It’s pretty well known by locals here that Albert Einstein enjoyed a summer on the East End. The year was 1939, he was 60 years old and well past his most creative period where his thinking turned some of Newton’s Laws of Physics upside down. He had come out from Princeton that year when the school year ended. He rented a small cottage with a screened-in front porch on Nassau Point in Southold, right on the water, and he spent most of his time sailing his little 15-foot sailboat in the Bay and otherwise enjoying the country air. He was accompanied by his longtime secretary Miss Dukas, and he was happy to entertain family and friends from time to time there.
David Rothman, the owner of Rothman’s Department Store on Main Street in Southold, became a friend of Einstein that summer and he later wrote a wonderful memoir about it. Einstein came to play his violin as part of a classical music string quartet that Rothman and some of his friends held every Thursday evening in one another’s homes. Sometimes Rothman would come to work to find Einstein taking a nap, asleep on a sofa in the little office at the back of the store. Einstein had just stopped by to say hello. He told Rothman he envied the gentle family life that Rothman enjoyed—Rothman’s wife and son worked in the store. (Rothman’s grandson and his great grandson work there today.) Einstein had never been a big success with relationships with women. He also had not been particularly good with his children. He had been almost totally focused on his work, and indeed he continued in that manner, not only out at the cottage that summer, but right up until the end of his life.
An account of Einstein’s summer at Nassau Point gets a brief mention in the fascinating biography of the great scientist, Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson, published five years ago, and in reading this biography, I learned that this was not the only time Einstein had been on the East End.
Einstein had left Germany in 1933, forced out by a nighttime raid on his home by Nazi thugs shortly after Hitler came to power. The thugs were looking for weapons, they said. They found a kitchen knife. They’d be back. Einstein and his wife at the time, Elsa, got the message. There was no place for Jews in Nazi Germany. They left on the next boat for America, fortunately for them. If they had not, they would have died in the concentration camps a few years later.
Einstein took a position at Princeton and would remain there for the rest of his life. Summers, with the academic year over, he would go up with his sailboat to Saranac Lake in upstate New York, or as he did in 1939, come out to Southold.
Why Southold? No one really knows. But it’s possible he chose Southold for that one year because of its isolation. He and Elsa (and Einstein’s secretary Miss Dukas) had made many friends in Saranac Lake in the years prior. But now many of Einstein’s friends in Germany had been arrested and in December 1936, his wife had died in Princeton of heart and kidney problems. These things affected him greatly. It would be just him in Southold with loyal Miss Dukas taking care of him.
For the next summer, however, it was back to Saranac Lake. (From Princeton, Einstein had written Rothman to thank him for his friendship and hospitality and to ask him to arrange for his little sailboat to be shipped there.)
Einstein’s other visit to the East End came about in the summer of 1941, six months before Pearl Harbor and after almost two years of the war raging in Europe. It came about because Einstein, over his grief, had once again fallen in love.
It had come about like this. As you might have imagined, the arrival of the great scientist from Germany to Princeton was a great coup for that institution. His great work, as I said, had been done years before when he was in his late 20s while working at a Swiss Patent Office. He was one of the most famous men in the world. And Princeton often showcased Einstein in one way or another, something which Einstein secretly enjoyed as long as it didn’t get out of hand.
In 1965, the University commissioned the great Russian sculptor Sergei Konenkov, to make a statue of Einstein. Einstein would sit for the early sketches in his home for Konenkov.
As it happened, Konenkov arrived with his wife Margarita Konenkova for these sessions, and, as it happened, sparks flew between Margarita and Albert. According to Isaacson’s account, it appears that Margarita was quite the bohemian lady in her time. She was well-traveled, amusing, a lawyer who spoke five languages and very smart. Her husband, apparently, let her do what Margarita was going to do. Which, eventually included an invitation for Einstein. How would he like to come out to a house on eastern Long Island with her and some friends for the weekend? Sergei would be busy with his work in the city. But they’d have a picnic and swim and have a dinner with her friends—who had been invited out to someone’s summer home—and who were fine if Einstein were to come along.
According to Isaacson, Margarita was surprised when Einstein accepted. At the time, she was 46. He was 63. And so they went. The house was along the shore in Setauket on Long Island Sound and the result of this weekend was the beginning of an affair Einstein had with her that lasted for four years, right up until the time that the war ended. Indeed, there are photographs of her and Einstein taken back up in Saranac Lake where Einstein apparently felt comfortable introducing her around as his new companion in subsequent years.
As it happened, in the late 1990s, some researchers came upon a treasure trove of love letters that Einstein wrote to Margarita after they broke up—because she had returned to Moscow. They were passionate letters of how he missed her. By that time Einstein was 66. The fires still burned brightly.
In another section of Isaacson’s book, Margarita Konenkova comes up again. It has to do with the attention that Einstein, the celebrity, had come to receive from the FBI. Even during the war, when the Russians and the Americans were supposedly friends, the FBI was monitoring Einstein because they believed, erroneously, he might be working with Russian agents against the United States. Isaacson reports that in later years, it was found that the FBI had been tailing Einstein, making reports about him and otherwise keeping him under surveillance from the time of his arrival in 1933 to his death in 1955. As you know, FBI files can be opened to the general public because of “Freedom of Information” requirements. Isaacson tells us that the files on Einstein totaled 1,427 pages all stamped “confidential” and stored in 14 boxes. None of it in any way confirmed that Einstein had had any illicit contact with the Russians.
But, says Isaacson, the FBI missed something that was going on right in front of their noses. In 1945, Einstein spent an hour visiting the Soviet Vice Consul at his office in Manhattan Later, after the war, a Soviet spy named Pavlov Sudoplatov wrote a memoir saying that Margarita reported to him with a code name Lukas. There is nothing in any of the files about Einstein’s visit to the Vice Consul.
Nor was there any real explanation in Isaacson’s book about the visit, except to suggest that the visit was just incidental. In all Einstein’s writings, including in his love letters to Konenkova, he remarks that he is no fan of Stalin’s Soviet.
Having learned all this from Isaacson’s book, I thought to research this further to see if I could find out why Einstein had visited the Soviet official. With Google’s help, I think I found out.
Konenkova developed a yearning during those war years to return to Moscow. Whatever the reason, she did visit with her superior, Vice Consul Mikhailov, who told her he wouldn’t provide her the papers that would allow her to return to Moscow. She pleaded with him. And finally he relented, but on one condition. He would do it if she could arrange for him to meet the famous Albert Einstein. And so that’s why Einstein met with him—to help his girlfriend go home.
I found Isaacson’s book about Einstein to be one of the most powerful reading experiences ever. After finishing that book, I bought his new biography, which remains as No. 1 best seller on The New York Times list today, which is his biography of Steven Jobs.
But I never got over thinking about Einstein and Southold – it was that summer (1939) that at the urging of several Princeton scientists who came out here that Einstein signed a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt urging him to create a research facility to invent an atomic bomb before the Germans did – and I never got over the 1,427 pages of reports in 14 files that the FBI collected about this man.
And so, having finished this book, I decided to contact the FBI, cite the freedom of information act, and ask them to release the files they have about ME.
I had never thought to do this before. I have friends who have made this request, and who have found out all sorts of things about themselves from the effort. The FBI, particularly under Herbert Hoover during those years, was all over the place looking for subversives for years and years.
As for me, I was born in August 1939, in the middle of that very time that Einstein was sailing on Peconic Bay. In the 1960s I founded Dan’s Papers as a summer newspaper, but in the winter I was very active in the anti-war movement in New York City. I was, in 1965, one of the founders of New York City’s first underground newspaper, The East Village Other. I’ve traveled widely, including to the Soviet Union and East Germany in the 1980s, and I’ve carried signs in demonstrations from time to time, the first time when I was a freshman in college, in front of a Woolworth’s in Rochester, New York where we marched against a segregated lunch counter.
One surely would think there would be SOMETHING. A secretary secured the forms I needed to apply to get my files. There was no fee involved. I mailed them in, now not to the FBI, but to the Department of Homeland Security FOIA Requester Service Center in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. And here is the reply I got.
“We have completed a search of our Central Index System (CIS) and Computer Linked Applications Information Management System (CLAIMS). No records responsive to your request were located. If you have reason to believe that responsive records do exist, and you can provide us with additional information, we will conduct another search.”
I’m clean. I can hardly believe it. Seventy-two years on this Earth and nothing I have done has come to the attention of the FBI. I haven’t been even a blip on their radar. It’s all been a big waste of time.
Some NOTES. Albert Einstein’s visit to Southold is told in the second of my memoirs, IN THE HAMPTONS TOO, and you can pick up a copy or buy it on Kindle to get that account. Also, beginning at 6:30 p.m. on February 28, there will be a celebration of The East Village Other at 20 Cooper Square, 6th Floor presented by NYU, with a party to follow. There’s a panel I will be on. The celebration is called “Blowing Minds: The East Village Other and the Rise of Underground Comix and the Alternative Press.”
We’ll check to see if the FBI sends anybody.