To Make A Long Story Short
David M Spindel

How I Met Uncle Bern Crystal


Bernhardt Crystal photographed by David M. Spindel

Holy Moses!

When I had my NYC studio, I would occasionally run out to pick up a prop or grab a bite to eat. I would see this tall man who was about 6'5", who had a long white beard, and a presence like Moses. I said to myself, "I have to photograph this man someday."


I finally went over to him the next time I saw him and explained that I am a photographer in the neighborhood and asked if he would pose for me. The first thing that he said to me was, "Excuse me kid, but are you queer?" I lost a few breaths from laughing so hard but collected myself and we continued our conversation. I pointed to where my studio was located (just halfway down the block)and explained that I had some of my baseball posters hanging in the window with several of my other still-life photographs. He said he would think about it.


Now Moses Plays Santa Claus! 

Several days later I saw "Moses" walking down the street with a cane and he was kind of in a hurry and looked a bit in distress. I got a little nervous, as he was a man in his late seventies, so I went over to him and asked,

"What's the rush?"

He said he was late to open his art gallery that was in the building just two doors down from my studio.

I asked, "What kind of kind of art?"

He answered, "African Art and artifacts."

I said, "You’re only five minutes late. Don’t rush.”

I then asked him, "Why are you late? Is everything ok?"

He said, "Well, I just came from filming a bit part in a movie."

I asked “What part?”

He said, "Well, I played Santa Claus. I was doing it for my nephew."

I asked, "Who's your nephew?"

He said, "Billy Crystal." I almost passed out, again!


               Bernhardt Crystal photographed by David M. Spindel


Bernhardt Crystal - The War Artist

Eventually (once he realized I was normal or at least as crazy as he was) he did make his way to my studio and sat for a portrait. Over the next twenty plus years, we  became very close friends, sharing daily banter, recanting life stories, and swapping jokes over dinners w/ our wives and my kids, who right along with me came to call him Uncle Bern. He was an extraordinary man and a former WWII military artist. He told me that he had met Dwight Eisenhower while recouperating in a Scottish hospital who way back then asked him to sketch a portrait of him. Wouldn't ya know, "Ike" loved it, and then suggested Bernhardt use his talent during the war, which he did by creating powerful and humorous posters for war bonds.

He later opened The Washington Irving Gallery in NYC, where for over fifty years, he sold fellow veteran combat artists' work as well as numerous international artists work like Zero Mostel! His gallery was also chock full of ecclectic African artifacts and sculptures that looked like they dated back to the beginning of time. As an accomplished artist himself, he also created unique characters for Disney, humorous alphabet letters, and a line of greeting cards. One of my kids' favorite things to do when were out at a restaurant was to watch him draw with both hands simultaneously on his placemat! He could do this with a word or a picture. An amazing feat to see especially when done while telling us all a joke or two with a foreign accent! Those placemats became personal keepsakes. I'd often pop over to his gallery for a visit in between shoots and there was always a collection of nifty artists hanging out telling stories or listening to him recite poetry. He had a wittty sense of humor and a baritone voice. He'd often visit me at the studio and I had fun asking him to hop into a set for some nutty photos. We were like two kids in a candy store. 

Bernhardt Crystal Richard Crystal photographed by David M. Spindel

In later years, my wife Barbara and I would go to visit him and his wife Deb in their West Side apartment in NYC. He was getting on in his years but we maintained close contact with them before we moved to Arizona in 2004. Unfortunately, in September of 2008, he passed away but his irreplaceable and irresistable character, presence, and sense of humor will always be with me and my fond memories of our times together will always make me glad I took the time to approach "Moses" that one fine day in New York City! Miss ya Uncle Bern!

 Bernhardt Crystal & Deb Crystal photographed by David M. Spindel                  

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