Einstein at Play

by Christine Jerome | August 2016, History

Photograph by Orren Jack Turner, from the Library of Congress

How a genius spent his Adirondack summers

You may know Albert Einstein
as the Nobel-winning physicist whose theories of relativity revolutionized our understanding of space and time. You may also know him as the wild-haired icon whose diffident manner and moth-eaten clothes belied his formidable intellect. He held up his baggy pants with rope, preferred undershirts to more formal attire, and seldom wore socks. “When I was young,” he explained, “I found out that the big toe always ends up making a hole in a sock. So I stopped wearing socks.” Although this refugee from Nazi Germany was lionized for his pioneering theoretical work and the humanitarian causes he championed, he remained all his life a humble, unassuming figure with what one writer called “a total indifference to convention.”

Yet despite the unrelenting glare of publicity, there are several things about Einstein that you might not know. A lifelong fan of the ladies, he  divorced his wife to marry his cousin, and had at least a dozen affairs, one with a woman later revealed to be a Soviet agent. His effort one day to purchase “sundials” from a Long Island department store caused bafflement, until the owner realized that his customer’s heavily accented request was actually for a pair of sandals. After his death in 1955 Einstein’s body was cremated—except for his brain, which had been surreptitiously removed and hidden for many years by the pathologist who autopsied him. Michael Paterniti’s book Driving Mr. Albert recounts his surreal journey with this individual, in which a portion of Einstein’s gray matter, awash in formaldehyde in a Tupperware container stashed in a duffel bag, accompanied the pair from New Jersey to California and back. Albert’s last road trip! What strikes us as macabre might well have delighted Einstein, who loved a joke almost as much as he loved playing Mozart on his inexpensive fiddle.

One other thing you might not know about Einstein is that he spent most of six summers in the Adirondacks. In 1936 he and his ailing wife lived in the architect William Distin’s home in the Glenwood Estates section of Saranac Lake. That summer the conservationist Bob Marshall recalled taking him out in a rowboat on Lower Saranac Lake and wrote, “I have seldom seen a person more delighted with the natural scenery than was Professor Einstein. Repeatedly he exclaimed about how different it was in America, where you could still see places which did not indicate the evidences of man.” So impressed was he with the setting that for five summers, beginning in 1940, the widowed physicist rented Cottage 6 at Knollwood, the private enclave on Lower Saranac owned by the Marshalls and five other prominent New York families. Here, with his housekeeper/secretary Helen Dukas, he was able to indulge another passion, that of sailing.

From the age of 18, Einstein had been a dedicated sailor, although in his later years he was a characteristically eccentric one. He declined to learn to swim yet would carry no life jackets on his boats; he disdained motors and was never happier than when becalmed, which provided an opportunity for him to drift and think. Sailing, he once explained, is “the sport that demands the least energy.” He had no interest in compasses and maps, preferring to take things as they came. This proclivity meant that he was constantly having to be pulled off rocks and sandbars, or towed back to his mooring. Scuttlebutt on the lower Connecticut River and on Long Island Sound, where he summered in the late 1930s, is replete with stories of the peculiar physicist having to be rescued. These escapades continued in the Adirondacks, where he sailed his 17-foot dinghy Tinef (colloquial German for “worthless” or “junk”). Saranac Lake native Don Duso, only 10 in 1941, probably saved Einstein’s life when the Tinef capsized. The young man disentangled Einstein’s foot, which was caught in the rigging, and helped him to his nearby motorboat. 

A friend of Einstein’s recalled that on one expedition while they were “engaged in an interesting conversation, I suddenly cried out ‘Achtung!’ for we were almost upon another boat. He veered away with excellent control, and when I remarked what a close call we had had, he started to laugh and sailed directly toward one boat after another, much to my horror, but he always veered off in time and then laughed like a naughty boy.”

From time to time examples of “Einstein’s boat” surface in Adirondack boathouses, but these specimens are most likely sailboats loaned to him for convenience or when his own craft was laid up for repairs. His beloved Tinef went back to Princeton with him following his final North Country summer in 1945, and thereafter was mostly sailed on that town’s Lake Carnegie.According to Johanna Fantova, his final female companion (and ironically a curator of maps), “Here too, his analytical precision helped him to calculate the smallest movement of air, even on a nearly windless day. Seldom did I see him so gay and in so light a mood as in this strangely primitive little boat.”

In the early 1950s, when his deteriorating health ended his sailing days, Fantova is thought to have disposed of Tinef. David Allen, professor of American history at the State University of New York Maritime College, speculates that it may have been acquired by a member of a Princeton sailing club and taken to Seattle. In his long life Einstein owned a number of boats, including a yacht named Tümmler (dolphin), but he insisted that the modest Tinef was his all-time favorite: “I always do my best thinking while sailing [on this little boat].”

Summer life at Knollwood agreed with Einstein, who often played his violin on the veranda of Cottage 6. In this he failed to take the advice he wrote an acquaintance in 1939:

Even if one loves to play

One’s little fiddle night and day

It’s not right to broadcast it

Lest the list’ners scoff at it.

If you scratch with all your might—

Which is certainly your right—

Then bring down the windowpane

So the neighbors don’t complain.

Far from complaining, his neighbors invited him to dine. David Billikopf, nephew of Bob Marshall, recalls, “One day Einstein came to our house, next door, for lunch. My father, who was aware that the professor was on a diet, informed Einstein that there would be ice cream for dessert. ‘Can you eat it?’ asked my father. ‘I’ll have to consult my doctor,’ answered the professor. My father had a worried look on his face. He hated the idea of his guest phoning to Princeton … on his phone. ‘Who is your doctor?’ asked my father. ‘I’m my own doctor,’ answered Einstein, ‘and I say that I can have ice cream’ and burst out laughing.” (In 1954, a year before his death, a medical institute gave the physicist a parrot for his 75th birthday, which was celebrated in Princeton. Einstein liked the bird and named him Bibo but decided that it was depressed. His solution? He proceeded to tell the parrot bad jokes.)

In the summer of 1944, Phil Klein, a boatboy at Knollwood, occasionally helped Einstein into his sailboat. One afternoon Klein encountered a striking redhead sunbathing on the dock. “She was extremely vivacious,” he recalled for an article in the Adirondack Daily Enterprise, “and spoke with a heavy foreign accent as she chain-smoked, holding each cigarette in the European … style. She told me that she was from the Soviet Union, and that her husband was a famous Soviet sculptor.”

In 1998, Sotheby’s auctioned off nine letters written by Margarita Konenkova to Einstein the year after their time at Knollwood, letters replete with pet names and recollections of their days together. Only in 1995 was it revealed that Konenkova was a Soviet operative. No evidence exists to indicate that Einstein knew of her true profession.

It was in the Cottage 6 kitchen on August 6, 1945, that Einstein heard the radio announcement that the United States had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. “Oh, my God,” was his response. An enterprising reporter from the Albany Times Union managed to interview Einstein at Knollwood shortly after the Hiroshima news broke and asked about this frightful new source of power. “In developing atomic or nuclear energy,” Einstein said, “science did not draw upon supernatural strength, but merely imitated the reaction of the sun’s rays. Atomic power is no more unnatural than when I sail my boat on Saranac Lake.” Although he had been persuaded in 1939 to alert FDR to the threat that Germany was developing such a weapon and to suggest that the United States needed to develop its own program, he had had no part in the Manhattan Project and soon regretted his role in lobbying Roosevelt. He spent the rest of his life as a pacifist. “Anyone who really wants to abolish war,” he stated, “must resolutely declare himself in favor of his own country’s resigning a portion of its sovereignty in place of international institutions.”

Certainly he was a deeply serious man, yet the image of Einstein that graced many a college-dorm wall—the Professor Irwin Corey hair, the tongue stuck out—bespeaks an impish side, a willingness to laugh at man’s folly, and particularly at himself. “With fame I become more and more stupid,” he once wrote a friend, “which of course is a very common phenomenon.”

Christine Jerome wrote about birding guides in our 2015 Annual Guide to the Great Outdoors. She’s the author of An Adirondack Passage: The Cruise of the Canoe Sairy Gamp (1994).   

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