Urban Gardner: My Evening With a French Dominatrix

Ralph Gardner Jr. chats with the notorious Madame Catherine Robbe-Grillet

Madame Catherine Robbe-Grillet, in her 80s, has been described as France’s most notorious dominatrix.ENLARGE
Madame Catherine Robbe-Grillet, in her 80s, has been described as France’s most notorious dominatrix. PHOTO: JAMES ROBERT FULLER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

My understanding was that the French Institute Alliance Française was where you went to take French lessons. And I suppose the event constituted a French lesson, of sorts.

The institute hosted a sold-out crowd for the season kickoff of its popular “The Art of Sex and Seduction” series. The special guest was Madame Catherine Robbe-Grillet, an author and actress. But her most important credit, at least for the purposes of this evening, is that she was described as France’s most notorious dominatrix.

I’m not sure how you measure such things. There must be other dominatrices who would claim they’re just as nasty. What self-respecting dominatrix wouldn’t?

However, the hushed audience seemed more than willing to pay deference to the diminutive Ms. Robbe-Grillet. Now in her 80s, she still looked every bit the disciplinarian—in wire-rimmed glasses and a double-breasted navy suit.

She took the stage accompanied by her submissive, Beverly Charpentier, described in notes supplied by the institute as “the woman who gave up her freedom to serve her.”

Moderating the discussion was Toni Bentley, a former member of the New York City Ballet, better known for her erotic memoir “The Surrender.” Ms. Bentley also had written a 2014 piece in Vanity Fair about Ms. Robbe-Grillet, whose life, the magazine said, makes “Fifty Shades of Grey” look like a Disney film.

Indeed, the evening’s most overheated moment came when Ms. Bentley described visiting Ms. Robbe-Grillet and Ms. Charpentier at their château in France. Taking participatory journalism to painful new heights, the author underwent Ms. Robbe-Grillet’s lash in the château’s attic.

“It was incredible,” Ms. Bentley told the crowd. “I’d never been whipped before. Four more lashes. By then, I was weeping profusely…bringing the grief of all my life to the surface.”

Beverly Charpentier, left, Ms. Ms. Robbe-Grillet and Toni Bentley chat at the French Institute Alliance Française.ENLARGE
Beverly Charpentier, left, Ms. Ms. Robbe-Grillet and Toni Bentley chat at the French Institute Alliance Française. PHOTO: JAMES ROBERT FULLER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Asked by Ms. Bentley when she was going to hang up her whip, Ms. Robbe-Grillet explained her “ceremonies” don’t exact much of a physical toll. She added that “what I do has more to do with eroticism than sexuality.”

The evening began with clips from two films about Ms. Robbe-Grillet. She was married to Alain Robbe-Grillet, a writer, film director and accomplished sadist.

“Madame was submissive to her husband for 30 years before she became a dominatrix,” Ms. Bentley explained helpfully.

Ms. Charpentier, who was also married and whose fantasies involved domination until she met her match in Ms. Robbe-Grillet, wasn’t shy about sharing either. However, she sounded more like an all-American, or rather all-French, mom than someone of unparochial desires. She explained that her greatest joy in life is taking care of others, whether her children or her mistress.

In one of the film clips, a woman explains that true freedom is found in submission. I believe it was Ms. Charpentier, though I can’t say for sure because Ms. Robbe-Grillet seems to have as many submissives as Taylor Swift does Twitter followers. In the context of the film, the comment seemed to make sense.

I was to be granted an audience with Ms. Robbe-Grillet between the end of the discussion—Ms. Charpentier, who is in her early 50s, ably serving as the evening’s translator—and a book signing. Ms. Robbe-Grillet is perhaps best known for “L’Image,” a 1956 sadomasochistic erotic novel.

Unfortunately, I was having trouble coming up with questions suitable for a family publication. One of them is what happens to Ms. Charpentier when Ms. Robbe-Grillet dies? Is she going to fall to pieces?

“I can’t imagine it,” Ms. Charpentier said, as if beyond the bounds of her imagination.

“It’s a strange idea,” Ms. Robbe-Grillet acknowledged, referring to her minion, “for people to imagine someone with a strong character to sacrifice themselves.”

And what had Ms. Charpentier’s husband, who died recently, thought of her relationship with Ms. Robbe-Grillet? She said he admired her and enjoyed her company, but “he didn’t understand what our relationship was.”

Ms. Robbe-Grillet corrected her: “He had a pretty good idea.”

At the risk of getting too personal, I asked what the ladies do when they’re alone in their attic?

“I think there’s some questions we shouldn’t answer,” Ms. Charpentier said quietly. And Ms. Robbe-Grillet agreed.

Seeing a Big Moment—or Just Capturing It

Ralph Gardner Jr. ponders what we’re missing when we experience big events through our cellphones


A sea of cameras recorded Pope Francis in Central Park last month. Ralph Gardner Jr. wonders what people might have missed.ENLARGE
A sea of cameras recorded Pope Francis in Central Park last month. Ralph Gardner Jr. wonders what people might have missed. PHOTO: CARL COURT/GETTY IMAGES

One of the more arresting, and at the same time perplexing, images from the pope’s recent visit to New York, was that of 80,000 people watching him drive through Central Park in the Popemobile.

The perplexing part was that it appeared as if 79,942 of them were capturing him on their cellphones, rather than observing him directly.

The question is why?

The answer, at least in part, might come from Sergio Vacca, maître d’ at Harry Cipriani in the Sherry-Netherland hotel. Mr. Vacca, to the best of my knowledge, wasn’t among those who attended the pope’s park event.

But when I called during the pontiff’s visit to make a dinner reservation, Mr. Vacca, as charming and friendly as ever, seemed in a bit of a rush. He explained that the pope was supposed to pass the Fifth Avenue restaurant at any moment and he didn’t want to miss it.

When I arrived at Cipriani for dinner the following week, the first thing I asked the maître d’ was whether he’d gotten to see the pope. He pulled his phone from his pocket and showed me the image, apologizing for its poor quality.

It looked pretty good to me. There was the pope in the back seat of his little Fiat, pleasantly illuminated.

Mr. Vacca will always have that visual memento of the pope’s visit. But what might be lost when people capture experiences through the screen of their cellphones rather than with the naked eye?

I’m certainly not passing judgment. On more than one occasion I’ve found myself filming something and perhaps sacrificing the actual experience for the sake of the bragging rights, such as they are, of proving I was present at a particular event.

Not too long ago, I attended a private function where Sting performed. And even though I was no more than 20 feet away, my view was obstructed because everybody in front of me seemed to feel the need to capture the show, start to finish, on his or her cellphone or iPad.

One guy reluctantly complied when I asked him to lower his device. But he called my bluff a few minutes later when he caught me filming Sting singing “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic.”

I had my reasons—it’s “our” song, meaning my younger daughter, Gracie, and me; we dance to it in the kitchen while cooking dinner, and I wanted to share it with her.

Still, there are no excuses.

At an event I attended back in June for the Gordon Parks Foundation, Pharrell performed, inviting guests to join him on stage. When most of them seemed more interested in taking selfies than dancing and enjoying the moment, he stopped the music and requested they put away their phones.

Few complied.

What’s being lost?

I suspect a lot. We’re actually rather intuitive animals, absorbing lots of information not only through our ears and eyes but also our pores. There’s nothing that beats being present. And you’re not fully present as long as there’s a piece of equipment between you and the experience you’re witnessing.

I think of a news conference I attended prior to the 1976 Maryland primary, and obviously long before the age of mobile devices. A peanut farmer named Jimmy Carter had come out of nowhere and was poised to win the Democratic nomination for president.

Cameras and cellphones captured Pope Francis passing through Central Park in September. ENLARGE
Cameras and cellphones captured Pope Francis passing through Central Park in September. PHOTO: KATHY WILLENS/ASSOCIATED PRESS

At the event, someone in the audience started hectoring him. Mr. Carter never lost his cool, or his ever-present smile. But you could see his cheek starting to pulse.

That small detail seemed to sum up the man—the self-control and steely self-disciple it took to prevail over better-known opponents and go on to win the presidency.

Would I have picked up that subtlety had I been watching the candidate through my phone, worried about whether he was in focus and who was standing in my way?

The 360-degree natural world presents an even greater conundrum. There’s no way a phone can capture the otherworldly sensation of breathing underwater while scuba diving, even with a waterproof case.

Or the simple solitude of walking through the woods.

Sometimes it seems that the only authentic experiences we have left are those we judge not significant enough to record on our phones.

Swimming With the Carousel Fishes

Taking a ride on the new SeaGlass attraction in the Battery


Parents and children ride on the SeaGlass carousel.ENLARGE
Parents and children ride on the SeaGlass carousel. PHOTO: MARK ABRAMSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The weather forecast called for heavy rain during my visit to the Battery’s new SeaGlass carousel. If this had been a conventional carousel, I’d have rescheduled my outing.

But SeaGlass features not horses but fish—30 luminescent angelfish, lionfish, Siamese fighting fish and a wrasse or two; some more than 9 feet wide and 13 feet high.

I would think a little rain, even a downpour, would contribute to the atmosphere. These creatures of the deep would be totally within their element. I was going no matter what. And as it turned out, the sky was only overcast.

Also, I had a secondary agenda. I was hoping to persuade the conservancy’s president and founder, Warrie Price, that the Battery should start selling miniature models of the carousel, with its distinctive nautilus shell design.

If the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty rate tiny cast-iron models, why not the already popular SeaGlass? Just a week before my visit, the Battery Conservancy had rung the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange to celebrate nearly 60,000 visitors in the carousel’s first month. It opened Aug. 20.

We’re in an underwater world… You actually feel like a fish.

A miniature would certainly occupy pride of place on my mantelpiece alongside my World Trade Center, Eiffel Tower and Roman Coliseum.

But obviously, none of that would matter if the ride wasn’t up to expectations. SeaGlass, conceived by WXY Architecture + Urban Design, is a major architectural and creative accomplishment. A decade in the making, it’s intended as a destination reminiscent of the first New York Aquarium on the Battery, closed in 1941 by Parks CommissionerRobert Moses.

“When Moses tore down the aquarium he tore the heart and soul out of the Battery,” Ms. Price contended. “In that act he basically affected our history almost to today. We were passed-through parkland, not a destination.”

Warrie Price sits in a giant fiberglass fish on the carousel.ENLARGE
Warrie Price sits in a giant fiberglass fish on the carousel. PHOTO: MARK ABRAMSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Ms. Price and her partners have more than rectified Mr. Moses’ mistake. The Battery Conservancy’s master plan is now 90% complete and includes world-class perennial gardens.

But just because something is beautiful—and I’m willing to stipulate that SeaGlass, with fish designed by George Tsypin Opera Factory, may be one of the most beautiful carousels around—doesn’t necessarily mean it provides the centrifugal thrills of a traditional carousel.

You know—the kind you break away from your parents to claim the biggest, best, most brightly colored steed on the outside of the circle before some other little kid does.

“We’re in an underwater world,” several children who had just taken the ride told me. “It’s much better. It’s very relaxing. You actually feel like a fish. We want free tickets.”

Tickets cost $5.

However, I would remain unconvinced until I got the fish of my choice and buckled up. “Relaxing” isn’t a word I typically equate with the carousel experience, nor would I want to.

Besides, why no brass ring? “How would you do that?” Ms. Price asked gently. “There’s so much motion.”

Rather than a typical carousel’s one turntable, SeaGlass has four turntables, rotating from 120 degrees to 360 degrees. Of the 30 fiberglass fish, 18 move up and down.

Then add SeaGlass’s classical music soundtrack, rather than the typical calliope. “We were never doing that,” Ms. Price stated flatly of a calliope. “Through the music you have a sense of descent, exploration at the bottom of the ocean, and ascent.”

Finally, there’s the light show, with the fish changing colors before your eyes. The experience is immersive, more akin to snorkeling or, better yet, scuba diving than galloping across the Old West a la the Lone Ranger.

(Hint to those who want the best of SeaGlass and an old-time carousel: The smaller fish have the greatest up-and-down motion, with the wrasse on the outside offering the best visibility.)

But about those tiny models? “We’ve got to do it!” Ms. Price said, hardly sounding as if she were humoring me. “I want it in fiberglass.”

I suppose that makes more sense than cast iron. Indeed, Ms. Price was wearing a beautiful translucent angelfish pendant, with a porthole in the middle, just like the ones on the carousel.

It could double as the perfect Christmas tree ornament.

“We’re going to do that, too,” Ms. Price promised.

Some Things Never Go Out of Style

Discussing the merits of khaki trousers, button-down shirts and custom-made suits with a men’s fashion expert

G. Bruce Boyer, the author of ‘True Style’ENLARGE
G. Bruce Boyer, the author of ‘True Style’ PHOTO: MARK ABRAMSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Is my wardrobe, and perhaps yours, too dependent on khaki?

That was one of the questions I had for G. Bruce Boyer, the author of “True Style” (Basic Books), a new book about classic menswear. We met last week at the Armoury, an artisanal men’s clothing store in Tribeca.

Calling khaki my default uniform doesn’t quite describe my devotion to the fabric. When J. Crew stopped carrying an unhemmed version of my favorite khaki slacks, which can be easily tailored to my height, my reaction wasn’t dissimilar to that of a patient who learns his heart medication has been discontinued.

I don’t wear them to bed. But that’s about the only place they don’t go.

“Khaki trousers came into style with returning GIs after World War II,” Mr. Boyer told me. I didn’t know that. “They really haven’t gone out of style since.” That’s good news.

“Except for the end of the 1960s to the middle of the 1980s. Jeans were much more popular. But in the past 20 years, khakis have rebounded.”

I was forced occasionally to wear jeans as a kid. I didn’t understand the appeal of clothes you had to break in, like a baseball mitt, before they felt comfortable.

Inside the Armoury, an artisanal men’s clothing store in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood.ENLARGE
Inside the Armoury, an artisanal men’s clothing store in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood. PHOTO: MARK ABRAMSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

But doesn’t khaki scream middle-aged? Mr. Boyer, who started his career in a college English department but switched to fashion writing when he realized academia wasn’t for him, assured me that wasn’t the case, even though I don’t spot a lot of khaki south of 14th Street.

Then again, until it recently turned autumnal, I’d been noticing pipsqueak private-school boys in my neighborhood wearing blue blazers and handsome khaki shorts, and wondered where I could score a pair, appropriately sized.

I neglected to ask Mr. Boyer his opinion of khaki shorts. However, I did raise the issue of button-down shirts. They’re pretty much the only kind I wear. The act of buttoning the collar when you dress in the morning provides the sensation that you’re restoring order to an otherwise hostile and chaotic universe.

Mr. Boyer’s own shirt wasn’t button-down. But it was custom-made. As were his jacket, trousers and even his shoes. All from Savile Row.

I didn’t expect him to be able to relate when I decried the predominance of non-iron shirts at Brooks Brothers. But he couldn’t have agreed more.

“Why should you sacrifice beauty and the comfort” of shirts that require ironing just because they may sport “a couple of wrinkles?” Mr. Boyer said. He was referring to Brooks Brothers’ dwindling collection of classic cotton Oxford iron shirts.

I’m all for wrinkles. My wardrobe celebrates wrinkles. Wrinkles suggest you’ve got bigger fish to fry.

We were also on the same page when it came to people who wear long ties with tuxedos. “They think they’re being hip and cool and edgy,” Mr. Boyer observed. “They’re too blatantly asking for something we don’t want to give them.”

Respect? Love? An Oscar?

But what about sneakers? And I don’t mean with a tuxedo. My doctor told me my loafers are only making my tendinitis worse. So I’ve been wearing sneakers around town. But feeling pretty self-conscious about it. Especially when my daughter gives me grief.

“I understand if you need to wear them for some medical reason, or going to the gym,” Mr. Boyer allowed, but added, inauspiciously, “They all seem hyper-designed for me.”

I thought of mine as appealingly minimalistic. They’re even black. But he pointed to some zigzag stitching I hadn’t previously noticed. “What’s all of this stuff?” he complained.

Stylish salesmen at the Armoury.ENLARGE

I suggested a tour of the store. Even though I suspected the garments weren’t in my price range. My suspicions were confirmed by the Armoury’s Mark Cho. Mr. Cho explained that custom-made Florentine style suits cost $7,200; those of Neapolitan design $3,600; and Japanese-style $1,500.

I can’t saying I was paying the closest attention once I heard the prices, since even the most affordable suits were more than I typically, or have ever, paid for a suit.

However, I was heartened when Mr. Boyer offered me an eminently affordable piece of advice regarding accessorizing that I plan to follow.

“Sometimes I even carry a book by a philosopher like Spinoza,” he confided. “You look like you know something.”

A Long Friendship Amid an Old Conflict

Israeli Ruth Dayan and Palestinian Raymonda Tawil are the subjects of the new book, ‘An Improbable Friendship’

Ruth Dayan, left, and Raymonda Tawil in Malta. The women, each linked to famous figures on opposite sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have been friends for decades.ENLARGE
Ruth Dayan, left, and Raymonda Tawil in Malta. The women, each linked to famous figures on opposite sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have been friends for decades. PHOTO: AN IMPROBABLE FRIENDSHIP

The original plan was to interview Israeli Ruth Dayan and Palestinian Raymonda Tawil when the two peace activists visited New York this fall to promote “An Improbable Friendship,” a book written by Anthony David about their 40-year friendship.

I was eager—Ms. Dayan is the ex-wife of the late Israeli general, defense minister and war hero Moshe Dayan—but skeptical. She’s 98 years old, after all. And as robust mentally as she was purported to be, international travel these days can be enervating for someone half her age.

So when I was informed a few weeks ago that Ms. Dayan wasn’t making the trip, I was disappointed but not surprised. A phone interview was proposed instead, though if my experience with ancient relatives is any guide, much of the time would be spent repeating questions as they adjusted their hearing aids.

But when Ms. Dayan’s granddaughter Amalia Dayan, a Manhattan gallery owner, was offered as a go-between, I hoped it might work out.

“We became close as two adults,” Ms. Dayan told me as she sat in Luxembourg & Dayan, her elegant, minimalistic Upper East Side gallery and prepared to call her grandmother in Israel, seven hours ahead. “She tells the best stories. She remembers everything—her life story, the story of Israel.”

Ms. Dayan with immigrants in Israel in 1954.ENLARGE
Ms. Dayan with immigrants in Israel in 1954. PHOTO: AN IMPROBABLE FRIENDSHIP

Not going as far back as Moses, perhaps, but a few years after she was born in Haifa in 1917.

And what, if any recollection, did Amalia, who is 43, have of her grandfather Moshe Dayan?

Her grandmother divorced him in 1971 because of their political differences, she has said. Her husband wasn’t just a hero in Israel but also in the U.S., gracing the cover of Time magazine, in his trademark eye patch, after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War.

“I was 8 when he passed away,” Ms. Dayan recalled. “I remember his aura. His charisma. The way people near me perceived him.”

Ms. Dayan said she’d never met Ms. Tawil, now 75 years old, who wasn’t just any Palestinian peace activist. She was also Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat’s mother-in-law.

“They met secretly,” Ms. Dayan explained.

The time had come for our phone call. When Ruth Dayan picked up in Tel Aviv her voice, over the speakerphone, was strong, confident and crystal clear.

“I will be 99 at the beginning of March,” she boasted.

Amalia said, “I was telling Ralph that you have more energy than me.”

“I have to count my minutes now,” Ruth joked. “Especially with this book. I read it a bunch of times in order to see if it’s OK.”

She’s not optimistic about the state of the Middle East, believing peace suffered a severe blow back in 1995 with the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who embraced the peace process. “Every day it gets worse,” she said.

Ms. Tawil in the West Bank in 1976.ENLARGE
Ms. Tawil in the West Bank in 1976. PHOTO: AN IMPROBABLE FRIENDSHIP

She hopes the book offers a sort of case study, through her friendship with Ms. Tawil, of how things could be different. Even though it didn’t get off to an auspicious start: Ms. Tawil encountered Ms. Dayan in 1970 delivering toys to a hospital in Nablus on the West Bank and gave her a piece of her mind, blaming Moshe Dayan for the wounded children.

Ms. Dayan refused to accept responsibility for her husband’s actions. “I’m very close to the Palestinians I like and work with,” she explained. “But I feel a lot could have been done over all these years to see two states. Or one state even. The point is to talk to each other. It’s so easy. We look alike. There are very big similarities between Israelis and Palestinians.”

While Ms. Dayan didn’t make it to the U.S., two weeks earlier she visited Ms. Tawil in Malta, where she lives.

“I didn’t know you were going,” Amalia said. “Suddenly I get this text.”

Ruth Dayan recounted how Israeli tourists recognized her at her hotel—“I don’t know why they put my face on TV all the time,” she said—and reacted in disbelief to discover that Ms. Tawil, who joined her, wasn’t Jewish.

“They couldn’t believe—she looks like an Ashkenazi,” Ms. Dayan said, referring to Jews who came mainly from Central and Eastern Europe. “She spoke with them half an hour, talking about peace. She was talking Hebrew to them. They didn’t want to leave.”

A Man Who’s Looked Power in the Teeth

Iranian-born Marc Benhuri has had some famous patients, among them the Shah of Iran

Dentist Marc Benhuri at his Upper East Side office.ENLARGE
Dentist Marc Benhuri at his Upper East Side office. PHOTO: CLAUDIO PAPAPIETRO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Dentists can do well in this town. Some can do very well. But Dr. Marc Benhuri, when we first met at a coffee shop near his East 60th Street office, appeared to be in a league of his own.

He was wearing a Brioni suit and tie, and a watch whose make I didn’t note but which nonetheless radiated prosperity.

“Patek Philippe,” he told me when we got together at his office on a more recent occasion. “I’m a watch collector. I have 34 watches. Cartier. Jaeger-LeCoultre.”

Dr. Benhuri, an Iranian Jew who moved to the U.S. in the 1960s, has written the “Price for Freedom,” a fictionalized account of how the fall of the Shah of Iran, who became a personal friend, and the rise of the ayatollahs, shattered his own family’s dreams.

But that also didn’t necessarily explain the dentist’s excellent taste in ties and wrist wear. However, some of the sartorial mystery started to vanish as Dr. Benhuri, 70 years old, explained the roots, both dental and personal, of his relationship with the Shah.

Dr. Benhuri's Patek Philippe watch.ENLARGE

As he bit into a grilled-cheese sandwich, he recalled his first visit with the ruler of Iran, in 1976. By then, Dr. Benhuri had succeeded at two careers: as an engineer who started a successful booster-cable company and as a pioneer of dental implants.

That’s how he came to meet the Shah, who had fractured his jaw during a skiing accident in Switzerland. Dr. Benhuri was part of a team of experts the Shah summoned, but the only native Iranian and the only one who spoke Farsi.

“My hand was trembling, literally,” Dr. Benhuri recalled. “Thank God I knew self-hypnosis. I took a deep breath. In Farsi I said, ‘Will you please open your mouth.’ ”

The Shah was apparently so satisfied with the results after having lived with a partial denture before his skiing accident—“He didn’t want removable teeth,” Dr. Benhuri explained—that he recommended the dentist to King Hussein of Jordan.

King Hussein, in turn, recommended him to King Khalid of Saudi Arabia. “When I went to get a visa at the Saudi consulate in Rockefeller Center they asked, ‘What’s your religion?’ Dr. Benhuri recalled of his 1983 trip. “I said, ‘Jewish.’ He apologized and said he can’t give me the visa.”

A call from a member of the Saudi royal family resolved the issue, the consul general on his return visit offering him tea, a bowl of fruit and an apology. “He said, ‘By the way, you’re the second Jewish person to get a visa to Saudi Arabia.’ I said, ‘Who was the first?’ He said, ‘ Henry Kissinger.’ ”

The dentist has treated numerous kings, presidents and prime ministers, among them Egypt’s Anwar Sadat and the ruling Al Sabahfamily of Kuwait. Needless to say, they don’t typically come to him. He goes to them.

The Iranian-born Dr. Benhuri has treated world leaders such as the Shah of Iran and King Hussein of Jordan.ENLARGE
The Iranian-born Dr. Benhuri has treated world leaders such as the Shah of Iran and King Hussein of Jordan. PHOTO: CLAUDIO PAPAPIETRO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Everyone of these world leaders in their residence have an emergency room, ICU, CCU,” Dr. Benhuri explained, referring to intensive and cardiac care units, “and a dental office.”

He said Russian PresidentBoris Yeltsin had among the worst teeth he’s encountered. “I did a full mouth reconstruction,” Dr. Benhuri recalled. “Many of the Russian hierarchy had very bad teeth.”

Back at home, he has treated Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. andLuciano Pavarotti. Unlike other implant surgeons who take months, if not years to complete the job, Dr. Benhuri boasts he can provide a patient a new set of teeth in only three appointments.

“A lot of these people don’t have time,” he explained. “I use IV sedation. I do all the work one day on the upper jaw, and the next day I do the lower jaw.”

He demurred about discussing current patients. However, the walls of his office are decorated with gold records—tokens of appreciation from rock stars—and celebrity photographs, among them a former Yankee player and future Hall of Famer.

At our coffee-shop meeting, Dr. Benhuri had confided he was forced to bow out of a meeting at the Harvard Club the previous evening concerning the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran—he opposes it. The participants, he said, included Dr. Kissinger and grocery-store magnate and former mayoral candidate John Catsimatidis.

A patient, who’d been in a taxicab accident, required emergency dental surgery.

At Last, a Museum on Tort Law

Ralph Gardner Jr. learns a thing or two on his visit to Ralph Nader’s new museum

Ralph Nader in his American Museum of Tort Law, in his hometown of Winsted, Conn.ENLARGE
Ralph Nader in his American Museum of Tort Law, in his hometown of Winsted, Conn. PHOTO: ANDREW SULLIVAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“There are 35,000 museums in the U.S. and a museum on every collectible fruit, vegetable, sports,” Ralph Nader explained. “The doctors have managed to establish maybe over 30 medical-type museums. The timber-and-lumber industry has established very numerous timber-and-lumber museums. But the great legal profession hasn’t gotten around to establishing one.”

I wondered why that might be, even though I suspected I knew the answer. A pile of legal briefs doesn’t pack quite the same punch as a T. Rex skeleton, the Mona Lisa, or Babe Ruth’s World Series bat.

“The benign answer is that they don’t know how to make it interesting,” Mr. Nader went on. “The other is, ‘Let someone else do it. I’m too busy trying cases, lobbying for corporations.’ ”

Mr. Nader, the 81-year-old consumer advocate, author and occasional presidential candidate, has decided to do something about it, creating the American Museum of Tort Law in his hometown of Winsted, Conn. It opened on Sunday.

Is there an accounting museum? Not that I was necessarily equating crunching numbers with the nobility of creating a system of rules that governs human behavior.

I just meant the challenges of translating the subtle drama of that profession might be similar. Then again, there have been endless successful TV series focused on the themes of law and order.

And by the way, what’s a tort?

“It’s when someone wrongfully injures somebody, or property,” Mr. Nader explained patiently. “Like defective cars. GM. Ignition switches. Who hasn’t known someone who hasn’t picked up a hospital-induced infection? Or a bad side effect of drugs like Vioxx? Or toxic exposure in the workplace?”

Ralph Nader with exhibits in his museum.ENLARGE
Ralph Nader with exhibits in his museum. PHOTO: ANDREW SULLIVAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

I suppose there’s also this side question: as admirable as the fight on behalf of those who have been wronged, and may not have the power or knowledge to fight for themselves, is that compelling enough reason to persuade people to travel long distances—Winsted is in the rural, northwest corner of Connecticut—to see a museum dedicated to the subject?

Mr. Nader answered the question by taking me on a tour of the institution, a former savings bank on the outskirts of town.

The museum kicks off with a tort history timeline that leads to the museum’s first gallery, devoted to precedent-setting cases. They’re illustrated with lighthearted cartoons, such as 1850’s “Brown v. Kendall,” where in trying to separate two fighting dogs with a stick George Kendall accidentally struck George Brown in the eye.

The decision—Mr. Kendall couldn’t be held liable—was one of the first to recognize fault as a basis for liability.

There is also a children’s nook. Or rather a gallery devoted to “Worst Toys” and toy-related tragedy. Worst toys included a multicolored hedgehog with potentially hazardous hair, and one called Bottle Rocket Party, the name probably saying it all.

But I was eager to get to the main gallery and a beautifully restored 1963 GM Corvair, the sporty-looking rear-engine car prone to crashes, as Mr. Nader detailed in his pioneering work “Unsafe At Any Speed.”

I suggested the vehicle might have more impact, no pun intended, if it was totaled. While the museum’s refrigerator magnets feature the notorious Ford Pinto bursting into flames, the Corvair is the only vehicle on display.

“I had a Corvair that was smashed up,” Mr. Nader reported. “That isn’t the way museum designers operate,” he said in reference to my suggestion. “This is a pretty car. Lethal but pretty.”

Our last stop was the gift shop; perhaps the only museum gift shop in America where you’re likely to find Prosser, Wade and Schwartz’s textbook “Torts: Cases and Materials.” Autographed, no less.

As are several of Mr. Nader’s works. Including a 50th anniversary commemorative edition of “Unsafe At Any Speed” for $100. “It’s incredible how perfect a replica it is,” Mr. Nader marveled as he opened the book to the dedication page and grew solemn.

He’d dedicated it to Harvard Law School classmate Frederick Hughes Condon, paralyzed in a 1961 auto accident.

“There were no seat belts,” recalled Mr. Nader, whose book contributed to Congress passing legislation in 1966 making them standard equipment. “I’d lost a lot of friends in high school and college.”

Uneasy Rider

Bike-Wise, New York Is No Amsterdam


Journalism isn’t typically considered among the riskier of professions—at least if you confine your reporting to the five boroughs. But I undertook an assignment on Wednesday afternoon that put me in imminent physical peril: I rode a Citi Bike for the first time.

Why did it take so long? Because Citi Bike only recently arrived in my Upper East Side neighborhood. Indeed, one of their docking stations is a mere block from my apartment.

I learned of this ostensibly felicitous development while walking my dog one night and running into a couple who live on that block. They moaned about the number of automobile parking spaces the docking station would consume.

I’ve since heard from others encouraging me to investigate journalistically the arrival of Citi Bike in our neighborhood. Some suggested nefarious motives; others conspiracy theories.

“Why here? Why east of Park Avenue? Why so many?” one wrote.

Maybe I’m just naïve, but I tend to think of a bike-share program as a good thing. Bikes don’t pollute. They provide exercise. And they offer a sensible alternative to sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic while your blood pressure rises in direct correlation to the soaring fare on the taxicab meter.

But one reason I wasn’t tempted to mount the sturdy-looking bikes earlier is because they would seem to pose risks even more pressing than those of a cardiovascular nature.

Namely, that you could get thrown head over heels by a car door opening unexpectedly in your path, or crushed under the wheels of a tractor-trailer.

I don’t care what anybody says, New York isn’t a bike city.

People claim that’s changing with the introduction of bike lanes all over the place. And while biking across the Brooklyn Bridge or along the Hudson from the Battery to the George Washington Bridge, one could be momentarily deluded into believing that we’re turning into Amsterdam or Copenhagen.

But spiritually, whether the setting be the boardrooms of Wall Street or the pavement along Sixth Avenue, where I found myself dodging both vehicles and pedestrians, size matters. Survival of the fittest remains the guiding ethos.

Of course, first I had to figure out how to persuade the kiosk at 45th Street and Avenue of the Americas to cough up a ride code that would allow me to unlock a bike and get under way.

It turns out that you can buy an annual membership or 7-day and 24-hour passes. The latter two permit an unlimited number of 30-minute trips, though if you exceed 30 minutes you pay extra.

I might add that I wasn’t wearing a helmet. Some might consider that suicidal. But I thought the beauty of Citi Bike was supposed to be its spontaneity: No cabs in sight? Hop a bike!

What’s the alternative? Carrying a helmet everywhere I go on the off chance I might take a bike ride?

Daily existence makes us feel vulnerable enough. I don’t think we need to tempt it by riding in traffic up Avenue of the Americas, as I found myself doing once I managed to extricate a bike from the dock.

Suggestion to Citi Bike: Add rearview mirrors so riders know what’s gaining on them. I tried to hug the generally unoccupied bus lane. But on the frequent occasions when double-parked vehicles forced me to play chicken with nihilistic cabbies I was reminded that I needed to get serious about estate planning.

I even managed to make conversation at a stoplight with a bike-riding German tourist. But I basically forced myself into such pleasantries to create a sense of normalcy, to produce the fantasy that this was a mode of transportation I’d consider making part of my regular diet.

Entering Central Park at 59th Street, I counted my blessings that I faced no greater threat than horse-drawn carriages, pedicabs and joggers. At least past 72nd Street, where cars were forbidden.

By then it was almost time to exit the park. I rode rather than walked the bike along the pedestrian paths, breaking the law, perhaps, but finally finding somewhere safe to ride.

I also managed to complete the entire odyssey within 20 minutes, and without any wounds.

Out of the Outback, Into the Big City

A celebrated Australian aboriginal artist brings his paintings to Manhattan

Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri with his artwork at Salon 94 Bowery in the Bowery.ENLARGE
Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri with his artwork at Salon 94 Bowery in the Bowery.PHOTO: MARK ABRAMSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri didn’t so much shake my hand as allow me to handle his.

“They adjust to it,” explained Fred Myers of our customs. An anthropologist at New York University, Prof. Myers was serving as Mr. Tjapaltjarri’s translator. “They know that white people do that.”

I was operating in a near total information vacuum when it came to Australia’s aboriginal people. Mr. Tjapaltjarri ranks as one of their most important artists, and a show of his work is on display at Salon 94 in the Bowery through Oct. 24. It’s better, to my unpracticed eye, and certainly more beautiful than 90% of what passes for contemporary art these days.

I had no idea what Mr. Tjapaltjarri’s native language was, but assumed it might be English. He comes from Australia, after all.

“Pintupi,” Prof. Myers said. “It’s not a written language so it’s a little hard to learn. You can’t take lessons.”

Mr. Tjapaltjarri, who is believed to be in his early 60s, and his family made headlines in 1984 when they came into contact with outsiders for the first time, part of a “lost tribe” of nomadic hunters. “It was very isolated,” Prof. Myers said of their homeland. “They were living about 700 kilometers west of Alice Springs.”

I had no idea where Alice Springs was either.

“The center of Australia,” Prof. Myers added helpfully. “They were among the last people in Australia to be living as hunters and gatherers. It’s a very harsh desert.”

While Mr. Tjapaltjarri, a celebrated artist, had been on a plane before, this was his first visit to New York, or anywhere outside Australia. My idea was that we take a stroll around the neighborhood, though I’m not sure the Bowery is necessarily indicative of the splendors of our city.

Someone had said that Mr. Tjapaltjarri enjoyed sweets and suggested we go for ice cream. This information turned out to utterly and completely incorrect.

I always try to find something, anything, the person I’m interviewing and I have in common. I realized it might be more of a challenge in this case. But I thought we might share a passion for Cadbury Daily Milk chocolate bars or Fry’s Turkish Delight, since I understand such products are readily available in Australia.

“They’re big meat eaters,” Prof. Myers said. “If they have a choice they’d rather have meat.”

“Kangaroo,” added Paul Sweeney, who represents Papunya Tula Artists, Mr. Tjapaltjarri’s community arts center, and is himself from Alice Springs. “Emu. They hunt feral cats.”

“Feral cats?”

“They’re quite ferocious.”

In any case, it quickly became apparent that the artist wasn’t up for a stroll. This seemed the result, in approximately equal parts, of jet lag, culture shock, and genial resignation.

“They’re trusting,” Prof. Myers said.

That morning they had visited the Top of the Rock observatory in Rockefeller Center.

While not as tall as the Empire State Building or the new observation deck at One World Trade Center—“Shorter lines,” Mr. Sweeney pointed out—it was plenty tall enough, given the parched, flat landscape from which Mr. Tjapaltjarri hails. “It’s sandhill country,” Mr. Sweeney said. “You don’t need to get high to see a long way.”

New York University anthropologist Fred Myers and Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri in front of one of the artist’s works.ENLARGE
New York University anthropologist Fred Myers and Warlimpirrnga Tjapaltjarri in front of one of the artist’s works. PHOTO: MARK ABRAMSON FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

What did the artist think of the view? “Crazy white folks taking photos,” he said through his interpreters.

I would think Mr. Tjapaltjarri, as an artist, might enjoy a trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Museum of Modern Art, but neither was on the agenda.

“Generally speaking, things that aren’t incredibly recognizable are a little hard to appreciate,” Mr. Sweeney said. “They don’t have exposure to it in their day-to-day lives.”

While Mr. Tjapaltjarri’s paintings, which range in price from $25,000 to $80,000, appear abstract, the subject matter is apparently quite specific—ancestral stories, the swirling sands of Australia’s desert, the dotted body paint people decorate themselves with for sacred ceremonies.

“The paint reflects off the firelight and the movements get this strobe action, like Studio 54,” Prof. Myers explained to me. “They identify that as ancestral power being brought into the present.”

Dressed in jeans, sneakers, a cowboy hat, and a flowing beard and mustache, Mr. Tjapaltjarri looked not unlike some other sages I’ve seen walking around the Bowery.

The artist and his posse also hit Central Park. “They like the squirrels,” Prof. Myers reported, although apparently not as a food source. “They don’t have them in Australia.

“We’re trying to keep him away from all the scary stuff,” the anthropologist added.

I wondered what that might be.

“Escalators,” Prof. Myers said.

Finally, something we had in common.

“Remember, it’s a moving stair,” Mr. Sweeney said.

I remind myself whenever I board one.

A Garden Where You’d Least Expect It

Artist Diana Balmori creates a floating island on the heavily polluted Gowanus Canal

Diana Balmori’s floating garden, on the Gowanus Canal.ENLARGE
Diana Balmori’s floating garden, on the Gowanus Canal. PHOTO: CASSANDRA GIRALDO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

What is it about the Gowanus Canal, one of our most polluted waterways, that attracts art and artists? I visited a bit more than a year ago and spotted some sort of homemade art project floating in the middle of the canal. It was as if the anonymous artist was saying, “Take that, Superfund site!”

A far more ambitious project alighted last week, when Diana Balmori,a celebrated landscape architect and urban designer, oversaw the launch of a floating landscape at the foot of the Whole Foods parking lot that overlooks the canal.

“The reason we picked the Gowanus Canal is the attempt to show that plant material can clean water,” Ms. Balmori explained. At the same time, she acknowledged, “We picked the hardest.”

In other words, if you can make it in the Gowanus Canal you can make it anywhere.

Ms. Balmori and I were speaking in a car on the way from Manhattan to Brooklyn. I hadn’t yet seen Ms. Balmori’s island, which had been forklifted and towed into position only that day, and I was having difficulty visualizing it.

Diana Balmori.ENLARGE

The floating island was to be filled with multiple tubes. In a poetic twist, the tubes were to be made of the same culvert pipe used to dump pollution and sewage into the canal.

Perhaps even more poetically, the goal of the experiment was to test the viability of creating large-scale “edible” islands in polluted urban rivers to serve as a food source. Some plants were to be irrigated with distilled water, others with captured rainwater, and a hearty few even with water directly from the canal.

As we made our way down the FDR Drive, Ms. Balmori, who apparently doesn’t think small—she recently created a superstructure in South Korea’s new Sejong City, composed of a two-mile-long green space, six stories high in places—talked about the island as a prototype that could be used to expand urban space into lakes and rivers.

“Some large cities have no big land available,” she explained. “It’s a way of creating land for intensive production.”

Sounds great. But I suspect I’d want to hire a food taster before I chowed down on kale or cauliflower nurtured on the sewer outflows, the PCBs, coal-tar wastes, heavy metals and volatile organics that lend the Gowanus its charm.

“We did have a smaller experiment where we tested several plants,” Ms. Balmori confided. “We tested the level of pollution. We got our answer very quickly.”

Bet I know what the answer was.

Not all of the plants withered and died, Ms. Balmori stated optimistically. “Some of it simply didn’t prosper.”

And then there are those hearty reeds and weeds along the sides of the canal, the plant world’s equivalent of cockroaches, that survived just fine.

“There are lots of grasses that can take it,” Ms. Balmori explained.

After idling in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge, we eventually arrived at the Gowanus Canal. There sat Ms. Balmori’s island, called “GrowOnUs.”

I’d be less than honest if I said I spotted humanity’s future in its pots, filled with black-eyed Susan, anise hyssop and sumac, among other species.

“It’s proven itself,” Jessica Roberts, a designer with Ms. Balmori’s company, Balmori Associates, said of the sumac. “When you look at the edge of the canal it’s everywhere.”

No surprise there.

Part of the project.ENLARGE

The island—approximately 12 feet by 8 feet—seemed more reminiscent of Robinson Crusoe than Frank Lloyd Wright, a bastion of human ingenuity and resilience in the face of overwhelming odds.

And it came with a soundtrack—the industrial clamor ushering from companies such as Sixth Street Iron & Metal, a scrapyard that overlooked the island, floating at that moment in a not entirely unpicturesque oil slick. (It will find a more permanent home in the canal’s Seventh Street basin.)

Nonetheless, I was smitten by a couple of bluebird houses, even if unoccupied, and by some sort of habitat for “solitary bees,” which I take it are a species rather than insects who prefer to be alone.

“They don’t live in a hive,” Ms. Roberts explained. “It’s almost more of an apartment complex.”

And those bluebird houses? Here, I sweat over whether mine are too high or too low, in sun or shade. “It’s more to show it’s about creating habitat for an animal as a signifier,” she explained.

But I was told that a duck had laid an egg on some earlier iteration of the project.

And indeed, we stood there admiring the island’s three monarch butterflies, a beleaguered species in recent years, flitting about the plants.

Hopefully they’ll make it to their winter habitats in Mexico without suffering food poisoning.