously colored birds we observed. It would be foolish to describe the wildlife as secondary. But almost more important than the sightings was the sense of privilege that I felt being allowed to intrude on their world.

In that regard, Mr. Mokopi and Isaac Seredile, our guide at Zarafa, raised game spotting to something of an art form. Mr. Mokopi’s knowledge, not just of animals but of also insects and plants and the creative ways evolution had designed them all to survive, was encyclopedic.

And the passionate Mr. Seredile proved, time and again, that it is indeed possible to find a needle in a haystack. For instance, the drive when he spent two hours crashing through the underbrush in pursuit of a pack of African wild dogs. He described the unsettling eating habits of the dogs, an endangered species: They partially consume their prey, such as antelope, while chasing them to exhaustion—before larger predators can steal their meal.

We eventually found the six dogs, resting under the shade of a tree.

Our last game drive, the morning we departed, was a memorable one. It included a female leopard and her tiny cub, and on the way to the airstrip, a pride of 10 lions.

Safaris—at least this safari—was different from other vacations. When we said goodbye to Mr. Mokopi and Mr. Seredile, we all had tears in our eyes.

I think it was less that we were sad to leave than that we were leaving something of ourselves behind.

It’s sitting out there on the plain at Duba, where the tsessebe romp, hippos submerged in the waters of the delta snort to each other in contented greeting, and sated lions sleep off their latest kill.

ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Light, Dark—All Maple Syrup Is Delish

The liquid is now rated according to color rather than grade

Bottled syrup ready to be labeled at Crown Maple’s Madava Farms in Dover Plains, N.Y.ENLARGE
Bottled syrup ready to be labeled at Crown Maple’s Madava Farms in Dover Plains, N.Y. PHOTO: RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

I don’t know if you’ve been following the news lately—the maple syrup news, that is—but the grading system for this brown, or rather medium amber, nectar from the sap of the sugar maple has changed.

In fact, medium amber no longer exists. Neither does light amber, dark amber or USDA Grade B.

As of January, the guidelines changed. The liquid is now rated according to color rather than grade—from golden to very dark.

The purpose, apparently, was to bring uniformity to the system.

A tasting of maple syrups.ENLARGE
A tasting of maple syrups. PHOTO: RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Vermont had fancy,” explained Tyge Rugenstein, the chief operating officer of Crown Maple, a maple syrup producer in Dover Plains, N.Y., about 80 miles north of the city. “That’s what we would call light amber.”

Now, both are called “golden.”

I sort of preferred fancy. But what I liked best was the Grade B stuff. I’d buy it along the side of the road in Vermont and assumed I was getting a deal because it wasn’t as good as the Grade A stuff.

And all maple syrup tastes great.

That’s the beauty of sugar. It never disappoints. Having my waffles with maple syrup that’s dark rather than light was all the same to me.

“There is no such thing as best,” Mr. Rugenstein corrected me. “Grade B has this connotation it’s not as good. That’s absolutely not the case. Chefs like the Grade B. It has a more robust maple flavor.”

Now, Grade B is called “very dark.”

Crown Maple charges the same amount for all its maple syrup—$16.95 for a 12-ounce bottle. The only difference is their soul-stirring bourbon barrel-aged syrup, which costs $29.95 a bottle.

The color is dependent, to some extent, upon when in the maple-sugaring season the sap is harvested and turned into syrup. “Early season tends to be lighter,” Mr. Rugenstein said. “Later season is darker.”

It apparently has something to do with the bacteria in the trees acting on the sugar.

I can’t say I stayed completely focused as Mr. Rugenstein and Compton Chase-Lansdale, Crown Maple’s chief executive, explained the nuances of the manufacturing process. However, here are a few fun stats:

It takes about 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup. And on a good day—meaning that the temperature is below freezing at night but warms up to 40 degrees in the morning—Crown Maple’s 1,500 acres of trees, and 150 miles of tubing, can produce 50,000 gallons of sap.

The fact that Crown Maple even has a CEO and a COO probably tells you something about the operation. And the reason I wasn’t paying full attention—besides the fact that I was distracted by the delicious maple cappuccino I’d been served—is that I was awe-struck by my surroundings.

What do they call the place where farmers make their syrup? A sugarhouse? Crown Maple’s sugarhouse is the size of Tara in “Gone With the Wind.”

Besides all the gleaming maple-sugar processing hardware, it includes a cafe, a tasting room, elegant men’s and women’s comfort facilities and the “mural room.”

“It’s a nice way to talk about the property” to tour groups, Mr. Rugenstein explained, as I admired the colorful floor-to-ceiling mural. “There are 89 birds and animals.”

A log cabin surrounded by maple trees on the grounds of Madava Farms. ENLARGE
A log cabin surrounded by maple trees on the grounds of Madava Farms.PHOTO: RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The artwork’s centerpiece is a quaint-looking log cabin. That’s the country home of Robb and Lydia Turner, who are bankrolling the enterprise.

“He’s in private equity,” Mr. Rugenstein explained.

I wasn’t so gauche as to ask how much of their fortune the Turners had plowed into the operation. But some quick math suggests the sap will have to flow freely for many a year before they recoup their investment.

Their state-of-the art equipment includes a reverse osmosis machine that removes 90% of the water from the sap and produces a concentrate with precise sugar content, as well as one of the largest maple-syrup evaporators ever built that processes the concentrate and controls the natural caramelization process.

From “tree to table,” the operation takes approximately 18 hours.

Crown Maple’s ambition, besides establishing itself as the gold—or should it be the golden, amber and dark—standard for maple syrup and perhaps one day turning a profit, is to create jobs and protect the forests of the Northeast.

Crown Maple Chief Operating Officer Tyge Rugenstein checks the taps and tubes on some of the trees at Madava Farms.ENLARGE
Crown Maple Chief Operating Officer Tyge Rugenstein checks the taps and tubes on some of the trees at Madava Farms. PHOTO: RICHARD BEAVEN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Maple is unique in that it makes the protection of hardwood forests economically sustainable,” Mr. Chase-Lansdale explained.

I didn’t think I’d live long enough to hear maple syrup talked about in terms of “terroir.” But it came up when I asked whether there could be a difference between New York, Vermont and Canadian maple syrup.

“Terroir makes a difference,” Mr. Rugenstein claimed. “We’ll get subtle differences between our different barrels. We’ll get nuances—early season/late season, sunny/rainy.

“A colder season with a nice snowpack seems to raise the sugar content,” he added.

In other words, this season’s might just be the maple syrup equivalent of a legendary year for Bordeaux.

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Walks, Strikes and Matzo Balls

‘The Baseball Haggadah’ can make Passover Seder easier and more fun to follow

The cover of Rabbi Sharon Forman's baseball-themed Haggadah.ENLARGE
The cover of Rabbi Sharon Forman’s baseball-themed Haggadah. PHOTO:KEITH BEDFORD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Sharon Forman just made the Passover Seder easier and more fun to follow, or perhaps even harder.

Among the obstacles typically faced, at least at my family’s Seders—besides relatives talking over the readings, the distracted demanding to know what page we’re on, and prolonged negotiations over the return of the Afikoman—are a hodgepodge of booklets, called Haggadahs, setting forth the order of the Seder and assembled over decades. Each tells the story of the flight from Egypt using slightly different language, and making it that much more challenging to follow along.

Enter Ms. Forman, who has just crafted a baseball-themed haggadah. The inspiration came from her son, 11-year-old Joshua, who was looking online for a Passover manual devoted to his favorite sport.

“He’s obsessed with baseball,” his mother explained. “He’s obsessed with the New York Mets.”

Ms. Forman joined the search, fully expecting to find one. After all, there are Haggadahs catering to myriad subcultures.

“There are vegetarian haggadahs,” she noted. “There are feminist haggadahs. There’s a chocolate haggadah.”

I wondered how that would work. My feeling is that the story of the Exodus would lose something if you replaced bitter herbs—representing the bitterness of slavery—with a chocolate bar, unless maybe unsweetened baking chocolate.

Rabbi Sharon Forman, above, with ‘The Baseball Haggadah: A Festival of Freedom and Springtime in 15 Innings.’ENLARGE
Rabbi Sharon Forman, above, with ‘The Baseball Haggadah: A Festival of Freedom and Springtime in 15 Innings.’ PHOTO: KEITH BEDFORD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“I wouldn’t get that for my house,” Ms. Forman said. “They’d be bouncing off the walls.”

The author, a Reform rabbi who served seven years as the director of the religious school at Temple Shaaray Tefila on the Upper East Side, said there wouldn’t be anything sacrilegious about a Seder centered around the national pastime.

“I’m always looking for crazy things to make Judaism come alive for kids,” she explained. “It’s not unusual to have your own spin. You’re supposed to create ways to get inside the story of the Exodus. And you’re really supposed to feel you’ve been liberated from Egypt.”

Baseball is perhaps our most metaphoric of sports, and there’s no reason those metaphors can’t be summoned in the service of the Seder.

“You go home in baseball and the whole notion of the Passover Seder is that you’re going home to Israel,” Ms. Forman observed. “ ‘Next year in Jerusalem.’ ”

In my opinion, the rabbi distinguishes herself when it comes to baseball analogies for the 10 plagues: blood equals getting hit with a baseball; boils equal blisters on the pitcher’s fingers; blight equals dead grass; hail equals a rainout; darkness equals blackout of the stadium lights.

When Ms. Forman couldn’t find a baseball haggadah online she decided to create one herself.

I’m always looking for crazy things to make Judaism come alive for kids.

—Sharon Forman

“It was very homemade looking,” she acknowledged. “I printed out pictures of matzo. That was the diamond.”

The rabbi also downloaded an image of Charlton Heston as Moses. He was the slugger at-bat. That is until she enlisted Lisa Teitelbaum to illustrate the book, who talked her out of appropriating the actor’s likeness.

“We didn’t want to get sued,” Ms. Forman explained. “My illustrator is an attorney.”

The Israelites are captained by Moses, who plays cleanup; the Taskmasters by Pharaoh, in the leadoff position.

Ms. Forman’s Haggadah tracks the traditional version religiously, no pun intended, across 15 innings. The game starts with the Kadesh, the blessing over wine—or grape juice for children—and wraps up with Nirtzah, the concluding songs.

“I was a little worried people would think I was making the Passover haggadah into a toy,” she admitted. “I didn’t want to offend anybody. It’s not meant to replace a traditional haggadah. It’s a supplement.”

In her version of the recitation of “Who Knows One?” which builds on itself, eight is the perfect game Sandy Koufax pitched; seven is the innings when we stretch; five is Hank Greenberg’s number, etc.

A page from the booklet illustrated by Lisa Teitelbaum.ENLARGE
A page from the booklet illustrated by Lisa Teitelbaum. PHOTO: KEITH BEDFORD FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The “It would be enough” refrain in Dayenu—the song is always a high point at our Seder—has been adapted to baseball drama, (Think of game six of the 1986 World Series when the Creator definitely seemed to be on the side of the Mets) where a day game would have sufficed, but we also get to play at night, score in every inning and, of course, come away with the win.

Ms. Forman said her original intention was to write a baseball haggadah only for her family. But a friend encouraged her to find a publisher. When she couldn’t, she decided to publish her work herself.

The book seems to be doing well.

“It’s up there with best-selling releases in Jewish holidays,” the rabbi reported. “I have no idea how hotly contested that field is.”

My only issue with the volume is that Ms. Forman leaves the Four Questions—the part of the Seder where every kid cuts his or her teeth, the youngest at the table having to recite them from memory—untouched by baseball references.

“That’s the one thing my kids knew,” she explained. “I didn’t want to take that away from them.”

ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Urban Gardner: Humbled by a Master’s Refinishing Touch

Miguel Saco has revived pieces that reside in the Metropolitan Museum and the White House

Miguel Saco, in his East 18th Street studio, standing next to two Jean Dunand panels from the 1930s.ENLARGE
Miguel Saco, in his East 18th Street studio, standing next to two Jean Dunand panels from the 1930s. PHOTO: CASSANDRA GIRALDO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Miguel Saco may be New York’s most eminent furniture restorer. But I’d never hire him.

It’s certainly not because my furniture isn’t in need of restoration. The sobbing I hear in the living room right now is from a couple of easy chairs on life support. And my garage is filled with antiques that had once, and may eventually, find honest homes. In the meantime, they’re the site of spirited turf wars between mice and chipmunks.

No, the reason I’m not taking my furniture to Mr. Saco—besides the impressive amounts even those lower on the restoration food chain charge to reupholster a humble chair or couch—is because I know I’m unworthy.

Pieces he has revived reside in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum and the White House; and clients include the likes of billionaire collector Peter Brandt and art dealer Larry Gagosian.

I realized I was entering an alternate universe when I arrived at his studio on East 18th Street and Mr. Saco pointed out a set of chairs he’d touched up. They were cute. And admittedly comfortable. As well they might, since they were school chairs.

If I’d spotted them abandoned by the curb I’d probably have considered taking a couple home, entertained the possibility of bedbugs and kept on going.

Mr. Saco described the chairs—belonging to a client and made of blue metal with wooden seats and backs—as the work of Jean Prouvé, a French mid-century master industrial and furniture designer. Each was valued at $12,000. A matching table, owned by Mr. Saco, was worth $35,000.

As I said, I’m unworthy.

But what most impressed me about Mr. Saco’s workshop, besides the amount of discretionary wealth floating around to underwrite such an enterprise, were the casually situated masterpieces awaiting repair or ready to be returned to their owners. A Frank Lloyd Wright chair here. A Duncan Phyfe early 19th-century federal sofa there.

“I have many pieces by Duncan Phyfe,” Mr. Saco said casually as he gave me a tour.

We might as well have been backstage at a major museum.

And even the dregs were more inviting than most of the furniture in my living room. If I were a more materialistic person, I’d have had reason to feel despondent.

A sculptor, Mr. Saco arrived in the U.S. from Spain in 1982 looking for work and discovered that his artist’s eye lent itself to furniture restoration.

“The most important thing is the interpretation,” he explained. “What was the artist’s intention? That’s what I’m good at.

Jars filled with substances that Mr. Saco and his employees use in the restoration process.ENLARGE
Jars filled with substances that Mr. Saco and his employees use in the restoration process. PHOTO: CASSANDRA GIRALDO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“We do a lot of improvisation in the finishing department,” he went on, pointing out a shelf of jars with labels that identified their contents as things such as “rabbit skin glue” and that looked more appropriate to a medieval alchemist’s lab. “Usually the pieces are telling you what has to be done. Other times you have to be more aggressive.”

Recent major restoration projects have included Madrid’s royal palace. Mr. Saco also sits on the vetting committee for 20th-century furniture at the Winter Antiques Show.

We stopped by a 1950s Italian Fornasetti chair decorated with butterflies. It was impossible to tell, but his workers had repainted half of them, part of a $5,000 restoration. However, that’s not why the object was sitting there. The chair had suffered a break when it was sent home to its owner in Pittsburgh.

“The movers broke the chair,” Mr. Saco explained. “I think the crate fell off the truck.”

Was he heartbroken after performing all that work?

“Both of us,” he said, referring to himself and the client. “But he more than me.”

Jean-Philippe Baty, one of Mr. Saco’s furniture makers, was restoring a circular $75,000 Line Vautrin soleil mirror that appeared of extraterrestrial origin. Ms. Vautrin, who also made jewelry, was known for her willingness to experiment with new materials. What looked like cilia radiated from the mirror’s edges.

“It’s made of resin,” Mr. Baty explained. “With time it’s cracking.”

A Mathias Bengtsson chair, in Mr. Saco’s studio.ENLARGE
A Mathias Bengtsson chair, in Mr. Saco’s studio. PHOTO: CASSANDRA GIRALDO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The pieces that prove the greatest challenge to restore often aren’t the most ancient, which tend to be made of wood and metal, but those of more recent vintage, from the 1990s, using plastics, resins and micro-fibers.

“It’s fascinating,” Mr. Saco said. “It keeps us alive.”

Both creatively and financially. “The most important pieces on the market today are made from these materials,” he added. “It’s hard to survive working only with the 18th and 19th century.”

To me, the most relatable piece might have been a Japanese lacquer cabinet in, to put it politely, distressed condition. A client once sent it to Mr. Saco for repair. But the bill would have been between $30,000 and $40,000.

What’s it worth in its present condition? “Whatever you want to pay,” said the furniture restorer, who is using it for storage. “It’s a nice piece.”

I’d considered making an offer. But I already have stuff almost as nice sitting in my garage.

ralph.gardner@wsj.com