The Brave Little Collector

For years I’d heard stories about a guy who had a brick building in a trashy part of the Hudson Valley filled with the largest Mickey Mouse collection in the universe, pieces he treated with the reverence of African sculpture. I figured he was another backwoods nut with whirligigs till last July 4, when I went to a party at a rambling house in the woods near Garrison and, as several drunk boys in their 40′s set off illegal fireworks, the hostess took me by the elbow through clouds of gunpowder smoke, saying there was someone she wanted me to meet.

“This is Mel Birnkrant,” she said. “He collects Mickey Mouse.”

A burly man in his early 60′s was seated solidly in an armchair on the porch. He had a large, round balding head and a cool, spacey gaze. He seemed big and scary, but also childlike.

I introduced myself and wangled his phone number, and 10 days later I lifted the giant iron knocker on the door of what looked to be a converted schoolhouse.

Mr. Birnkrant let me in and up some steps to a large dim room with very high ceilings. The room was filled floor to ceiling with Mickey Mouse sculptures, dolls, toys and other images. There were cases filled with porcelain figurines arranged in a circus, there were giant carved carousel Mickeys hanging off the rafters, and there were German posters of Mickey Maus on the wall.

Now and then I made out other comic characters. Felix, Horace Horsecollar, Punch and Judy. But this was Mickey’s kingdom.

My vision was soon blurred. Mr. Birnkrant watched me a little clinically, as though I had dropped acid and he was reporting the results. I asked Mr. Birnkrant how many objects were in the room.

He grimaced. “I have no idea. There are idiotic collectors who count. I don’t.”

I could see that the collection went on and on through the house. And many of the pieces were stunning, like a wooden Popeye bent over in a homoerotic pose. It felt like being in a Bergman movie, a richly detailed fantasy of lost beauty.

Mr. Birnkrant said that the figures were from the heyday of the comic character, beginning at the turn of the century with the Yellow Kid in Pulitzer’s New York World and culminating with the Second World War, when suddenly the characters became lifelike and lost their geometric simplicity.

“I’m fascinated by the life force in all these objects,” he said. “Mickey is a pure abstract symbol, with nothing realistic about it. The eyes aren’t eyes, the nose isn’t a nose. In his best form, he’s a series of balls, but it says to the entire world I’m alive , and a newborn baby will respond to it. If you try to make it more realistic, it dies. Madame Tussaud’s wax works–that is the essence of death.”

I asked where it had all begun, and he led me to a case containing an iron Mickey bank he had seen in the Paris flea market in the 1950′s. Mr. Birnkrant was then a struggling artist, and he didn’t understand how the toy had such power over him. So much of the Mickey bank was wrong–square shoulders and sharp elbows and a long, sharp nose–but its being wrong was all the better. The bank’s designer had been drawn to Mickey’s form in an instinctual way, and used Mickey to convey an enduring message, of delight and strength.

After the bank, Mr. Birnkrant said, his purpose in life had been to make enough money that he never had to pass up a beautiful piece. He has made his living as a toy designer (best known for a doll called Baby Face).

We sat on the couch.

“I’m a curator of a museum of icons, without necessarily being a devout believer in the doctrine,” he said.

“What doctrine?” I said.

“Oh–the stories,” he said. “The personalities. Mickey Mouse only interests me as three circles. Something you can draw with a quarter and two dimes. I can’t stand his little voice. Most Mickey Mouse collectors love goddamn Mickey Mouse. I love three circles and the fact that it looks alive.”

Mr. Birnkrant’s wife Eunice brought me a tuna fish sandwich. An hour later, I stumbled out into the sunlight.

Over the next few weeks, I tried to figure out how for real Mr. Birnkrant was and called around among collectors. Noel Barrett, the ponytailed auctioneer who is a star of PBS’s hit show Antiques Roadshow , said, “Mel’s collection boggled my mind 20 years ago and reboggles it every time I visit, it is such a significant representation of one of the major cultural themes of American life.” Carl Lobel, a Vermont dealer in comic characters, told me, “What makes his collection unique is that it’s driven by an appreciation of the art of the object, and not its value or collectibility.” “He’s like an artist,” said Bernard Shine, a Los Angeles dealer. “To see his collection tossed to the wind would be a crime against humanity. Like slashing a Van Gogh.”

“As far as I’m concerned, it’s the most glorious collection I’ve ever seen,” said the artist Maurice Sendak, himself a Mickey collector. “What Lourdes is to Bernadette [the sainted shepherd girl who discovered the grotto] is the Mickey collection to Mel Birnkrant. And he knows every piece in the world, he’s like the Mickey god, looking down from the heavens …”

Mr. Sendak collects Mickeys right alongside other inspirations, Melville first editions and Mozart letters.

I asked him what Mickey meant, and Mr. Sendak described Mickey as a spiritual totem, connected to the creative passion deep in him, a little tinker-toy machine of creativity he had discovered in his gut when he was a boy in the 30′s in Brooklyn, a fragile toy that, nearly 70 years later, he hopes will continue to whir away inside him.

Few artists who visit his Connecticut studio understand the connection between Mickey and creativity, Mr. Sendak said, but Mr. Birnkrant does.

I went back to Mr. Birnkrant’s mysterious house. This time Eunice Birnkrant made chili, and I asked him about his childhood.

He had grown up in Detroit after the war, in the most conventional, humdrum era.

“The going thing was conformity, and I just wanted to be ordinary. But I had three strikes against me. I was normal till 5, but my parents fattened me up and I became a 260-pound Baby Huey. Still in grade school, seventh grade, I was 6’4″, 260 pounds. Bigger than anything in the school, child or teacher, too. I used to slouch to look shorter. I’ve spent my life trying to get away from attention–”

He looked around at the collection.

“This is me, but it’s not me. I’m hiding. They’re supposed to be operating on their own, but I pull the strings.”

The two other ways that Mr. Birnkrant couldn’t be normal was that he was rich (till his father’s real estate empire went bust) and Jewish.

“I despised my mother and father’s lifestyle. It was the bane of my existence. I wanted to have values that were nothing to do with financial matters.”

Early in his childhood, Mr. Birnkrant had visions of another world, indeed the world he and I were now sitting in. The first time was when he went to the circus. As the troupe walked around the tent, he became fixated on two figures: a fat lady (actually a clown in pads) and an Uncle Sam on stilts. They terrified him and enchanted him, and for weeks after he believed that those grotesque figures would come down the sidewalk of his Dick-and-Jane neighborhood, starting in the distance as tiny dots. For he knew that their world was far more exciting than the tedium of middle-class life.

Then his father acquired an antique chair of an Egyptian design, with dogs’ heads and human feet.

“It was so terrifying, and my parents popped it right on the landing. I would never touch it, but it would appear repeatedly in my nightmares. It would try to get me, but the back legs were going one way and the front legs were going forward and it couldn’t move. Then it would figure it out, that the back feet had to run backwards, and it would take off like a cannon. And I always woke up right then.”

One day Mr. Birnkrant’s mother dropped his Teddy bear–to which he was so devoted that he carried it to restaurants and fed it food under the table–on the chair. Mr. Birnkrant never touched the bear again.

As he grew older, his parents spoiled him with anything he wanted, and he began making things. Erector sets. Models of Boulder Dam. Demons’ heads. Christmas seal images. His parents indulged him when he said that Hanukkah was just a poor man’s Christmas, so let’s only celebrate the real thing; and when Temple Beth-El switched its religious class to Sunday from Saturday, Mr. Birnkrant begged off that as well. Sunday morning was reserved for Comic Weekly Man , a radio show in which a man read the funnies and you read along. “They said O.K.–they let me get away with anything.”

Mr. Birnkrant was something of a little monster. When his father taunted him, “How does it feel to be rich?” Mr. Birnkrant let loose with a prophetic monologue. He pointed out that J.L. Hudson had just built the Northland shopping center, and the shopping center was going to kill off the chain stores his father had built–and soon it did.

“I thought Northland was wonderful,” Mr. Birnkrant mused. “They had a concrete hippopotamus.”

Mr. Birnkrant’s father was a secretly creative man whose form was Cadillacs. He ordered them in the wildest colors–black and yellow, lavender and white.

“He would feel that he had created that car. I used to despise the whole thing and put it down. Of course, today I think it’s charming.”

After Labor Day my mother came to visit, and I finagled an invitation to Mr. Birnkrant’s house, and Mrs. Birnkrant made me tea and my mom walked around a little stunned, remembering images from her own youth, the Brownies.

Mr. Birnkrant watched her in his detached, somewhat perplexed way, and the next week, when I went back to Mr. Birnkrant’s on my own, he fixed me with his cool look.

“Your mother reminds me a lot of Mae Questell,” he said.

“Who is May Questell?”

“You know who May Questell is!” he said. “The actress. The neighbor in Funny Girl . Woody Allen’s mother [in New York Stories ]. The voice of Betty Boop.”

We went over to a Betty Boop case. There was a photograph of Max Fleischer, the Jewish Disney, kissing a little Betty Boop, and several Betty dolls. They had daring fleshy thighs and flouncy dresses whose flounces seemed a little phallic.

We sat back down on the couch, and I asked Mr. Birnkrant why he had agreed to let me visit in the first place.

He was secretive, he said, because some visitors left and got into the collection game themselves. They became Frankenstein monsters who competed with him for objects and drove up the prices. (Mr. Birnkrant declines to talk about values.)

Now that world was ending. The large collections were formed. The nostalgic collectors amassing images of their childhood had died off. And Mr. Birnkrant had to start thinking about what would happen to his collection. He felt responsibility, to find some institution to preserve it. The collection had a life of its own; it ought to be maintained, even publicized.

I looked around the room, and as I did on every visit, I saw things I hadn’t seen before. A ferocious Mickey in a biplane with teeth and a giant, licking red tongue. A Clarabelle Cow face made up of a bunch of circles.

Mr. Birnkrant said, “You know, this might sound crazy, but these objects together remind me of U.F.O. sightings. There’s never been a totally definitive sighting where the flying saucer comes down and a Martian gets out and says, ‘Take me to the White House.’ But there are so many consistent and related sightings that you have to think there’s something out there. Well, when you see these together, it’s the same thing. They communicate to each other and to you, and they say, ‘Hey, I’m alive. I belong to a world where inanimate objects really do exist.’”

I went into the kitchen, and Mrs. Birnkrant gave me a giant slab of noodle pudding to take home for breakfast. Out the back of the kitchen, I could see a strange ocher chair with dogs’ heads and human feet.

It was obviously the monstrous chair from Mr. Birnkrant’s childhood. Mr. Birnkrant said that when his mother sold off all her possessions, she told him he could have one thing from the house. “And I chose that goddamn chair.”

He sat down in it. For a moment I thought he would turn into fairy dust, but he was gray and solid as ever, and very powerful.