When Hitler Got Hustled

Walter Shapiro’s new memoir on his con-man great uncle’s finest swindle

Freeman Bernstein’s mug shot in the pages of ‘Hustling Hitler.’
Freeman Bernstein’s mug shot in the pages of ‘Hustling Hitler.’ PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR.

By RALPH GARDNER JR.
June 19, 2016 8:21 p.m. ET

Many believe they have a family memoir inside them begging to be published; to show the world that while every family is unique, some are more unique than others, theirs in particular.

Walter Shapiro harbored no such conceits. “I thought my family was boring,” he said. “Why do we have to be a Jewish family living in the suburbs? Where’s the dramatic tension in that?”

Alas, the Shapiros weren’t as boring as he suspected. If nothing else, they were redeemed by Mr. Shapiro’s great uncle Freeman Bernstein, the subject of Mr. Shapiro’s new book, “Hustling Hitler” (Blue Rider Press).

Mr. Bernstein was a vaudeville manager and more than occasional con man who apparently didn’t try very hard to hide his tracks.

Oh, and he also swindled Hitler.

The book’s cover
The book’s cover PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR.
That part of the story Mr. Shapiro, a political columnist for Roll Call and a fellow at the New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, sort of knew about.

His father had told him about his uncle because of the Hitler connection—how many people can be said to have fooled Führer?—but also for a more practical reason: Salem Shapiro missed out on his share of the family jewels because Freeman Bernstein, who fashioned himself the “Jade King” and trafficked in stones, not all of them precious, had given sapphires to Salem’s older siblings—three boys and two girls.

Unfortunately, he’d run out by the time he reached his young nephew. “I must have heard that story 50 times,” Mr. Shapiro said.

Indeed, the book’s opening scene involves a visit Mr. Bernstein paid Mae West in Hollywood in 1937. The two enjoyed an acquaintance dating back to 1903, when Mr. Bernstein, at the time a vaudeville booking agent working out of an office on Broadway just south of what was shortly to become Times Square, hired the 10-year-old to perform in some of his theaters.

However, their friendship didn’t extend as far as Ms. West, who knew a thing or two about diamonds, entirely trusting the swindler when he visited her in Hollywood with a bag of baubles. “The actress, who had written and starred in ‘Diamond Lil,’ knew her way around paste,” slang for fake jewels, “as well as pasties,” Mr. Shapiro writes in the Runyonesque prose appropriate to his subject and to the newspapers of that era, for whom Freeman Bernstein equaled good copy.

Author Walter Shapiro
Author Walter Shapiro         PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR.
Whipping out her scale, Ms. West purchased the best rubies and sapphires but returned the diamonds, assuring Mr. Bernstein that if their quality was as good as he claimed, “Then you should have no trouble selling them.”

The idea for “Hustling Hitler” was born at Barney Greengrass, the Upper West Side restaurant and sturgeon specialist, where Mr. Shapiro took a French cousin, in town to do some genealogical research, to lunch.

“We’d run out of things to talk about,” Mr. Shapiro recalled last week as he dug into his standard order—sturgeon, scrambled eggs, and onions. “He said, ‘The only interesting thing I heard was about an uncle who cheated Hitler.’ I’d heard that, too.”

Curiosity compelled Mr. Shapiro to do a Google search. He was astonished by the hundreds of newspaper clippings he discovered that documented Mr. Bernstein’s colorful career, as well as his 1937 arrest—the Los Angeles cops cuffed him as he was leaving Ms. West’s apartment the night of the jewelry sale—for selling Hitler rusted auto bodies and tin cans when he’d promised the Führer 35 tons of scarce Canadian nickel for his munitions.

Mr. Bernstein became something of a cause célèbre among the Hollywood Jewish community, the likes of Al Jolson contributing $200 to his defense fund.

After two months in the slammer, the con man was freed and the case dropped when the governor of California refused to extradite him to New York to stand trial.

Perhaps Mr. Shapiro’s only regret about the book is that his father never got to read it and learn the whole, true story about his mythological uncle, who died broke in California in 1942. Salem Shapiro died in 2004.

“Most of those clips I couldn’t have found” when his father was alive and the internet less comprehensive, Mr. Shapiro said. He attributed his initial investigatory success to the fact that Freeman Bernstein was an uncommon name. He might have given up if his uncle’s name had been Sam.

The author grew nostalgic as he discussed an era when New York City could produce a personality as larcenously appealing as his uncle, as well as more than a dozen newspapers to document his foibles and follies.

“It was so much fun,” he said. “I’d go back in a minute if I could bring antibiotics with me.”

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

Picking Work That You Love to D

Guitar maker Ric McCurdy is known for both his passion and his commitment

Ric McCurdy in his Tribeca workshop.
Ric McCurdy in his Tribeca workshop. PHOTO: BESS ADLER FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

By RALPH GARDNER JR.
June 13, 2016 7:13 p.m. ET

Career advice these days runs something like this: Figure out what you love to do, what makes time stand still, and success will follow.

Ric McCurdy takes a slightly more practical approach. “The best advice I got was, ‘Take what you love and make it your hobby.’ Then you’re not going to be broke your whole life.”
However, his chosen work—making custom guitars in a small workshop overlooking Hudson Street in Tribeca—seems equal parts career and calling. “Repairing guitars pays the rent,” he explained, his tools neatly arrayed above the workbench behind him. “Making guitars feeds the soul.”

To survive as a guitar maker in New York City, “you’ve got to have a niche,” Mr. McCurdy said. “My niche is performance jazz guitars.”

His clients include jazz great John Abercrombie and Jimmy Vivino, who leads the house band for the TBS show “Conan,” as well as the Blue Man Group and singer and songwriter Kenny Loggins.

Mr. McCurdy’s initial acquaintance with the instrument came as a musician playing bass in Southern California in the early 1980s. Then one evening, a drunk at one of his gigs emerged from the men’s room shouting, “You’re the musicians—the toilets are overflowing.’”

“I broke like a twig,” Mr. McCurdy confessed and told himself, “I’m never playing music for money again.”

Fortunately, a guitar that he had made and was playing—he has been good with his hands since his father proudly displayed the cars, boats and planes he made as a child to their Connecticut neighbors—attracted the attention of John Hawk.

“He’d made guitars for Keith Richards,” Mr. McCurdy recalled.

Mr. Hawk needed an assistant and offered to pay Mr. McCurdy and teach him everything he knew.

Such generosity distinguishes the artisanal American guitar-making industry, especially the New York scene that Mr. McCurdy has been a part of since he moved into his shop in 1991.

An example is John Monteleone, a Long Island guitar maker whose instruments have been displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “He’ll take an hour out of his day to help me with a technical problem nobody else could help me with,” Mr. McCurdy said. “That’s the whole industry.”

And there’s a small shrine in Mr. McCurdy’s workshop to John D’Angelico, a guitar maker who died in 1964. Mr. McCurdy describes Mr. D’Angelico, who grew up in Little Italy and had a shop on Kenmare Street, as “the Stradivarius of jazz guitars. They sound like God made them. They respond to the slightest touch.”

Mr. McCurdy, 60 years old, compared the process of making a guitar to fitting a client for a custom-made suit. “Some are built like lumberjacks and beat the heck out of it. And some play very lightly. So you make the guitar to match the client.”
Each guitar costs approximately $10,000 and takes 100 hours to make. Some have beautiful inlaid work, such as a guitar with the Chrysler Building carved into its head.

Then there are the ukuleles that Mr. McCurdy made for his children, now 21 and 19. “My wife said, ‘Build the kids a guitar so they have something when you’re gone.’ ” But he considered ukes more fun. “George Harrison always traveled with two in case he met someone who wanted to jam.”

So Mr. McCurdy crafted one for his son, with a skateboard trailing flames, and another for his daughter, an aspiring baker, featuring a cupcake.

What distinguishes the best guitar makers, for Mr. McCurdy, isn’t necessarily a way with wood or planing tools. “It’s not skill. Skill comes with repetition. The thing that makes a guitar maker is drive.”

The drive to make a hollow box ring like a bell. “Every piece of wood is different,” he explained as he “tap-tuned” a guitar in progress, listening for the vibrations. The sound changed depending on whether he tapped in the center or along the edges of the wood. “You can’t just measure and go. If you build them all to the same measurements, they won’t sound good.”

Mr. McCurdy strummed a few chords of the Beatles’ “Paperback Writer” and Jimi Hendrix’s “The Wind Cries Mary” on one of his guitars.

Both the instrument and the musician sounded excellent. “If you can bring joy to somebody’s life,” he said, “if you can bring pleasure to someone 100 years after my children are gone, what more do you want from life?”

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

(for more images:  http://www.wsj.com/articles/picking-work-that-you-love-to-do-1465859624?tesla=y)

 

El Catano Community Garden: Where Gamers Come to Play

The East Harlem space is one of 52 gardens New York Restoration Project acquired in 1999

Domino players work their strategies and keep up the conversation at El Catano Community Garden in East Harlem. The garden is maintained by a nonprofit founded by Bette Midler.ENLARGE
Domino players work their strategies and keep up the conversation at El Catano Community Garden in East Harlem. The garden is maintained by a nonprofit founded by Bette Midler. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

By RALPH GARDNER JR.
June 12, 2016 10:02 p.m. ET
0 COMMENTS
Fame is fleeting. Fortune—and fortunes—come and go. But one thing you can always count on is that socializing with old friends is its own reward.

That seems the guiding ethos at El Catano Community Garden on East 110th Street in East Harlem, where four gentlemen sat around a card table last week under a white canopy and played dominoes.

They included Gilberto Mantilla, who’d moved back to Puerto Rico but was paying his annual visit to the city. “I come every year. Spend some time with my family,” Mr. Mantilla said as he carefully placed a domino on the table.

I’d come to learn the game from experts. Though it quickly became apparent that probably wasn’t going to happen. “You have to have good memory and good math,” neither of which I possess, explained Raul Reyes.

Mr. Reyes was Mr. Mantilla’s partner and sat across the table from him.
But I soon came to appreciate another, and perhaps equally consequential aspect of the game—the ability to conduct a conversation on any subject as you keep track of your opponents’ moves.

The players ranged in age from their mid-60s to late 80s, and seem to have known each other almost as long.

“I came here in 1946,” said Mr. Mantilla who is 80 but seems to be a walking, or rather seated, advertisement for the benefits of dominoes. He doesn’t have any wrinkles and doesn’t look a day over 60. He said he worked for Mr. Sinai Hospital for 30 years.
El Catano Community Garden is maintained by New York Restoration Project, founded by Bette Midler in 1995. The inspiration, at least part of it, behind the nonprofit seems to be the understanding that nature and civilization can coalesce as easily in a space not much larger than a spacious apartment—the garden is 2,523 square feet—as well as it can in any of our more majestic parks.

“Our goal is to build strong communities,” explained Deborah Marton, the group’s executive director. “We facilitate what the community wants to do. They’ll tell us what they want.”
Community gardens are becoming increasingly precious as neighborhoods such as Spanish Harlem feel the pressures of gentrification. In fact, El Catano was one of 52 gardens New York Restoration Project acquired in 1999 when the city planned to auction them for commercial development.

The de facto “mayor” is Jose Reyes, a retired mechanic with the U.S. Postal Service. “I’m here all the time,” he said. “I come here in the morning; sweep the snow in the winter.”

Mr. Reyes was happy with the support New York Restoration Project provides. Though he said a leaf blower would come in handy. If I had any quibbles with the otherwise restful landscape, it was that it lacked a water feature. A burbling fountain in its center would have completed the effect.

“It’s a challenge raising funds,” said Ms. Marton, humoring me only so far. “We have 10 gardens that are completely unrenovated.”

Back at the dominoes table Raul Reyes, Jose’s brother and a dominoes tournament player and judge, was reminiscing about New York City’s mayors. The garden serves as a gathering place for the National Puerto Rican Day Parade and there’s a wall of photographs of politicians who have dropped by.

“John Lindsay,” he said, surprising me if only because he reached that far back.

Mr. Mantilla nodded in agreement. “He was a good mayor.”

“During those years there was the race riots,” Mr. Reyes remembered. “He took it upon himself to hit the streets.”

I did my best to learn dominoes, the players showing superior forbearance at my choppy learning curve. It would be foolish of me to attempt to explain the game. I understood the part where you’re supposed to lay down a rectangular tile that has the same number of dots as the person who went before you.

But any strategy beyond that sailed over my head.
I was more comfortable discussing the pleasures of Puerto Rico with Mr. Mantilla. “I can’t take the winter no more,” he said as he touted his native island’s warm turquoise sea. “There is the water.”

How often does he go swimming, I wondered. “Two or three times a month,” he said, confiding that he’s a better dominoes player than swimmer. “I don’t go deep.”

 

Locating a Cemetery and a Link to the Past

Ralph Gardner Jr. visits the graves of his grandparents in an industrial section of Queens

Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery in Queens.

Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery in Queens. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

By RALPH GARDNER JR.
June 8, 2016 6:03 a.m. ET
Have you ever wondered about the state of the graves of long-dead relatives you haven’t visited in years? That curiosity, and desire to pay my respects compelled me to visit my grandparents in Queens last week after coming across the name of the cemetery where they were buried.

To the best of my knowledge, no family member had seen the gravesite since 1977, when my grandfather Benjamin Gardner died. If my father visited he never told us or took us along. My grandmother Myra, buried beside my grandfather, passed away in 1972.

Our reunion occurred at Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery. It’s in an industrial section of Queens, but with a panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline. Though nobody, except a mockingbird and a couple of groundskeepers were present to enjoy it with us on the afternoon of our visit.

While my grandparents’ resting place may have been ignored for years, they remain present in our lives.

They bought our house upstate in 1948 and their personalities reside in the novels my grandmother read that still occupy our bookshelves. And in the antiques they brought with them when they permanently left New York City, and their apartment at the Fifth Avenue Hotel on Ninth Street, in the early 1960s.
But most of all I think of them whenever I visit our pond. My grandparents wanted one very much but were told by a representative from the local cooperative extension office that the swamp they wanted to dredge would never be more than a few feet deep.

He was wrong.

After my grandfather died, a bulldozer operator we hired to clear some land took one look at the swamp and said, “I’ve dug more than a hundred ponds and I can tell you that you can have a pond there.”

So we now have a beautiful, healthy, spring-fed pond. Some 10- or 15-feet deep in spots.

Whenever I walk out there, and especially when I go swimming there, I think of my grandparents and wish they’d lived to see it.

Now that I knew their graves were within the five boroughs of New York City, it would have been irresponsible not to drop by eventually.

I called a phone number for Linden Hill that I discovered online. A helpful woman found my grandparents’ names in their archives and gave me their row and plot number, and directions how to find it.

I enlisted my wife, Debbie, to join me. I have no doubt they’d have enjoyed my wife’s company—my friendly, fun-loving grandmother in particular.

Also, I can’t help but believe that two people make for a more festive visit, even to a cemetery.

The section of the graveyard where my grandparents were buried had seen better days. But some of its monuments and mausoleums were beautiful.

A charity box at Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery.
A charity box at Linden Hill Jewish Cemetery. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Besides, it’s almost impossible to find that kind of serenity in clear sight of Midtown anywhere other than a cemetery—the jets on a flight path to La Guardia Airport notwithstanding.

We eventually found my grandparents in the last row, their tombstones against a chain-link fence overgrown with vines that marked the cemetery’s border.

My grandmother’s sister Irene and her parents, Clara and Albert Berman, joined them there.

I’d never met my great-grandfather. He died on April 25, 1941, according to the inscription on his tombstone. Nor, I believe, my great-aunt Irene, even though she died in 1958, after I was born.

I vaguely remember my great-grandmother who passed away in 1961 at the age of 93. She lived in an austere Greenwich Village apartment that depressed me the only time I visited as a child.

“It’s a nice spot,” Debbie said. “I’d rather be back here in the corner.”

 

There wasn’t much to do after I’d read my grandparents’ tombstone. I didn’t try to catch them up—such as by sharing the accomplishments of the great-grandchildren they’d never met, or updating them on improvements to the home they loved so much.

In my optimistic conception of the hereafter the dead have better things to do than hang around a cemetery hoping visitors will show up.

I don’t know whether I’ll return. But there’s some comfort in having their address and knowing they’re just over the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge.

“It was nice to meet your grandparents,” Debbie said.

I believe she was being sincere.

Re-Laying Floors, Restoring Homes

Rebuilding Together NYC helps low-income New Yorkers with repairs and renovations

Rebuilding Together NYC’s director of construction, Terry Scott, leads a team during a renovation.
Rebuilding Together NYC’s director of construction, Terry Scott, leads a team during a renovation. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

By RALPH GARDNER JR.
June 6, 2016 6:14 p.m. ET

When superstorm Sandy struck in 2012, residents of the Canarsie section of Brooklyn who didn’t live near the ocean thought they might be spared. They were wrong.

“Most people don’t think of Canarsie when they think of Hurricane Sandy,” said Kimberly George, the executive director of Rebuilding Together NYC, a nonprofit helping low-income New Yorkers rebuild. “They think of the coastal regions.”

Ms. George added, “In each neighborhood the damage was very different. In Canarsie, it wasn’t necessarily ocean water. The sewers backed up.”

Last week Rebuilding Together NYC was working on the basement of a row house on Avenue N that had doubled as a family room until the storm destroyed it.

Were a storm of that destructiveness to strike again, Terry Scott, the group’s director of construction, pointed out, the vinyl floor that he and his crew were installing would be spared.
“The flooring is 100% rot proof,” he said. “If it happens again, God forbid, we could pull the floor out,” dry it off, “and go right back into place.”

But the biggest problem, Ms. George said, was the one-two punch of a natural disaster plus poverty.
“We have a very long waiting list because the need is so great for people who are low income,” she said.

She was referring not just to the 10 Sandy-related projects Rebuilding Together NYC is working on in Canarsie, but the almost 200 projects they completed around the city in 2015.

“These are homes that have been in families for generations,” she explained. “But all these years of making choices over education, and food, and paying the mortgage, certain repairs get ignored. It builds up. And then if you get hit by a natural disaster, the need is huge.”

A wheelchair ramp was installed by Rebuilding Together NYC at the home of Grace and Lloyd Thomas in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn.
A wheelchair ramp was installed by Rebuilding Together NYC at the home of Grace and Lloyd Thomas in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

At the first home I visited, Rebuilding Together NYC’s staff and volunteers were putting up walls and painting, in additional to laying down the vinyl flooring. They also restored the bathroom and laundry room.

The progress briefly slowed after a nest of kittens was discovered in a pile of debris in the backyard.

“Once the volunteers saw that all bets were off,” said Mr. Scott. “They wanted to take a kitten home.”

A few blocks from the Avenue N residence, Rebuilding Together NYC was working on the home of Grace and Lloyd Thomas.

That project involved not just remedying Sandy damage in the basement, but also providing “accessibility modification” for Ms. Thomas, who is confined to a wheelchair. One of the organization’s services is also building features such as wheelchair ramps and mechanized stairs lifts so people can stay in their homes.

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Just those two improvements, Ms. George estimated, will cost the organization $21,500. The basement renovations and exterior concrete repairs were an additional $19,500.

But the renovations will have a great effect on the Thomas family. Grace “is very active in her church,” explained their daughter Colleen Thomas, who was visiting with her son Caleb on his 5th birthday.

“I miss church a lot,” Grace acknowledged.

“She’s been confined for a year,” her daughter said. “They come over and sing and pray. Her church family has been really awesome as well.”

Ms. Thomas sleeps on a cot on their home’s first floor. Once the lift is installed, she’ll be able to spend the night with her husband on the second floor. The couple, who met during high school in their native Trinidad, has been married 46 years.

However, that doesn’t mean they don’t still see a lot of each other. The home’s large flat screen TV is in the living room and Mr. Thomas is a major sports fan.

In fact, Mr. Thomas seemed rather taciturn until the subject of the New York Yankees came up. He launched into conversation, discussing the prospects of various teams and the pros and cons of particular sportscasters on WFAN sports radio.

“He doesn’t call in,” Grace Thomas. “But he has an opinion all the time.”

One of the happy byproducts of Rebuilding Together NYC’s efforts is that she won’t have to watch wall-to-wall sports anymore, unless she wants to.

“I plan to go to church next Thursday because I have the ramp,” she said.

Raising the Beds, With Professional Assistance

Roy Berendsohn of ‘Popular Mechanics’ helps Ralph Gardner Jr. build raised beds and learn to shovel

Roy Berendsohn of ‘Popular Mechanics’ helped Ralph Gardner Jr. build raised beds at his home in the Hudson Valley. ENLARGE
Roy Berendsohn of ‘Popular Mechanics’ helped Ralph Gardner Jr. build raised beds at his home in the Hudson Valley. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

By RALPH GARDNER JR.
June 5, 2016 7:42 p.m. ET
1 COMMENTS
While I didn’t flunk shop, I didn’t excel at it either.

In fact, I still marvel that I had any desire to become a writer after the 500-word punishment essays my shop teacher handed out as casually as he did hammer and nails. If anything can turn a person off the essay form, it’s repeatedly having to come up with variations on the theme of “Why I Shouldn’t Talk in Class.”

My skill with carpentry tools was hardly better than it was with a Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencil. So when my family recently began to consider a raised-bed garden, I took the liberty of enlisting the help of Roy Berendsohn, “Popular Mechanics” magazine’s “Ask Roy” columnist.

Why raised beds instead of a conventional garden? I’m not sure except that our Hudson Valley property is terrible for growing anything but poison ivy. There’s approximately 2 inches of topsoil. And from there to the center of the earth it’s solid rock.

Per Mr. Berendsohn’s instructions, I purchased wood, nails and a truckload of topsoil before his arrival at our home. All he had to do was show me how to measure, saw and nail together a few boards. Or preferably do so himself why I feigned taking notes.

Roy Berendsohn teaches Ralph Gardner Jr. how to use a circular saw.
Roy Berendsohn teaches Ralph Gardner Jr. how to use a circular saw.
PHOTO: DEBORAH GARDNER

But first I was curious to learn a bit of Mr. Berendsohn’s biography; he’s been at “Popular Mechanics” for 27 years. Specifically, did he excel in shop class as a kid?
Impressively modest, Mr. Berendsohn, 56 years old, denied any special talent recognized at an early age for hammering a nail straight.

“I did not have a mechanical gift,” he insisted. “I’ve learned the hard way with anything I’ve done. I tell people if I can do this, you can do this.”

That was before he met me.

He also had excellent role models. There’s a touching interview in June’s “Things My Father Taught Me” issue of Popular Mechanics where both Mr. Berendsohn and his 91-year-old father Oscar are interviewed.

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Oscar, who fled the Nazis, got an engineering degree from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn (now the NYU Tandon School of Engineering) and started working on spy satellites. His workbench, shown in the story, is a thing of organizational beauty.

Roy also learned a trick or two working construction in western Connecticut as a teenager. He still uses the solid steel Estwing hammer a boss gave him back then.

“It’s the hammer that put me through college,” he said.

I couldn’t help asking about mishaps, as Mr. Berendsohn pulled sawhorses and a circular saw from the back seat of his 2001 Chevy Malibu. My attitude being that the safest home improvement projects are those you hire others to perform.

“When I was 17, I got a finish nail in my right eye,” he explained. “It bounced off concrete. I never do this work without some form of eye protection.”

 

The accident caused no permanent damage. Mr. Berendsohn blinked reflexively at the incoming projectile and trapped it with his eyelid.

Fortunately, there were no mishaps as he sawed the 10-foot planks I’d purchased into 6-foot and 4-foot sections to make the sides for the raised beds.

I took command of the circular saw only briefly, mostly to say I had.

But I also solicited tips about some of the genteel chores I find myself occasionally tempted to accomplish: such as how to hammer a nail into a wall or piece of wood without bending it.

“You put your shoulder over the nail,” he explained as he did just that, nailing two sections of the board together. “Start with a couple of taps and drive it in.”

Mr. Berendsohn also coached me on proper wheelbarrow shoveling technique.

“Get as close to it as possible,” he explained. “Align the long access with the direction you’re shoveling. You want to avoid shoveling from the side.”

He’d already lost me.

But it turns out I’m pretty good at pushing a wheelbarrow downhill, if not the advanced math Mr. Berendsohn employed to mark off the wood.

However, the most complicated chore yet awaits—figuring how to mount fence posts in solid rock. Whatever we grow in the beds will have to be protected from the woodchucks, which are approximately the size and ravenousness of black bears.

Mr. Berendsohn’s initial suggestions included setting fence posts inside concrete blocks and stapling chicken wire to the wood, or jackhammering.

He’s working on additional solutions.

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Where Burgers, ‘Bling’ and Old Elms Align
The charms of Madison Square Park
In the heart of Manhattan's Flatiron District, Madison Square Park’s leafy canopy is its calling card. The 6-plus-acre space attracts 80,000 people on a busy spring or summer day. ENLARGE
In the heart of Manhattan’s Flatiron District, Madison Square Park’s leafy canopy is its calling card. The 6-plus-acre space attracts 80,000 people on a busy spring or summer day. PHOTO: STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

By RALPH GARDNER JR.
June 1, 2016 8:40 p.m. ET
0 COMMENTS
As New York City keeps developing, especially skyward, the aspects of it that somehow manage to cling to their antiquity seem more precious and impressive than ever.

For example, Madison Square Park. Despite the residential towers rising along its periphery and Shake Shack in its southeast corner, the park somehow retains the charm that Edward Steichen captured in his famous 1904 photograph of the Flatiron Building, rising like an apparition through the branches of the trees.

Indeed, Madison Square Park still has two English Elms that are more than 300 years old—three if you include the remnant near Shake Shack, affectionately known as “stumpy.”

The story that Stephanie Lucas, horticulture director of the Madison Park Conservancy, has heard is that her predecessor, Bill Steyer, so loved the tree he couldn’t bear to have it removed completely.

There’s the possibility, Ms. Lucas said, that the trees came from grafts from Washington Square Park’s “Hangman’s Elm,” the oldest known tree in Manhattan.

Keats Myer is the executive director of the Madison Square Park Conservancy.ENLARGE
Keats Myer is the executive director of the Madison Square Park Conservancy. PHOTO:STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

The park’s leafy canopy is its calling card. The 6-plus-acre space attracts 80,000 people on a busy spring or summer day. But you’d never know it.

Unlike Bryant Park and Union Square Park, which seem to welcome the city’s tumult with open arms, Madison Square Park somehow neutralizes it, rendering it harmless.
“Before our job was to bring people into the park because it was an empty space,” said Keats Myer, the Conservancy’s executive director. “Now it is to figure out how to protect the park.”

Ms. Myer was referring to a time before the park’s restoration, completed in 2001, when many of the storefronts surrounding the park were empty and NoMad—the mashup stands for NOrth of MADison Square Park—wasn’t yet a hot neighborhood.

These days, those storefronts are filled with retailers, including the Italian marketplace Eataly, the design house Marimekko and the Lego Store filled with Legos.

Shake Shack also has more than a little to do with the park’s renaissance. The retro burger chain started as a single hot dog cart in the park in 2001. “That went very well,” Ms. Myer said with some understatement.

While the burger stands attracts epic lines—is any burger worth waiting 45-minutes for, no matter how tender and juicy?—it also contributes handsomely to the Conservancy’s coffers.

“They pay us a percentage of the receipts and we use that money to make this place the way it looks,” said David Berliner, the Conservancy’s chairman. “It all goes back into the park.”

Madison Square Park also has a vibrant free contemporary art program called Mad. Sq. Art. At the moment, the lawn features is a huge sculpture by Martin Puryear. At 40 feet high, “Big Bling” is the largest temporary piece the artist has created.

At the sculpture’s summit is a gold-leaf shackle, the “bling,” which is supported by a multitiered structure made of plywood and chain-link fence. And on the afternoon I visited, only moments after its installation, the work was already drawing the attention of the abundant squirrel population.

ENLARGE
Martin Puryear’s 40-foot sculpture, “Big Bling,” will be on view until January 2017. PHOTO: STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

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Martin Puryear’s 40-foot sculpture, “Big Bling,” will be on view until January 2017. PHOTO: STEVE REMICH FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Brooke Kamin Rapaport, Mad. Sq. Art’s director and Martin Friedman Senior Curator, drew my attention to the way the sculpture mimicked the stories on the buildings nearby.

And, of course, also the gold leaf on the Met Life Tower and the New York Life building that overlook the park.

Even though, Ms. Rapaport added “Martin is well known for not ascribing narrative to his work.”

That was a relief. Since I’d initially thought the sculpture was titled “Bug Bling” and was enjoying its similarities to a giant, mantis-like insect. Or maybe a mastadon.

As attention getting as the artwork is, it never threatens the park’s serenity—its reflecting pool, paths, towering trees, seasonal plantings and its wildlife.

 

Falcons migrate through and an American Woodcock makes an annual pilgrimage. And then there are those squirrels.

Pointing to a majestic hole in one of the ancient English elms, Ms. Lucas said: “I’d say there’s about 25 squirrels in that tree.”

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Stamp Collecting’s Last City Bastion

Champion Stamp is the city’s sole remaining street-level shop for the hobby

Bruce Hecht of Champion Stamp examines an album given to the author's mother in 1932.ENLARGE
Bruce Hecht of Champion Stamp examines an album given to the author’s mother in 1932. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR.

By RALPH GARDNER JR.
May 30, 2016 7:13 p.m. ET
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From the late 1800s until the 1970s, Nassau Street in the Financial District was the stamp-collecting center of New York City. At one point there were as many as 50 stamp dealers in one three-block area.

It may say something about the declining popularity of the hobby that there remains but one street-level stamp shop in New York City—Champion Stamp Co. on West 54th Street.

That’s where I took my mother’s stamp collection to be appraised last week, ahead of the once-in-a decade World Stamp Show, being held in New York City for the first time since 1956. It runs at the Jacob K. Javits Center through June 4.

Not that I was hoping to find a scarce “inverted Jenny” stamp among hers. Much less the world’s rarest and most valuable stamp, the 1856 British Guiana one-cent “penny magenta” stamp. Purchased in 2014 by shoe designer Stuart Weitzman for $9.48 million, it’s on display at the show.

Why didn’t I take my own stamp collection to be valued? Apart from the fact that I can’t find it at the moment, I was a feeble stamp collector.

Stamps for sale by the bag.ENLARGE
Stamps for sale by the bag. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR.

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Indeed, it constituted an early taste of failure. I simply didn’t have the gumption, pun not necessarily intended, to soak envelopes to pry free the canceled postage stamps and then allow them to dry.

And on the rare occasions I accomplished that task, I lacked the dexterity to attach those flimsy, sticky tabs to their backs that would make them adhere to the placeholder images in my photo album.
“Hinges,” Bruce Hecht, the buyer at Champion Stamp, told me was the proper term for them. “Back in the day there were two hobbies—stamps and coins. Younger people today have a very short attention span. They need instantaneous gratification. If you’re a stamp collector, it’s not something you can do in three seconds.”

Arthur Morowitz, the owner of Champion Stamp, joked that Xanax is to blame for the demise of stamp collecting. “In the old days people would say, ‘You need to relax. Get a hobby.’ Xanax has put us out of business.”

Champion, with shelves full of stamps filed by nation, seems to be doing fine. Mr. Hecht retrieved a small loose-leaf binder with the 1893 Columbian Issue—a set of 16 finely engraved postage stamps depicting events in the career of Christopher Columbus. It was the first commemorative series issued by the U.S.

The $3 stamp—they ranged in denominations from 1 cent to $5—had a price tag of $850.

Mr. Hecht said that when he was growing up it would probably have been shrewder to invest 50 cents in a scarce stamp at a stamp shop than to collect thousands of canceled common stamps with virtually no monetary value. But how many kids had 50 cents to spend on a stamp?

“Why have they gone up in value?” the stamp buyer asked rhetorically, referring to some higher-denomination, vintage postage stamps. “The printing quantities were very small. Stamps that were common then are common today.”

Many of Champion’s customers collect by country or topic—trains, birds, planes, mushrooms, movie starts, hearts. “Whatever it is,” he said, “you will find collectors who go for that.”

The moment had arrived to examine my mother’s album. It was actually her uncle’s album. He gave it to her in 1932, when she was eight years old.

“There may be some value,” Mr. Hecht said as it turned the brittle, brown pages.

I held my breath.

“If it were mine to sell,” he added, “it might be worth between $100 and $200 retail.”

He pointed out a faded, three-cent stamp depicting George Washington that he said was from 1850. Despite its antiquity it has little value. “It’s a common stamp in used condition,” Mr. Hecht said.

But I’ve probably already received $200 worth of value just leafing through its pages. The stamps ranged from a 1907 “un centime” stamp from the French possession of Réunion (the stamp helpfully included a picture of the island surrounded by the “Océan Indien” in case anyone needed help locating it) to a 1909 “State of North Borneo” stamp of a tapir—a large herbivorous mammal with a snout.

One can only imagine how transporting those images must have been in an era when travel abroad, let alone to exotic locales, was far from routine.

“People talk about emotional value,” Mr. Hecht said. “If I see someone who can’t part with it, I’ll say, ‘There’s no price I can offer you for sentimentality.”

— ralph.gardner@wsj.com

This Dad Is Really Going to Miss College: A daughter’s graduation from an institution of higher learning is a time for reflection

Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Both of the columnist’s daughters attended the liberal arts school; the younger one graduated last week.
Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio. Both of the columnist’s daughters attended the liberal arts school; the younger one graduated last week.
PHOTO: FLICKRVISION

By RALPH GARDNER JR.
May 25, 2016 8:47 p.m. ET

Here’s a question all responsible teenagers should ask themselves when applying to college: Is this school some place where my parents would want to hang out?

Or not, I suppose, depending on the quality of the relationship.

I say this after bidding farewell to Kenyon College in Ohio, the school that both my daughters attended.

Indeed, so much did my wife, Debbie, and I enjoy the institution that we didn’t just attend my younger daughter Gracie’s graduation last week, we also visited two weeks earlier to see her final dance performance.

This was no small time commitment. Each trip required driving approximately 10 hours each way from New York.

 

Visiting your children in college—for us, it usually meant parents weekend plus one other occasion, typically driving them back or forth from home at the beginning or end of the school year—shouldn’t be confused with helicopter parenting.
Not for a second did we consider buying a second home to be near her.

But there is something to be said for enjoying and understanding their lives in a way you can’t by monitoring their Instagram feeds.

Dropping in isn’t just to make sure they’re not skipping classes or meals but also to amortize the absurd cost of college by participating in the institution’s delights yourself.

Gracie Gardner, Class of 2016, with sister Lucy Gardner, Class of 2011.ENLARGE
Gracie Gardner, Class of 2016, with sister Lucy Gardner, Class of 2011. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Gracie Gardner, Class of 2016, with sister Lucy Gardner, Class of 2011. PHOTO: RALPH GARDNER JR./THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Part of the reason we went out two weeks before graduation was to experience the campus absent the tumult of graduation, and to stay at the Kenyon Inn.

The hotel has Adirondack chairs dotting a verdant lawn. And it’s located not just in the center of campus but across the way from the town of Gambier’s “main street, ” which is lined with a market, a deli, a cozy restaurant, a coffee house and the college bookstore.

During family weekends, it’s virtually impossible to get a room at the Kenyon Inn. We’ve been forced to scramble to find lodging elsewhere. On one occasion that meant sharing a barn with dairy cows we could hear grunting through the wall all night.

For graduation, we stayed in a dorm. Which also brought back the indignities of college life. While nobody was blasting heavy metal at 3 a.m., I’d forgotten the discomfort of brushing my teeth next to a stranger.

The only problem with getting attached to our daughters’ school is that parting was almost as hard for us as it was for them. The sadness of having Gracie graduate was accentuated by the fact that there was no logical reason to believe we would return to Kenyon again.

On graduation day, it rained and the ceremony had to be moved into the gleaming, glass-walled Kenyon Athletic Center.

John Green, a Kenyon alum and best-selling author of young adult fiction, delivered a refreshingly frank and funny commencement address. He informed the graduating seniors that adulthood is as dreadful as they imagine: “I mean, have you ever been to a homeowners’ association meeting?”

But it doesn’t really matter what the weather was. Years from now, what you’ll remember are sunny skies; a great professor or two; a sense of novelty that you realize only in retrospect was because you were vulnerable and impressionable, even though you imagined yourself a fully fledged adult; and being part of a tightknit community never to be replicated, no matter how satisfying your life turns out to be.

When we returned home Sunday night, with suddenly no more children in school for the first time in decades, I felt at a momentary loss, much the way I did when I returned from my own college graduation, disoriented and wondering what happens next.

You don’t really need to be overly worried, though. Unlike college, life goes on.

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

Behind the Scenes With ‘Hamilton’ Set Designer David Korins

Ralph Gardner Jr. gets the backstory on how the set design came together for the hit musical
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David Korins, set designer for the ‘Hamilton’ musical, at his Manhattan office. PHOTO: AGATON STROM FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

By RALPH GARDNER JR.
May 10, 2016 3:43 p.m. ET
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Were I the envious type, I might be envious of set designer David Korins’s Tony nomination for “Hamilton.” Not that I ever showed much aptitude in the theatrical arts, my career reaching its zenith in a minor role in a high school production of “Feiffer’s People.”

Though given the demand for “Hamilton” tickets, I’d probably be more envious of Mr. Korins’s access to them.

“I’m contractually able to get a pair of tickets for every show,” he told me. “I have to pay for them. It has made me quite popular with a whole bunch of people I don’t know.”

But what I most coveted on a visit to his West 30th street studio was a portrait of Pee-wee Herman that hung on his wall. “If Andy Warhol did that it would sell for millions of dollars,” Mr. Korins joked.

To the best of my knowledge, the pop artist didn’t work in jelly beans, the medium employed in this work—the face vanilla beans, the hair chocolate and licorice, Pee-wee’s bow tie red cherry.

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A Pee-wee Herman portrait adorns a wall in the office of ‘Hamilton’ set designer David Korins. PHOTO: AGATON STROM FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
“Paul said, ‘I really want that,’” Mr. Korins remembered, referring to Paul Reubens, Pee-wee’s alias. Or is it the other way around? But the set designer held firm. “I said, ‘I’m going to keep this one.’ We spent so much time and effort creating it.”

I’m not sure whether he was referring to the candy portrait or the set he created for the 2011 Broadway production of “The Pee-wee Herman Show.”

Rising to such challenges is something Mr. Korins, 39, has been doing since he graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where he majored in theatrical design and interned at the Williamstown Theater Festival.
His Broadway credits, in addition to “Hamilton” and “The Pee-wee Herman Show,” include “Misery,” “Annie,” and “Motown.” He’s also worked with Kanye West, designed “Mariah Carey’s Christmas” at the Beacon Theater, and did the sets for “Grease Live,” the January TV production of the 1971 musical.

In other words, it’s been a good year for David Korins.

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“It was opening night and closing night at the same time,” with all the attendant spontaneity, he said of “Grease.” “I was actually videotaping the golf carts” on their way from the gym to the town square during the number “We Go Together.” “One of the cameras caught me in the rearview mirror.”

Though viewers seeking glitches might have more readily noticed when one of the golf carts jumped the curb and briefly seemed poised to tip over.

If there’s a cardinal rule to set design, Mr. Korins said—besides not contributing to accidents during the performance—it’s that the audience be distracted by the set as little as possible.

“The star of that show is the writing,” the set designer said of “Hamilton.” “I take great pride that nobody is talking about the scenery.”

That’s not entirely true, and not just because of his Tony nod. The awards will be handed out on June 12.

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At the performance I saw, everything, including the scenery, seemed to elicit applause. Though the set, which takes full advantage of the Richard Rodgers Theatre’s bare brick walls and features more scaffolding than even the average New York City sidewalk, took a minimalist approach to the rendering of American history.

“They didn’t really come to me with any idea,” Mr. Korins said of Hamilton’s creators. “There was a script and music, and we started from there.”

The set designer realized there was no way to depict all the locations of Alexander Hamilton’s eventful life. “It’s a story about this group of people who, not necessarily built the country, but built the scaffolding from which the country is built.”

Hence, lots of rough-hewn wood, coarse ropes and a turntable the actors board more often than the crowds on the Coney Island Cyclone—though so smoothly it’s hardly noticeable.

“It’s really two turntables,” Mr. Korins corrected me. “I couldn’t shake the fact that Aaron Burr’s and Alexander Hamilton’s relationship was a cyclical relationship over the course of their entire lives. I came up with the idea and said, ‘I think there are 10 moments to stage this way.’ They just bought it right away.”

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“It’s a huge testament to the design team,” he added.

Among them his own staff that, on the afternoon of my visit, were working on designs for coming productions that looked as intricate as any blueprints for New York City skyscrapers—if skyscrapers were required to dance to music.

However, they were in the service of simplicity. “Part of the job of a designer is to figure out the bare minimum of everything you need,” Mr. Korins said.