March 17, 2021

Walking with Einstein: A Tale of Two Birthdays

By Stuart Mitchner

Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.

—Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

Reading that quote from a 1930 letter from Einstein to his son Eduard, I had an absurd early-20th-century vision of myself delivering Town Topics on a bicycle. Even more absurd, my route comprised the two streets we lived on during our first decade in Princeton. In reality, this would mean riding a bicycle across town from Patton Avenue to Hodge Road. Every Wednesday. While there have been times when I needed to do the honors for our current street, that was from a car. What makes the old-fashioned paper route-on-a-bicycle idea truly ridiculous is that I never met a bike I liked, and vice-versa. I honestly never really wanted or needed one, and was rarely comfortable my few times in the saddle.

Anyway, here we go. Patton Avenue, our first Princeton street, was named for the 13th president of the University, Frances Landey Patton (1843-1932), who during the Sesquicentennial Celebration in 1896 made it official, declaring that the College of New Jersey would “in all future time be known as Princeton University.’’

We lived on the top two floors of a half-stucco, half-shingled house built in the 1920s. The terror of even the bravest of paper boys, a gigantic Irish wolfhound named Troika occupied the first floor, along with his master, a stage technician at McCarter. At a yard sale advertised in Town Topics we got to know the couple next door, who performed as a duo called Smile. The wife gave piano lessons to Stalin’s granddaughter, but that’s another story I’ve told more than once before.

The most striking feature of our stretch of Patton Avenue were the sycamore trees whose roots turned the sidewalks into hazards for kids who ran before they looked, not to mention aged, bicycle-riding newsboys attempting to toss Wednesday’s paper onto porches and driveways without losing the all-important life-balance stated in Einstein’s theory.

Haunted by Faulkner

Since we spent only a year on Hickory Court, by the Choir College, I’ll head right across town to Hodge Road. On Patton Avenue, the sycamores and homes are relatively humble, while the seriously stately residences on Hodge are set well back from the street, with the oldest and most exalted members of the Princeton sycamores forming a grand archway over that most spacious thoroughfare.

If you’re a novelist, Hodge is haunted by William Faulkner, who could be seen walking there in the early 1950s while putting the finishing touches on A Fable at the home of his editor, Saxe Commins, who lived on the street behind our garage apartment, as did Hemingway biographer Carlos Baker. My fanciful delivery route replicates the one we followed on neighborhood Halloweens, back in the day when you could take your child trick-or-treating to the homes of a best-selling novelist (Peter Benchley), a former attorney general (Nicholas Katzenbach), a former undersecretary of state (George Ball), and of course your landlord, the statesmen and historian George Kennan, who describes his home in Memoirs 1950-1963 as “a comfortable, reliable and pleasant shelter … devoid of ghosts and sinister corners” but also “slightly detached … as though it did not expect us to stay forever.” 

We spent six very special years living in the little house behind George and Annelise Kennan, but, again, that’s another story I’ve already told in this space. And to be honest, I gave up on the newsboy routine after wearing myself out mind-biking from Patton to Hodge in the spirit of Einstein’s keep-moving to keep-balanced theory. So, having parked my imaginary Schwinn in front of our old Town Topics home at 4 Mercer Street, a perfect, movie-worthy small town newspaper office, I headed up Nassau to the antiquarian bookshop where I originally intended to begin this column.

Einstein Walking

At 2 a.m. Sunday we lost an hour through no fault of our own. Given this mandated undermining of the almighty moment, a reminder that the existential “now” is fluid, formless, mysterious, open to anything, I’m traveling through cosmic time zones to Thursday March 14, 1946, which happens to be the day before the day the very first timetable-sized issue of Town Topics was mailed to homes and businesses in town. But then March 14, as everyone in Princeton surely knows by now, is Albert Einstein’s birthday.   

And here he is walking, not cycling, up Nassau Street after a 67th birthday photo session at 112 Mercer with New York street photographer Fred Stein, whose book 5th Ave. would be published by Pantheon a year later. But first let’s bend time again to the early 1950s when Town Topics had moved into the building at 4 Mercer and staff members would see the familiar figure passing by the large front window, someone would stop typing and say, “There he goes!” And this being decades before March 14 became a community occasion called Pi Day, one of the more impetuous staffers might open the door and shout “Happy Birthday!”

Maintaining a good, balanced pace, Einstein has already reached the corner of Washington and Nassau, we’re back in 1946, and he’s on his way to the Parnassus Bookshop at 167 Nassau, marking the numerical coincidence with a smile and a shrug (relativity bites). The session with Fred Stein has made it a memorable 67th. Not yet known for his portraits, the photographer had been allotted a mere ten minutes of the physicist’s time, no problem, given the terms of Stein’s professional credo, “One second is all you have. You have only one chance, and that one as brief as a split second.” In fact, they ended up talking for two hours about art, politics, religion, and the elasticity of time. Einstein was intrigued by the photographer’s personal history: born in Dresden in 1909, a rabbi’s son active in anti-Nazi circles who fled to Paris in 1933 with his new wife under the pretense of taking a honeymoon; another time/space coincidence, Einstein and his wife having settled in Princeton for good in October of the same year.

Einstein On Parnassus

In his piece about Parnassus, his father’s antiquarian bookshop, which opened in 1943 and closed in 1951, Richard Francis Fleck says his most striking boyhood memory is of the day Albert Einstein walked into the store in his stocking feet (leaving his shoes outside), headed for the poetry alcove, and sat down on an ox-horn stool with a volume of Rainer Maria Rilke’s verse. Fleck imagines that the poem he read was “A Walk,” a choice that accords nicely with my focus on Einstein’s perambulations. In Robert Bly’s translation, the poem begins, “My eyes already touch the sunny hill / going far beyond the road I have begun. / So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp; / it has its inner light, even from a distance” and “changes us, even if we do not reach it, / into something else, which hardly sensing it, we already are.”

The poem’s closing line, “but what we feel is the wind in our faces” reminds me of American Scholar editor Hiram Haydn’s response to seeing Einstein in person: “There was light coming out of his face.”

The Most Beautiful Emotion

According to his biographer Walter Isaacson, Einstein looked “even more like a prophet” in his later years, “with his hair getting longer, his eyes a bit sadder and more weary.” In a photograph from the biography, Einstein is walking toward the camera, on his way home from his office in Fuld Hall. Looking careworn and thoughtful, he’s clad in a rumpled overcoat with a briefcase under his arm, a knit cap on his head, tufts of white hair poking out on either side.

But Fred Stein’s birthday portrait actually comes closer to the man who said in What I Believe that the “most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious” — as long as the beauty of the mystery “is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose sublimity reaches us only indirectly: this is religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I am a devoutly religious man.”

When I try to visualize Einstein walking, I usually see him making his way through the heart of the Witherspoon-Jackson neighborhood toward the hospital where he will die on April 18, 1955. Legend has it that people on porches would smile and wave as he passed by.

Possibly the most mysterious and musical and ungraspable image of Einstein walking comes from onetime Princeton resident Ashley Montague. During his first visit to 112 Mercer Street, Montague pictures Einstein gliding toward him from the far end of a long corridor “in a sort of un-deliberate dance. It was enchanting, as if Einstein were walking on air. It was maybe the way someone else might whistle as they moved. He danced. He seemed somehow to be expressing his love of music as he moved.”

I consulted Denis Brian’s The Unexpected Einstein: The Real Man Behind the Icon (Wiley), Walter Isaacson’s biography, Einstein: His Life and Universe (Simon & Schuster). I found Richard Francis Fleck’s “Memories of Parnassus Bookshop” on HubPages’ “Remembering Princeton.” The birthday photo taken by Fred Stein is the one shown here, on the cover of Ideas and Opinions (Crown), a collection of Einstein’s writings.