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This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the April 13, 2005
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The Miracle Year: an Einstein Tour of Princeton
Einstein has always been Princeton’s most sought-after celebrity.
Visitors from Europe who are visibly unimpressed by "old" buildings
like Nassau Hall, and those from other continents who turn a deaf ear
to stories of the town’s role in the Revolutionary War – they all know
about Albert Einstein and are eager to view any signs of the great
Until recently those opportunities were very limited indeed. One could
stand in front 112 Mercer Street where Einstein lived, drive by the
Institute for Advanced Study where Einstein worked, or poke around in
the back of a retail store on Nassau Street to find an ad hoc exhibit
of Einstein artifacts.
But after years of wrangling and negotiations, a bust of Einstein is
scheduled to be installed on Monday, April 18, at 10 a.m., at the
newly named "EMC Square," on Borough Hall Walk at Bayard Lane and
Stockton Street. Fifty years after the date of his death, it will be
an official memorial to the genius who spent the last two decades of
his life living and working in Princeton.
In a neat coincidence, 2005 is also the 100th anniversary for the
publication of four papers that are acknowledged to be Einstein’s
greatest work. The Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce, the
Historical Society of Princeton, and the Institute for Advanced Study
have collaborated in this centennial celebration of Einstein’s
"Miracle Year" (www.thinkeinstein.com), and the Princeton Public
Library and the Princeton University Store have also scheduled
In a year when virtually every national magazine has examined some
aspect of Einstein’s legacy, here is a guide to the people, places,
and things that have stories to tell about this great man. Stories
about Einstein, some apocryphal, some validated, are plentiful in this
One of his biographers, Alice Calaprice, says that, in the end, what
surprised her most about her research on Einstein was that he was "an
ordinary man, like the rest of us."
Einstein commented about Princeton on at least 10 occasions ("The New
Quotable Einstein," edited by Calaprice). When he came through on a
lecture tour in 1921, he wrote, "I found Princeton lovely; an as yet
unsmoked pipe, so fresh, so young." In 1933, just after he took a post
at the Institute for Advanced Study, he wrote to a royal friend, Queen
Elisabeth of Belgium, "Princeton is a wondrous little spot, a quaint
and ceremonious village of puny demigods on stilts. Yet, by ignoring
certain social conventions, I have been able to create for myself an
atmosphere conducive to study and free from distractions. Here, the
people who compose what is called ‘society’ enjoy even less freedom
than their counterparts in Europe."
In 1934 he wrote to a European friend, "If there were no newspapers
here, I would live as on a newly discovered planet. People here regard
Europe as something between a theater and a zoological garden."
In 1936 when Einstein’s office was still located at Fine Hall, he
groused about his lack of decision making power: "My fame begins
outside of Princeton. My word counts for little in Fine Hall." (From
1933 to 1939, when the Institute for Advanced Study opened Fuld Hall,
Princeton University hosted the Institute scholars. The old Fine Hall
is now Jones Hall, current home of the East Asian Studies department.)
But in 1937 Einstein praised the university in a letter to President
Harold Dodds, who had evidently written a condolence letter on the
death of Einstein’s second wife, Else. These are the words on this
issue’s cover: "In the face of all the heavy burdens I have borne in
recent years, I feel doubly thankful that here has fallen on my lot in
Princeton University a place for work and a scientific atmosphere
which could not be better or more harmonious."
Our Einstein tour starts at the Historical Society of Princeton’s
Bainbridge House at 158 Nassau Street, across from the university.
Four items on display – Einstein’s clock, music stand, favorite chair,
and pipe – help clarify certain aspects of his life.
After stopping by the Bainbridge House gift shop, stocked with
everything from Einstein T-shirts to Einstein marionettes, walk one
block to Landau’s store at 102 Nassau Street. Robert and Henry Landau
have long decried the absence of an Einstein shrine, and in its
absence, in the back of his store, they set up a defacto museum chock
full of miscellaneous artifacts and images
Walk or drive down Nassau Street to Mercer Street and turn left for
Einstein’s house, 112 Mercer Street. It is a private residence, and
visitors are not allowed. But from the sidewalk we can easily see the
house and contemplate the most visible memento of Einstein’s years in
The Mercer Street house was a practical choice for its location and
its size. Einstein didn’t drive, and from Mercer Street he could walk
to his office and walk to town. And it was modest, almost nondescript.
"It demonstrates the way he slipped into Princeton life. It is not a
shack, but it is certainly not the grand houses that people have
constructed in their minds for the smartest man in the world," says
Maureen Smyth, assistant director/curator at the Historical Society of
The unpretentious house helped him maintain his privacy, and so did
the townspeople. "Princeton was a good place for him to land," says
Smyth. Eager visitors looking for Einstein’s house were sometimes
given vague answers. "People attempted to shield him and his household
members from intruders."
"He really kept to his work. He was no hermit, but most of the people
he interacted with were from the Institute, with whom he discussed
science, literature, music, and philosophy. He also gravitated to
people who had had to escape Nazi persecution, whether they were
Jewish, or intellectuals, or vocal about their opposition to the Nazi
party," says Smyth. "Speaking in German was easiest for him; he did
not exhibit a high level of comfort with English."
As for the former contents of the house, we turn to Gillett Griffin,
an art collector and librarian who was a frequent visitor to the
household several years before Einstein died in 1955. Griffin
describes the furnishings as "sort of frumpy middle class European
furniture, mostly late 19th century, no real antiques." The best piece
of art in the house, he said, was a St. Francis statue sculpted by
Einstein’s stepdaughter Margot. He also remembers a linocut of Gandhi,
whom Einstein admired, and some Japanese prints "but not really good
Einstein, Griffin explains, "wasn’t a bit visually interested in much
of anything. His mind was on the planets of the universe, stars, or
ice crystals, whatever. I don’t think he really cared about art per
Griffin worked as librarian at Princeton University and as did
Einstein’s good friend, Johanna Fantova, so he was invited over to
dinner one evening. At that time, in the early 1950s, Einstein seldom
went out of the house.
Griffin is an amiable man, known for being easy to get along with and
able to tell entertaining stories. "I have a sense of humor," explains
Griffin. "And he was not being threatened. He was not being used."
Griffin was invited back but did not gossip about his experiences, not
even keeping a diary, because he feared that would be an invasion of
the family’s privacy.
He became a regular in the household.
That first night, Griffin says, he kept quiet. "What do you say to the
greatest man of the century if not the millennium? The answer is
nothing. i have large ears so i decided to listen."
"One of the things that worked the first time I was there is that we
enjoyed the same composers. At that time there were few performances
of Vivaldi, and he was surprised that I knew about Vivaldi."
Also on that first evening, he offered to help the three women dry the
dishes. Einstein was on his way upstairs and chided him, "In Europe,
men don’t do the dishes." Griffin helped anyway, which apparently
sealed his favor with the ladies.
He functioned as a defacto court jester – ready with a quip or a pun,
affable and entertaining, but close-mouthed to outsiders. But now he
On etiquette. "A story that he and Margot told is that, when they were
invited to a stuffy affair, they sat next to an archbishop or some
kind of high prelate. On each plate was an orchid. The nearsighted
prelate began eating his orchids, thinking that was what they did in
this country. Both Einsteins began eating their orchids to make him
feel at ease."
On a gift gone wrong: "When he had his 75th birthday the Institute
wanted to show its respect and, knowing full well that he liked live
music, gave him a hifi set (the top of the line electronics of that
era). So I decided to give him a record, Bach Cantata # 70. But the
next time I saw him he looked very cool and removed. ‘Why did you give
this to me?’ he asked." Griffin says he did not realize the German
libretto was strongly evangelical. "He thought I was trying to convert
him to Christianity."
On Einstein’s last birthday, when Helen Dukas brought in "wheelbarrow
loads" of birthday cards. Two were memorable. "One lady in the midwest
said pretty soon he would be hearing themes in hell. Another, from a
Catholic priest that he had known in Rome, hoped that he didn’t mind
that he was saying prayers to the Virgin Mary, that after all she was
a nice Jewish girl. Dukas never saved any of those letters."
A graduate of the Yale School of Fine Arts, Class of 1951, Griffin
began to be interested in "old things" at age 14. "And now I am one,"
His grandparents had a ladies shoe factory in New England, and his
father retired when the shoe business was wiped out. He grew up in
Greenwich, Connecticut, and flouted the family’s expectations that he
would go into business. For most of his life, he worked at Firestone
Library, where the salaries were notoriously low, and he had no help
from his parents, though he did inherit some money when they died in
Throughout, he has been an avid and remarkably successful collector.
Over a 50-year period Griffin acquired one of the greatest collections
in the world of Mesoamerican and Andean treasures, which he is
donating to the Princeton University Art Museum, with no strings
attached. Of the Einstein artifacts, most are going to the Historical
Society of Princeton except for the Johanna Fantova collection, which
has been given to Firestone Library.
Fantova was Griffin’s fellow employee at the library. "After Einstein
died Johanna Fantova came to me. He talked to her every night on the
telephone and read Goethe or discussed what he was thinking. He wrote
her little notes or poems." Griffin believes that Einstein wrote these
things as an insurance policy for her. "He gave her the only copy of
the unified field theory outside Israel. She asked if I would buy all
those little notes to her. We got the two finest manuscript dealers,
and they came up with similar evaluations, and I paid her the maximum
amount, with the understanding that I would eventually give them to
the University library, but that they could not be looked at for 30
years after her death. The unified field theory cost $8,000 which I
couldn’t afford at that time."
To read these notes "is fascinating, because you are contacting the
mind of a very great man in his last days. Boswell was removed from
Johnson, and Pepys was making observations, but here you are talking
to a great man and sharing everyday thoughts."
Griffin wrote the liner notes for the Columbia Records recording of
the concert given in memory of Einstein on December 17, 1955. Nicholas
Harsanyi conducted an ensemble then known as the Princeton Symphony,
and Robert Casadeseus was the soloist in a program that included the
Bach Cantata # 106, the Coronation Concerto of Mozart, and the Corelli
The Art Museum of Princeton University will honor Griffin on Saturday,
May 14, with a "Gillett Griffin day." The lecturers will include
Michael Coe, former head of anthropology department at Yale, and
Elizabeth Benson of Dumbarton Oaks, Harvard’s preColumbian art,
located in Washington, D.C.
Back to the tour: The similar looking house to the left Einstein’s
house was the one used for filming IQ.
Einstein’s house is now owned and occupied by Eric S. Maskin, who
holds the Albert O. Hirschman chair in the School for Social Sciences
at the Institute for Advanced Study. A mathematician from Harvard,
Class of 1972, with a Harvard PhD, he studies economic theory,
including game theory, the economics of incentives, and social choice
theory. Maskin is frequently quoted on electoral rules and designing
Notice the gate and the sign "Private Residence," made necessary by
aggressive visitors who want their pictures taken on the porch.
Nevertheless, last Halloween the Maskin family welcomed trick-or-
treaters with a lineup of jack o’lanterns proclaiming "E = MC square."
To follow the path that Einstein walked from his home to work at the
Institute for Advanced Study, go south on Mercer Street, take the
first left on Springdale, turn right on Battle Road, and left on Olden
Lane, which dead-ends into what is now Einstein Drive.
The Institute was founded in 1930 with an endowment from Louis
Bamberger (who made his money in department stores) and his sister,
Caroline Fuld. When Einstein began looking around for a job in
America, he met the Institute’s director, Abraham Flexner. At that
point the Institute had no campus; the initial office would be at 20
In May, 1933, after Einstein had accepted the appointment at the
Institute but before he had left England, Flexner wrote to Einstein
about the Institute’s progress: "You will see that we are doing what
we started out to do, getting together a group of distinguished
persons, placing them under ideal conditions for their own work and
associating with them in an informal way younger men who from time to
time may enjoy advice and aid."
In this 75th anniversary year, the director, Peter Goddard, notes with
pride that unlike many academic institutions, the Institute’s ethos
and culture have not changed in the last 30 years.
The researcher who occupies Einstein’s former office declines to be
named nor to have the office’s location noted, and the two busts of
Einstein that the Institute owns are in areas open only to members.
But you can walk in Einstein’s probable footsteps in the Institute
Woods – a 500-acre nature reserve that is an important stop-over point
for songbirds. By May a map of the woods will again be available from
the reception desk in Fuld Hall (the maps were out of stock at press
Founders Day, set for May 20, will feature a series of lectures
throughout the day that celebrate the Institute’s founding as well as
Albert Einstein. They will include talks on the three principal areas
of Einstein’s four papers of 1905 by current members in the School of
Natural Sciences: Philip Argyres on "Special Relativity," Simeon
Hellerman on "Brownian Motion and the Atomic Theory" and Graham Kribs
on "The Photoelectric Effect."
The tour continues with a viewing of the new statue, a bust of
Einstein sculpted by the internationally known Robert Berks, on a
granite column. (Suggested parking behind Borough Hall on Monument
The bust is taken from the 12-foot Einstein Millennium Monument done
by Berks five years ago for the Israel Academy of Arts Sciences and
Humanities in Jerusalem. Berks also did the 24-foot Einstein
Centennial Monument on the grounds of the National Academy of Sciences
in Washington, D.C., which has become the third most photographed
memorial in the national capitol. Endless numbers of inner city
children have their picture taken there at graduation.
The memorial is a first, for Princeton. For years the town battled
over whether the great man would have wanted a statue. The anti-statue
contingent took strength from the wishes of Einstein’s stepdaughter,
Margot, who left the house to the Institute with the restriction that
it not be turned into a museum or a public site. Resistance was also
fueled by the lack of funds.
"For a long time we had to deal with the myth that Einstein, in his
will, had forbidden any memorial, museum, or public acknowledgement of
his existence," says the historical society’s Smyth. "A few years ago
we finally acquired a copy of his will from the state and read it;
there is no language dealing with those issues."
Melvin A. Benarde, of the Einstein Fund of Princeton New Jersey,
spearheaded the drive to get this memorial, and publicist Dana
Lichtstrahl – believing the adage, nothing ventured, nothing gained –
had the presence of mind to ask the sculptor if he would donate his
services. Berks and his wife Tod, who handles the business aspects of
the work, readily agreed, because they felt it would make his life
come full circle, according to Robert Landau, who relates this story
Berks was commissioned to do a sculpture of Einstein in the early
1950s. He made a few sketches on the first day and planned to mold the
clay on the second day. But when Berks arrived, Einstein had just
taken a shower, and his hair was flat against his head. "There was no
way he could start sculpting," says Landau. "He made small talk for 15
or 20 minutes, stalling for time, wondering what he was going to do.
At which point Einstein ran his fingers through his hair several time.
And the hair was back. The coiffeur that had been flattened by the
shower had been blown out by his fingers. Berks was thrilled to be
given this opportunity."
With the Robert Berks Foundation donating the $150,000 head, and the
Italian granite being donated by Danny Vogia of Trenton-based
Stone-Tech Fabrication Inc., the Einstein Fund raised $35,000 to pay
for the engraving (by William Farrell of Abby Rose Inc. of Yardville),
plus the infrastructure, foundation, and installation. More than half
of this sum was donated by Dr. and Mrs. Stanley Levy of Bloomfield,
Michigan. Levy went to Princeton University, Class of 1947, and as a
student he had had a Passover dinner with Einstein and has long been a
supporter of a town memorial.
As a finale, walk up from the statue to lunch at the Peacock Inn on
Route 206 (Bayard Lane), which now has an elegant restaurant. Einstein
stayed there on October 17, 1933, when he had just arrived in
The Einstein family then moved to temporary quarters at 2 Library
Place (on the corner of Mercer Street) until the Mercer Street house
became available. In 1934 Elsa Einstein, Einstein’s second wife, wrote
that "we have settled down really well. The place is charming,
altogether different from the rest of America." The Library Place
house was "especially beautiful – very large, airy, comfortable,
exceptionally well situated right in the center of old park grounds.
Here, everything is tinged with Englishness – downright Oxford style."
A less expensive lunch can be found at the Frist student center on
Washington Road. Frist almost adjoins the building where Einstein had
his first office in Princeton (before the Institute was built). At
that time it was called Fine Hall; now it is called Jones Hall.
As an alternative, take a picnic lunch out to Carnegie Lake on Route
27 enroute to Kingston. Maybe you will be lucky enough to see a
sailboat similar to Einstein’s boat, named "Tinef" (German for
"worthless thing." Einstein called sailing "the sport that demands the
least energy" and reportedly refused to carry a life jacket on board,
though he could not swim.
According to Ze’ev Rosenkranz in "The Einstein Scrapbook," sailing
"allowed Einstein to lose himself in thought while the wind carried
him along. He was not interested in speed or competition. He was
delighted when there was a lull and the boat came to a standstill or
ran aground. He would often keep a notebook at hand, scribbling away
at scientific calculations when the sea was calm."
Where is Einstein’s old desk from Fine Hall? Good question. The desk
was taken to Nassau Hall in the late 1960s, according to Robert A.
Winters (Princeton University, Class of 1935, now a resident at Meadow
Lakes), who reports the following to the Princeton Alumni Weekly:
"I heard that the furniture in Fine was to be thrown out, but I felt
Einstein’s desk ought to be preserved," wrote Winters. At that time he
was assistant to the chairman of the physics department. "So I went
into his old office, removed the desk, and had it taken to the office
of Dean of the Faculty Aaron Lemonick ’54, in Nassau Hall. I also had
a brass plaque made and installed on the back stating that the desk
had been used by both Einstein and Nobel physicist Eugene Wigner. I
once heard a professor say that Dean Lemonick liked to invite people
into his office, sit them down facing the desk, then reveal that it
had been used by Einstein and Wigner. It overwhelmed them from the
When Lemonick left the dean’s job, he took the desk back to the
physics department. After he died his son Michael (a science writer
for Time magazine) notified the department, and it has been put on
storage. A university spokesperson says that it is being worked on "to
Where is Einstein’s brain? One of the big news stories for 1978 was
when Steven Levy of the New Jersey Monthly found Einstein’s brain in
Wichita, Kansas, the home of Thomas Harvey, the Princeton Hospital
pathologist who had done Einstein’s autopsy. Harvey showed Levy the
brain, cut into 240 sections and floating in embalming fluid. The
fragments were divided between two Tupperware lettuce crispers.
Subsequent research found that Einstein’s brain weighed less than that
of the average male and that it had more glial cells for every
neuron. Arguably this meant that the neurons needed and used more
energy, which resulted in better thinking abilities and conceptual
skills. The density of the neurons was greater, but the space they
occupied (the cerebral cortex) was thinner than average, which meant
that his neurons were packed in more tightly. In the area on the right
and left parietal lobes, where mathematical talent and spatial
reasoning are thought to reside, Einstein’s brain had an unusual
pattern of "sulci" or grooves. Compared to an average brain, his was
15 percent wider.
Since 1996 the brain has resided at Princeton Hospital in the care of
Elliot Krauss, chief pathologist, who hopes that future gene
technology will offer important insights on the biological basis of
the great man’s intelligence.
A favorite way to end a sightseeing tour is to buy a book. Both
Micawber Books at 114 Nassau Street and the Princeton University Store
at 36 University Place boast extensive Einstein collections. Here are
some recent favorites.
Einstein for Beginners, Joseph Schwartz & Michael McGinness,
(paperback, $11, Random House, 2003). If you aim to understand a
smidgen of the theory of relativity this audacious and droll book,
with its line drawings and characters, will be your guide. It explains
the fine points of math and takes the human factor into account.
The Einstein Almanac, Alice Calaprice (hardcover, $24.95, Johns
Hopkins University Press, 2005). This timeline for the first half of
the 20th century juxtaposes the facts of Einstein’s life and summaries
of his papers and letters with concurrent cultural trends and
scientific discoveries. An attractive and ideal reference, it makes
fascinating browsing or just plain good reading.
The New Quotable Einstein, collected and edited by Alice Calaprice
with a foreword by Freeman Dyson (paperback, $14.95, Princeton
University Press, 2005). Einstein genuinely liked writing letters, and
the typed, filed, and preserved copies were a research trove. Dyson
writes, "Einstein emerges from this collection of quotes, drawn from
many different sources, as a complete and fully rounded human being. .
. Knowledge of the darker side of Einstein’s life makes his
achievement in science and in public affairs even more miraculous.
This book shows him as he was – not a superhuman genius but a human
genius, and all the greater for being human."
An Einstein Scrapbook, Ze’ev Rosenkranz (hardbound, $24.95, 200 pages,
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002). Though it qualifies as a
"coffee table" book this beautifully designed volume is a trove of
archival photographs, drawing, letters, and other memorabilia.
Footnote: The U-Store has four programs remaining in the spring series
of its "Einstein’s Miraculous Year" programs: Michelle Feynman’s book
on Richard Feynman on Saturday, April 16, at 2 p.m.; Rebecca Goldstein
on Kurt Godel on Thursday, April 21, at 7 p.m.; Jennet Conant on
Robert Oppenheimer on Wednesday, May 4, at 7 p.m., and Michio Kaku on
Einstein’s Cosmos on Saturday, May 28, at 11 a.m.
Those who pay a one-time lifetime fee of $25 get a 10 percent discount
on general books. But the U-Store coyly reveals, in the program
brochure, Einstein was a U-Store member, and that if you know his
U-Store membership number you can get his discount. The number is
— Barbara Fox
Corrections or additions?
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