Died and Gone to Chocoholic Heaven

Ralph Gardner Jr. discovers the Old World-looking candy store Myzel’s on West 55th Street

Kamila Myzel helps a customer pick out some treats at her candy store, Myzel’s.ENLARGE
Kamila Myzel helps a customer pick out some treats at her candy store, Myzel’s.PHOTO: JASON ANDREW FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

It’s not exactly off the beaten track—140 W. 55th St. is directly across the street from City Center, after all. Nonetheless, when I passed by recently I was pleasantly surprised to spot an Old World-lookingcandy store named Myzel’s that seemed out of place amid the bustle of 21st-century Manhattan.

It appeared more appropriate to New York City, circa 1963; before the rise of the banks and corporate retailers, when mom-and-pop stores still flourished.

I’d developed too much momentum to drop by on that occasion—as festive as the chocolate Easter Bunnies in the window looked—but returned last week. Out of curiosity and because, if there’s a place making affordably priced handmade chocolates, I have a moral obligation to support it.

That was my first question for proprietor Kamila Myzel when she came out from behind the counter to greet me: Is her chocolate actually homemade?

“I bake all of my cookies,” she told me. “I make part of my chocolates—as much as I can.”

She nodded in the direction of her kitchen. “It’s very small. All of the chocolate fruits and all of the baking is me. And the novelties for the holidays.”

Even though it was well past Easter, chocolate bunnies still graced her front window. Ms. Myzel, I was to discover, is one of those people who won’t let arbitrary dates on a calendar, and the expectations of small minds, stop her from piggybacking off important chocolate-centric holidays.

If she were, her shop probably wouldn’t have survived as long as it has.

Myzel’s carries 130 varieties of licorice. ‘Each has a different taste, a different texture, a different personality.’ENLARGE
Myzel’s carries 130 varieties of licorice. ‘Each has a different taste, a different texture, a different personality.’ PHOTO: JASON ANDREW FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“I have been here 25 years this summer,” she said as she pulled a handsome Easter rabbit, its basket filled with foil-wrapped eggs, from the window. “I have a very old metal mold from Germany. Nobody has this type of mold.”

She arrived in the U.S. from Poland in 1981 and, since she spoke German, although little English, moved to Yorkville, which used to be a German neighborhood.

“This is how I got my job,” she said of a long-gone gourmet shop on Madison Avenue in the ‘80s. “My almost-everyday customer was Mrs. Kennedy Onassis. She was buying an oatmeal raisin cookie. But a big one.”

Ms. Myzel worked at Café Geiger, a German restaurant on East 86th Street with a pastry shop, also departed.

“They had an incredible bakery,” she remembered. “That’s how I got my experience in the chocolate-making and the baking.”

We could have reminisced all day. But to what purpose, if the chocolate didn’t live up to expectations?

Luckily it did. The chocolate-covered orange peel and ginger, not to mention the liquor-laced cherry cordials, were succulent. The dark-chocolate creams popped.

I also felt obliged to try the salted caramel with nuts. Ms. Myzel informed me that an assistant to Simon Cowell, of “American Idol” fame, would be arriving at any minute to pick up an order for his boss.

It was very good.

“I don’t want to say anything,” she said, proffering yet another sample, “but the chocolate on my matzos are the best.”

If there’s any problem with the shop owner’s business model—besides the inexorable pressure of rising rents—it may be that she seems to give away almost as much as she sells. And while she had a steady stream of customers, during my visit most spent only a few dollars each.

She admitted that survival has been a challenge.

“The landlord just gave me such a hike in rent I don’t know how I’m going to make it,” she confided.

However, for Ms. Myzel, as with any serious artist, the most effective distraction from her financial worries is through the steady application of hard work.

She sometimes arrives at 6 a.m., though she’s a night person and prefers to make her cookies and chocolates after closing. Her 83-year-old mother, Lucy, with whom she lives, helps with the chocolate-making, too.

Ms. Myzel insisted I try some of her 130 varieties of licorice.

“Each has a different taste, a different texture, a different personality,” she boasted.

And where else can you have a learned discussion about chocolate turkeys?

“From Halloween they jump all the way to Christmas,” she complained of contemporary society. “Nobody is celebrating Thanksgiving any more.”

Speak for yourself. I provide a chocolate turkey to each of the kids at our Thanksgiving dinner, myself included.

Come next November, I’ll be purchasing them at Myzel’s.

Where the Beds Are Stacked Against You

Ralph Gardner Jr. and his wife bunk in at the Jane Hotel, a boutique hotel originally built for sailors

The lobby and reception area of the Jane Hotel, on the edge of the Meatpacking District.ENLARGE
The lobby and reception area of the Jane Hotel, on the edge of the Meatpacking District. PHOTO: NATALIE KEYSSAR FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

New Yorkers who stay at local hotels—the reasons can range from adventure, to romance, to a burst pipe or an apartment renovation—is an established tradition.

However, when my wife, Debbie, and I spent a night last week at the Jane Hotel, at the edge of the Meatpacking District, we had no discernible rationale. Though I suppose adventure comes closest to describing the impulse.

I’d never visited the Jane, a boutique hotel originally built for sailors in the early 1900s, until we checked in Wednesday evening. However, I was aware of its party reputation.

My daughter Lucy, who joined us for cocktails and dinner, boasted of having danced on a table in its ballroom within recent memory and gaining access to its VIP area, until she was required to leave because of the arrival of actual celebrities, among them the actor Jonah Hill.

But the hope of rubbing shoulders with stars isn’t what drove me to spend a night away from home either.

It was the challenge.

Ralph Gardner Jr. climbs onto the top bunk in his room at the Jane. ENLARGE
Ralph Gardner Jr. climbs onto the top bunk in his room at the Jane. PHOTO: NATALIE KEYSSAR FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Anybody can enjoy himself or herself in a five-star hotel with a king-size bed, maid turndown service, minibar and marble bathroom. But how well can you endure a place that has none of those things? Where your room more closely resembles wagon-lit, a sleeping compartment on a European train? Including the bunk beds.

Though my recollection is that European train sleeping compartments sometimes come with toilets. “At a cozy 50 sq. ft.,” to quote the Jane’s website, its bunk-bed cabins don’t. You’re required to travel down the hall to a communal bathroom.

I’ve always been a fan of small spaces. I think it has something to do with being a Cold War child. One of my favorite photographs from that era came from Compton’s Encyclopedia: it showed a family of four, happy as clams, in their private fallout shelter.

I wanted one, too.

My wife, unfortunately, had no such fantasies. As a matter of fact, she was ready to leave as soon as we checked in.

I don’t know what her problem was. Admittedly, our room was so claustrophobic that we couldn’t walk past each other without getting stuck. But there were fresh towels, bottled water, a TV for each bunk with a remote, and a fully functioning window. One of my pet peeves is hotel windows that don’t open, or open only a crack.

Because she was cranky, I even agreed to give her the more desirable top bunk. Though altruism wasn’t my primary motivation. I’ve been known to visit the bathroom in the middle of the night. And didn’t want to compound the indignity of a 4 a.m. visit to the shared facility by falling off the upper bunk in the dark on my way to the floor.

Part of the pleasure of vacationing in your own city is that you get to act like a tourist. We had a drink at the Jane’s appealing Café Gitane and then dinner in the West Village. (By the way, the hotel has room service and not all the rooms are as minuscule as our sleeping quarters.)

We thought better of asking friends to join us. Because, obviously, they’d have wanted to see our room. I wasn’t ashamed. But if two people was a tight fit, four or more would have constituted a fire hazard.

Then again, I recall in college a half-dozen of us happily fitting into dorm rooms not much larger.

However, the price was right—about $100 a night for two. Where else are you going to find accommodations that affordable in a hip Manhattan neighborhood?

I’d by lying if I suggested romance was in the air when we returned from dinner. Bunk beds—and narrow ones at that—as well as running into strangers brushing their teeth in the bathroom…. Well, the combination has a way of destroying the mood.

Also, we fought over the remote. Or rather we fought over having two TVs within a few feet of each other, tuned to different stations. It didn’t bother me at all, but it did Debbie. She settled our dispute by falling asleep, with me not far behind.

We joined our fellow guests for breakfast at the Café Gitane the next morning—I assumed the hotel would attract a young, tattooed crowd trailing cigarette smoke, but many of the guests seemed more the intrepid middle-aged traveler type—and then a lovely walk along Hudson River Park.

Upon our return, desk clerk Dwayne Campbell acknowledged, of our diminutive quarters: “We know it’s slightly abnormal to people who aren’t European or back packers—people who haven’t been in college in years. We let people know exactly what the room is before they book.”

I rarely manage to vacate hotel rooms by checkout time. But in this case it wasn’t an issue—and not just because home was only a cab ride away. There seems little allure in lolling in bed all morning when it’s a bunk bed.

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

It’s a Tie for the Stanley Cup Playoff

  • Ralph Gardner Jr. talks fashion with former Rangers star Ron Duguay

    Ron Duguay with Robert Stock, left, founder of the clothing boutique Robert Graham.ENLARGE
    Ron Duguay with Robert Stock, left, founder of the clothing boutique Robert Graham.PHOTO: JASON ANDREW FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

    I assume the New York Rangers will go all the way and win the Stanley Cup playoffs. But even if they don’t, here’s some consolation: the wardrobe of studio analyst and former Rangers star Ron Duguay will continue to delight and amaze until the last puck on the team’s season is dropped.

    “I’m a free spirit; I express myself through my clothing,” Mr. Duguay told me Friday morning. We were at Robert Graham, the men’s clothing boutique on Bleecker Street where he does most of his shopping. “I have a following, not just of hockey fans; everyone wants to know what I’m wearing.”

    The handsome commentator attributed his fashion sense to his heritage: “Being French Canadian, I like colors and looking good. If you look good, you feel good.”

    I can say with a certain amount of confidence that the 57-year-old Mr. Duguay would look good in just about anything, including grandma jeans. He brought to mind a lecture I attended by James Watson who, along with Francis Crick, discovered the structure of DNA.

    Mr. Watson explained that we’re all dealt a genetic hand of cards, and some hands are better than others. Pursuing that metaphor, Mr. Duguay was dealt a royal flush.

    He stands about 6 feet 3 inches tall, doesn’t look any heavier than he did when he played for the Rangers in the ’70s and ’80s, and has a nice, even tan. During hockey season, he commutes between New York and his home in Florida. His hair is shorter than it was in his playing days, when it provoked wolf whistles, but it’s still all there.

    Above, Mr. Duguay, in 1981 as a Ranger.ENLARGE
    Above, Mr. Duguay, in 1981 as a Ranger. PHOTO:BRUCE BENNETT STUDIOS/GETTY IMAGES

    Nothing against Canada, a great nation, but I never equated Canucks with haute couture.

    Mr. Duguay corrected me. “French Canadians, we’re a different breed,” he explained. “We get a lot of stuff from Paris. They’re very sophisticated in Montreal.”

    Robert Graham specializes in colorful, limited edition $400 shirts with motifs such as human skulls or the Coney Island boardwalk. Former Yankees pitching ace Mariano Rivera is also a customer.

    I could never pull off the look. It’s more master of the universe on his day off.

    Nonetheless, Mr. Duguay was dressed down, relatively speaking, when he appeared on the air last week during Game 1 of the playoffs against the Pittsburgh Penguins. He was wearing what looked like a navy tuxedo jacket with black lapels and a hand-beaded, white Robert Graham shirt.

    “And a silk evening slipper,” added Robert Stock, the company’s founder and chief creative officer, and Mr. Duguay’s occasional personal shopper. He held up attractive footwear with purple lining.

    It’s always been my opinion that wearing colors typically associated with femininity, such as pink, evinces confidence in your masculinity. Even though I confine my softer side to my socks, ruing that men’s hosiery isn’t easier to find in appealing shades of persimmon, lemon and aquamarine.

    Mr. Duguay voiced no disagreement. “That’s what I get from women,” said the one-time center, who was married to the supermodel Kim Alexis but is now single. “They say stand next to their husband—‘If Ron can wear it, you can wear it.’ ”

    But for the playoffs, the analyst has decided to dress more conservatively, in deference to the majesty of the Stanley Cup and personal superstition. “I’m going more corporate,” he confided. “I did it this past winter and they went on a winning streak. I wore a tie for almost a month.”

    However, Mr. Duguay is concerned about disappointing his fans, who have come to expect a certain amount of plumage. “They say, ‘Ron, you look so plain tonight. We look forward to what you’re wearing.’ ”

    On game days, he goes through “a whole dress rehearsal” in front of his mirror. “Part of it is how I feel that day.”

    Mr. Duguay turned to Mr. Stock, who was directing my attention to the store’s one-of-a-kind décor, including stools with the cushioning made of rugby balls, which caused me to roll off. “Robert, you’ve got to keep feeding me stuff,” he said half-seriously. “People remember shirts. Because of that I feel like I can’t wear it a second time.”

    I wondered what his closet looked like. “It’s definitely walk-in,” he stated, as he sang the praises of tall-collared shirts. “There’s a presence to a bigger collar.”

    Does Mr. Duguay rate the employee discount? He counts more than 100 Robert Graham shirts in his collection. He also takes Mr. Stock to Rangers games. “When I can take him up to the glass, that’s where he’s happiest,” Mr. Duguay said.

    “He gets the ambassador discount,” Mr. Stock said. “The royal ambassador discount.”

    Even if I could afford a Robert Graham shirt, I’d be worried about spilling ketchup or mustard on it—especially at a hockey game. Condiments have a talent for triangulating on my shirts as soon as they return from the cleaners.

    How does Ron Duguay handle the heartbreak of food stains?

    “I’m definitely careful,” he said. “I’m the guy with the bib.”

    —ralph.gardner@wsj.com

An Education to Remember on Still Lifes

 

George Wachter of Sotheby’s Old Master Department looks at a blowup of Adriaen Jansz. van Ostade’s ‘A Man with Pince-nez, Reading Notices.’ENLARGE
George Wachter of Sotheby’s Old Master Department looks at a blowup of Adriaen Jansz. van Ostade’s ‘A Man with Pince-nez, Reading Notices.’ PHOTO: JASON ANDREW FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

George Wachter,Sotheby’s co-chairman of Old Master Paintings Worldwide and my cousin, was explaining the importance of a flower painting by Westphalian artist Ludger Tom Ring. It was created sometime between 1570 and 1580. And it’s part of the Weldon Collection, which goes on sale Wednesday.

“Whereas there are still lifes painted on the back of religious pictures—there’s a Memling,” George stated, “this is the first one that wasn’t religious. It was a stand-alone still life with flowers. He’s the first one who ever did that.”

As the expert traced the artist’s influence on several other still-life painters represented in the Weldon Collection, I flashed back 40 years or more to another still life.

This one by Jan de Heem. The subject was succulent-looking grapes, and it was on display when we visited the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin together.

At the time neither George nor I knew much about paintings, Old Master or otherwise. In fact, I was the one who was swept away by the de Heem, who I’d never heard of. And I doubt he had either.

Unfortunately, there are several problems with my story. The most glaring of which is that George has no recollection of being in Ireland with me, even though we traveled together almost every summer back then. I’d chalk it up to failing memory, except that I have no memory of being in Ireland with him either, other than at the museum.

However, in more recent decades I seem to recall George complimenting me on my willingness to look beyond brand-name artists and labels on that long ago morning.

Which makes sense, because since he joined Sotheby’s, fresh out of college, George has become an expert—not just in painters such as Rembrandt, Titian, and Brueghel, but also artists whose names rarely arise in Art History 101, or 201, or 301 for that matter.

The Weldon Collection, assembled beginning in the 1950s by New Yorkers Henry and June “Jimmy” Weldon, boasts jewel-like examples of both.

“We never set out to have a collection,” Henry Weldon, says in a quote gracing one of the walls of Sotheby’s 10th-floor gallery, where the 75 works are on display. “We just found things we liked and brought them into our home.”

The sale also includes a beautiful still life of flowers and a bumblebee by Rachel Ruysch, one of the most successful still-life artists of the Dutch Golden Age, and one of the first female artists to gain international recognition; and an appealing bunch of wild strawberries by Adriaen Coorte. I’d put Coorte firmly in the category of painters George and I hadn’t heard of back in the early ’70s.

George described the work as the “capstone” of any Dutch still-life collector’s collection.

The sale is somewhat unusual both because it’s a stand-alone collection—it’s being held in April rather than in early June when Sotheby’s and Christie’s typically hold their Old Master sales in tandem, and it’s been set up like a Metropolitan Museum of Art blockbuster—complete with dark walls, dramatic lighting and lots of graphics. The only thing missing is the gift shop.

The goal is to appeal more to private collectors than to dealers.

George recalls that when he started working at Sotheby’s in London perhaps 85% of Old Master paintings at auction were bought by dealers. “There would be a table around the auctioneer’s podium,” he remembered. “All of the dealers would sit there.”

These days it’s the reverse, with private collectors doing most of the bidding. George attributes the trend, at least indirectly, to the Internet.

He also credits Alfred Taubman, the shopping mall developer and Sotheby’s former chairman, who died Friday at 91. “Alfred Taubman brought art more directly to the private collector.”

“In 1978 a dealer would buy a picture at auction,” George went on. “He’d clean it, reframe it, hang it in his gallery and he could charge what he wanted,” my cousin explained. “Now dealers are subject to the fact that people walk around with iPads. They can see a picture on Artnet, look it up, and know exactly what the dealer paid.”

More remarkable to me than the changes in the auction business is that, while I’ve bounced around, George has worked at Sotheby’s his entire career.

I like to think that what drives him to stay—beyond making an excellent living—is the fact that you get to look at great pictures all day, in some cases discovering them for the first time. (He’s always been a bon vivant, which made traveling with him a pleasure.)

He traced the influence of Ludger Tom Ring on Ambrosius Bosschaert The Elder, whose “Still Life of flowers in a Wan-Li Vase” hung nearby; and from Bosschaert to Balthasar Van Der Ast, another still-life painter represented by two works in the auction.

“Which is a tribute to Bosschaert,” George told me with excitement. “Van Der Ast’s sister married Bosschaert, and when Bosschaert died, Van Der Ast moved into the Bosschaert home…”

I can’t say I was still paying full attention. But I was impressed how much knowledge my cousin had acquired since the day we stood together in Ireland’s National Gallery. Or didn’t.

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

The American Pinup, Fine Art Indeed!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Being Smarter Than the Average Bear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Lord of the Ring and King of the Court

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was he frightened?

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

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

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

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Giving Voice to Art at the Guggenheim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obviously, she was far more qualified than I was.

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

I wish I could say I was among them.

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

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

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

This was dumb because it distracted me.

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

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

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

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

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

Singing Their Love of Tolkien’s ‘Rings’

Members of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus perform award-winning score

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OK.

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

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

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

“I love it,” Ms. Cornelius said.

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

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

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

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

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

Apparently.

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

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

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

—ralph.gardner@wsj.com

A Family’s Obsession With Lincoln

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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