The Kidnapping of Albert Einstein*


H. Allen Smith

Einstein looks for a Meter-Miser on the night he was kidnapped.
Carpenter Suite
Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York, NY
March 17, 1933 ??
Photo from To Hell In A Handbasket


WebPost Note: This story is divided into three parts. The first part is about the media and mass interviews. The second part is about Albert Einstein's December 1930 interview aboard the liner Belgenland in New York. H. Allen Smith was a United Press reporter in attendance at that interview. He writes about the interview and the intense media interest it attracted. The third part is about an incident that took place at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel from which the title of this story derives.

SEVERAL YEARS AGO Erwin D. Canham, editor of the Christian Science Monitor, made the following statement: "In an era of great technical changes, there have been less in the newspaper field than in almost any other." A real bum sentence, but the meaning is there.

Mr. Canham should have gone a step further and considered the editorial end of the newspaper field, thusly: there have been less changes in the gathering of news than in the technical department. There has been, in fact, a distinct deterioration in the whole field of news gathering. Everyone is aware of this except one small group_the keen minded, alert, energetic people of the press.

I have many things in mind but I'll be content to dwell on just one_the preposterous farce of the mass interview. The mob scenes of today are plainly a national scandal. I see them from time to time on television and then, once again, rush right out and apply for membership in the dogs. Scores and even hundreds of newspaper reporters, press photographers, radio and television reporters, technicians of one kind or another_all these and more converge on the airport or the railroad station or aboard ship to greet the arriving celebrity. The thing is pure senseless pandemonium from the word go. Nobody really gets anything in the way of news_save for an account of the obscene spectacle itself. The reporters screech questions and shove each other around, the photographers howl curses at one another and at the reporters, and if the person who is getting all this attention has anything important to say, he wouldn't be heard if he did say it. The entire operation defeats its own purpose and month by month it grows worse. The police can't do anything about it, a policeman who roughs up a newspaper reporter stands a good chance of being busted to stool pigeon. In fact, not long ago in one of these journalistic mob scenes a policeman, trying to protect Marilyn Monroe from being hurt, got a television wire wrapped round his neck and was almost lynched in a sidewise direction; he had to be treated for his injuries in a hospital. I have not heard of any steps being taken by the sagacious overlords of the American press to do something about mass interviews. Only one thing could be done, barring whiffs of grapeshot. Such stories should be covered under an arrangement which we used to call "syndication." Let three or four reporters, representing different shades of opinion, be chosen for the assignment, along with one press photographer and one TV unit and one radio unit. Then let everybody share in the results. The way it is now nobody is likely to get any exclusive news_so why all the insane competitiveness over nothing? But do you think the press would ever hear of such syndication? They'd scream bloody murder, and wave the flag, and howl about freedom of the press.

Stop me, somebody. Don't let me go on. I may kill.

In my newspaper experience there was only one mass interview that bore any close resemblance to the insane, inane, frenzied things they put on today. That was the arrival of Dr. Albert Einstein in New York harbor on a December day in 1930, aboard the liner Belgenland. The usual small group of shipnews reporters attended, but in addition there were more than a hundred others. Each newspaper and each press association sent several reporters, and quite a few magazines had writers present. Also there were advertising agency men who had wangled cutter passes and who hoped they could get the most famous man in the world to endorse hats, violins, shaving cream, a disinfectant, neckties, and hair oil. Deodorants weren't talked about much in those days.

Carl Groat, who spoke fluent German, led the United Press group which included Joe Alex Morris and me. The screaming and yelling began as we swarmed aboard the Belgenland in what one historian, covering a lot of territory, called "one of the zaniest performances in the history of the press."

The gentle cow-eyed Einstein was brought into a lounge and was surrounded at once by this screaming, clawing, shoving mob. None of us, apparently, had any true notion of his achievement, although there was one dedicated science writer who climbed onto a piano and at the top of his voice read off a two-hundred word hypothetical question concerning the curvature of space. When he finished it, he cried out: "Dr. Einstein, do you agree?" The great physicist replied: "Agree? I don't even know what you are talking about."

Mr. Groat, the man who mooed his "moos" so mellifluously back in the office, was standing on a delicate little gold chair, crying out a question in German. Gott im Himmel couldn't have heard it over the din. Everyone seemed to be yelling at once. Some shouted in German, some in Yiddish, some in English, and a few whooped their questions in what may have been high Dutch of low quality. At one point Dr. Einstein turned to his wife and said in German: "They are like a pack of hungry wolves."

Above the roar of the mob it was still possible to distinguish some of the questions being yelped at the scientist. Many of the reporters had been instructed by their city editors to ask specific questions. Some of them had been told to demand of Einstein a brief and simple explanation of his theories. One young man kept yelling that he wanted relativity explained in ten words. Another was shouting over and over, "What is bent space?" And the benign Doctor finally spoke a mathematical truism. "A cow," he said, "can give only a certain quantity of milk at a stated time."

A momentary lull followed this remark, as if the eye of a hurricane was passing over, and then a reporter leveled a finger at Einstein and shouted: "Is space here?" The question was quickly translated, and only served to perplex the scientist more deeply, for he murmured, "In his finger does he mean?"

A few fist fights broke out between photographers and reporters. The photographers, charged that the reporters were hogging Einstein, by crowding so closely around him. The reporters replied that relatively was one hell of an important thing, and getting the final, authoritative word on it was more imperative than getting a picture of a man.

When the ship finally reached its pier the press swarmed ashore, eager to get to telephones and typewriters. But not all of them. There were three or four reporters who were told to get answers to their questions if it took a week. So all afternoon and evening they camped at the entrance to the Einstein stateroom. Whenever the door was opened an inch or two they would throw themselves against it and scream through the crack:

"Give us relativity in one sentence! What's the fourth dimension? Define space in five words! How do you split an atom?"

The good gray professor was unable to leave the ship until the following day. Whenever I have thought back to it, I have been just a little ashamed about our behavior that day because Albert Einstein was not the kind of man who should have been subjected to such indignities. He was a fine and dignified and wonderful old guy, as the people of Princeton came to know. They still talk about how they used to encounter him walking along the streets of the university town eating an ice cream cone. Strawberry. And Jack Dempsey tells about the time he went into a Princeton drugstore to get something for an inflamed eye. He noticed a white-haired old man in the back of the store, trying earnestly to make a Yo-yo work. Dempsey thought for a moment he would go back and show the old guy how to operate the Yo-yo. Then he saw who it was. "Imagine me," said Dempsey, "trying to teach Einstein anything!"

Once in a syndicated column I wrote a short personality sketch of Einstein concluding with some observations about his childlike good nature and mentioning that I would enjoy understanding his theory. I got letters from two dozen different states written by people who said they understood it and were willing to tell me all about it. One man, a Mr. F.P. O'Hare of St. Louis, wrote nineteen pages, single-spaced. After discussing politics, religion, the Rock Island railroad, and his own life story, Mr. O'Hare explained the Einstein theory. He said it had something to do with onion skins.

"Consider," he wrote, "the electric bulb burning over your desk. Consider this bulb surrounded by onion skins, each skin representing a surface around the bulb where the intensity of the light is equal. Now introduce another burning bulb into the room. The room has transparent, non-reflecting walls. There are now two onion skins . . ."

That's enough of it. I could go on quoting Mr. O'Hare indefinitely but I think the Einstein Onion Skin Theory is quite clear, or clear enough, at this point. Anyway, I prefer Joe Alex Morris' explanation. Mr. Morris wrote a book titled What a Year! which had to do with 1929 and in this book he gave the world a simplified analysis of relativity. The trouble seems to be that people don't realize that Einstein first had to formulate a general theory that included gravitation as determiner of the curvature of a space-time continuum and represented gravitation as a field rather than a force. It is necessary to have a clear understanding of that in order to appreciate what happened in 1929, when Dr. Einstein found a key to the formulation of a unified field theory, a group of equations applicable not only to gravitation but also to electromagnetic and subatomic phenomena. That's what Joe Alex Morris said. I remember once when he was going off on an assignment to Europe and some of us gave a small dinner for him in a Manhattan restaurant and everyone got to feeling real frisky and Joe decided to explain the Einstein theory to us. He stood up, holding a loaf of Italian bread in his hand as if it were a torch. He waggled the loaf of bread to get our attention and then cried out, "This folks, is an imponderable object. God damn it, will you pay attention? This is an imponderable object!" I don't remember the rest of it, if there was any more.

At last I seem to be approaching the crux of this chapter_the story of the kidnapping of Albert Einstein. It occurred during a visit subsequent to the one in which we interviewed him on the Belgenland. In that period Dr. Einstein was, in the mind of almost everyone, far and away the greatest man in the world_perhaps even the greatest in the history of the world. He was so towering in his importance that many people stood in awe of him, as if he were some tremendous natural wonder (which indeed he was). Some people were actually afraid to touch him.

They gave a birthday dinner in his honor one evening in the grand ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria and I attended it, sitting at the press table. It was not very exciting and after a while I remembered that my friend Jim Irwin had telephoned me and asked me to pay him a visit at the Waldorf.

James W. Irwin was a handsome public relations man whose clients were usually top-rung industrial corporations. Today he has his own company in Chicago. I first knew him when he arrived in Denver to work as assistant publisher of the Post, directly under Bonfils. He was and still is a brisk, vigorous, forceful personality and at the time of which I now write, he was head of public relations for the Frigidaire Division of General Motors. He had come to New York to promote a thing called the Meter-Miser, which was attached to the new Frigidaire models. It mised meters. Jim had a dozen refrigerators set up in the Carpenter Suite at the Waldorf and he was alerting the New York press to the approaching miracle of the Meter-Miser.

Sitting that evening at the Einstein dinner I recalled the Irwin invitation and so I crept away from the press table and went to the Carpenter Suite where I found Mr. Irwin alone with his iceboxes. He broke out a bottle and we had a couple of drinks. Then I went back to the banquet, just to check, and everything seemed in order, and so I returned to Mr. Irwin. We sat around a while longer and finally Jim said:

"What's that thing you said you were covering?"

"Einstein," I said. "Big blowout for Einstein in the grand ballroom."

"Here," said Mr. Irwin. "Have another one. Now, I've got an idea. Why don't you go down there and get Einstein and bring him up here and let him have a look at our Meter-Miser."

I laughed. Evilly. Sneeringly.

"No," he said, "I'm serious. You could do it."

"Maybe," I said, "but I wouldn't be dope enough to try it."

"Why not?" he urged. "You'd have yourself a much better story than you'll ever get out of a banquet. Here, have another one."

I had another one, and Mr. Irwin kept talking, and he has always been a most persuasive gent. If he were not my friend I'd say he was unctuous. Anyway, he convinced me that it was worth a try. We synchronized our watches and he told me to return to the press table in the grand ballroom, wait one half hour, then try to snatch Albert Einstein away from a huge roomful of distinguished and influential New Yorkers.

We didn't have countdowns then, but we had zero hour, and when it came I got up from my chair and walked to one end of the speakers' table, which was a mile and a half long. I went behind the people sitting at that table and trudged along until I reached the center, and there sat The Greatest Man in the World. I leaned over his shoulder and said:

"Dr. Einstein, would you mind coming with me for just a minute?"

He jumped a little, in surprise, grunted, and turned and looked at me with a startled expression, and then said something in German. He had not understood me. So I gave him a slow tantalizing beckon. I simply held out my right hand and with my forefinger beckoned him out of his chair. He got up and nobody paid much attention as he padded along behind me, out of the big room, up a flight of stairs, and into the Carpenter Suite.

By this time Mr. Irwin had been joined by two associates. One was a photographer. The other was a Mr. Charlie Lawson, who was sales manager for Frigidaire. Mr. Irwin had quickly summoned Mr. Lawson to the scene for two reasons. The first and most important was, he wanted Mr. Lawson to see enterprise that was enterprise. And secondly, he knew that Mr. Lawson could sprecken zee doitch.

Dr. Einstein stood there in the doorway, looking around the room, a faint smile of friendliness on his face. He hadn't the faintest idea of what was going on. But Jim Irwin stepped forward, seized his hand, shook it, and said all in one breath:

"It is indeed a pleasure to make your acquaintance Professor Einstein Charlie tell him in German we want to show him the Meter-Miser and tell him what it is hey Mike get ready."

"I don't think," said Mr. Lawson, "that I can do it in German, but I'll try."

So he fired a long string of German at the Professor, who nodded occasionally, and continued looking around the room. Then they walked him up to one of the refrigerators and before long they had The Greatest Man in the World down on all fours. It's the truth. Dr. Einstein was down on the floor looking at machinery and Mr. Lawson was there with him trying to explain the Meter-Miser Theory in German., and the photographer was banging away.

I just stood off to one side, fascinated by the whole thing, astounded at what I had done, and then I began to get frightened. Those people downstairs. My God, they'd tear me limb from limb. I told Mr. Irwin that I had to get the Professor back to his people. I said right now. I said I didn't want any gott ver dammitee argument. I said I had done my part and he had got his man and he had got his pictures and that was enough. He said certainly, and I seized Dr. Einstein by the arm and hauled him out of there and took him back to the ballroom. I didn't go in with him. I just brought him up through the wings and gave him a little push into the alleyway back of the speakers' table. He started for his chair and then stopped, and turned back, and gave me a nice smile. After that he resumed his journey to the Seat of Honor.

There was a lively aftermath which I didn't know about until 1961. That night I telephoned a story in to the United Press about how Einstein had been lured away from his birthday dinner to look at the Meter-Miser, and how he had been photographed on his hands and knees. The story arrived late in the office and only a few paragraphs made the wires. These paragraphs appeared in the newspapers, however, and the next day there was trouble.

Mr. Irwin tells me that Bernard Baruch heard about the kidnapping and the picture-taking. Mr. Baruch was a warm friend of Einstein and telephoned him and found out it was all true. Then he called Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., at that time president of General Motors. Mr. Sloan called the president of Frigidaire. Those icebox pictures of Albert Einstein were not to be released. And now Mr. Irwin was called on the carpet. He had to ceremoniously, in person, destroy the negatives of those Einstein pictures in the presence of Frigidaire's big brass. And he would have been canned from his job except for one man_the same Alfred P. Sloan Jr. Mr. Sloan never said so, but the chances are he was secretly pleased with the enterprise shown by Mr. Irwin, for a short time later he gave Mr. Irwin a big fat promotion.

As for me, I have but one faint consolation_one real pleasant remembrance out of those shameful proceedings. I have heard that Dr. Einstein hated banquets, and especially banquets given in his honor. When the invitations came he used to say to his wife, "It is feeding time at the zoo again." So I can only believe that the good-by smile he gave me that night was a smile of gratitude. For a mere ten or fifteen minutes I had taken him away from an unpleasant atmosphere. To his way of thinking, even looking at a Meter-Miser was more fun than looking at all those faces in the grand ballroom.

*Reprinted from To Hell In A Handbasket Copyright © 1962 by H. Allen Smith.

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