Einstein’s Birthday: Why Not Celebrate It in Sag Harbor Aug. 20?

We local people sometimes just get together to hang around and scheme and connive.

“Know what? Before I die, I’d like to be part of a heist.”

“There’s a plan.”

“I’d like to be a member of a cabal.”

“There’s another plan.”

Some years ago, a group of guys in Sag Harbor got together and decided to have a tag team relay reading of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. Melville has never been documented to have been in Sag Harbor, but he wrote about it in his book nevertheless. Sag Harbor was a big whaling town. There were half a dozen whaling towns in America.

The readings went on every spring for a day and a half at Canio’s Bookstore for, I believe, five years before people just got tired of it. [expand]

Once in Sagaponack, Marty Shepard and I and a few other guys decided that the East End ought to secede from America. Get our own currency, make our own laws.

“I want to be King,” I recall somebody saying.

The plan was that we’d announce secession, declare war on America and then immediately surrender, the idea being that America would then bestow mucho largesse on its beaten foe. It would have worked too, except nobody would volunteer to raise an army. We did make t-shirts though.

Yesterday, I had over to my house George Wilson, a well-known yachtsman who owns the 50-foot Aliento, built in 1968 and made of wood. It anchors off East Hampton Point all summer when Wilson is not in it. Wilson has sailed to Ireland in the Aliento. He’s sailed it to Hawaii and back.

In an earlier lifetime, Wilson was the minister of the Old Whalers’ Presbyterian Church in Sag Harbor and before that the Springs Presbyterian Church. Before that, he studied at Princeton where on one occasion he met Albert Einstein walking along the quad.

“It was March 14,” Wilson said. “That’s my birthday and one day I found out it was also his. I jumped out from behind a tree. ‘Happy Birthday Professor Einstein!’ I crowed. He did a little dance and made a friendly wave and continued on.”

Wilson has got it into his head to make a big celebration out of Einstein’s Birthday this summer. Wilson would get a piece of the cake or something out of it. And of course, it would all be for Einstein in abstentia. He’s not here anymore.

We discussed when Einstein WAS here. Einstein spent the summer of 1939 on eastern Long Island. He lived in a little cabin at Nassau Point on the North Fork. He had a tiny 14-foot catboat he called “Tinif,” that he sailed out into Peconic Bay a few times a week. And he made friends with some of the locals he met, specifically the owner of Rothman’s Department Store in Southold, David Rothman, who played the violin and had a weekly string quartet he was involved with. Einstein was 60 years old at the time and he got himself invited.

“I’m thinking we could hold the birthday party on August 20, a Saturday,” Wilson told me. “I’ve already talked to a few people about it. Alan Rice, the scientist, says he would come. Joan Brill, who’s one of the Rothmans and met Einstein when she was a little girl in Southold, said she will come. She’ll bring a string quartet and they’ll play a few numbers.”

“Where would you hold it?” I asked.

Einstein and Rothman in Southold
Einstein and Rothman in Southold

“I’m thinking the Old Whalers’ Church in Sag Harbor. It doesn’t have to be there but it could be there. I’d like to make it a benefit for the basement of the church, which functions as a town community center. They have a food pantry down there. AA Meetings.”

I told him I heard that a conservative synagogue is now functioning in the Old Whalers’ Church on Saturday mornings upstairs along with the Presbyterians who are there on Sunday.

“I’ve heard that,” Wilson said. “I have a soft spot in my heart for that church.”

Wilson has some other ideas. At Princeton, he knew that Einstein often had, as a guest in his home, Marion Anderson, the famous black singer who had been snubbed by Constitution Hall after she had been asked to sing there. Anderson did sing, by invitation of Congress, in front of the Lincoln Memorial though.

“We’d get a black choir and sing a few of her favorite songs.”

“Anything else?”

“There’s a guy named Duffy Hudson who does this great 45-minute monologue called Einstein’s Agony, about Einstein in 1905 when his first marriage was crumbling.”


“And our State Assemblyman and Senator respectively, Fred Thiele and Ken LaValle. They’re talking about reviving Southampton College and making it into something like the Aspen Institute. Do you know Ken Auletta?”

“He plays in the Artist-Writers Softball Game I umpire every August, so I see him there. Want me to talk to him?”

We both knew why. Ken Auletta has written the best-selling book Einstein, about the great thinker, considered the best biography of this man ever.

“Yup. Maybe we can get him to read the chapter about the letter Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt from Southold that summer, urging the president to put scientists to work beating the Germans in making an Atomic Bomb.”

“Maybe you can get the letter itself for the birthday party, or a facsimile of it,” I said.

Three famous physicists in America at that time, worried about what the future might bring with Hitler in power and with the Germans working to construct a bomb at Penemunde, felt it was a very important letter that needed to be written and it could only reach the president if Einstein’s name was on it. They came out to Southold and visited with Einstein.

“They couldn’t find the house,” Wilson said. “They looked for it for an hour. Finally a little kid told them where Einstein lived.”

“Is it Einstein’s 100th birthday?” I asked.


“And why in August instead of March? And why in Sag Harbor instead of Southold?”

“Does it matter?”

I didn’t say anything for a while.

“You know, Professor Rice tells me that Auletta’s science is amazingly accurate in describing what Einstein was thinking at the time.”

“I’ll put that in the article I will write about this,” I said. “And we’ll need some volunteers.”

“So I can count you in?”

I walked Wilson back out to his car. He drives a 1991 Ford Pickup Truck and lives in Springs with his wife. The sun was setting over the boats in the harbor across the way. He got in, turned on the key, waved and pulled away, and immediately collided with a big bang with a tan Toyota Camry coming merrily down the street heading north. Pieces of both cars flew off as they came to a halt each in one of the two lanes of the street there.

Nobody was injured, except in the other car, which I walked over to. There in the passenger seat was a woman who indicated she had been wrenched in the crash by her seatbelt. There were two women, both barefoot. They spoke Vietnamese, but one did understand a little English. Wilson walked over, scratching his beard.

“I’ll call 911,” I said, pulling out my cellphone. And I did, ordering up the police and an ambulance, just in case.

During the next hour and a half, I stood around with Wilson as we watched this blizzard of fire trucks, police cars, paramedics and ambulances that showed up very promptly. I had been shooing the traffic onto the shoulder of the road to pass southbound on the shoulder, and Mike Green,  who lives next door,  appeared on the street and handled the traffic heading northbound on the opposite shoulder.

People rolled down their windows. “Everybody okay?”

I’d nod and wave them on. Then when the police arrived and took over they shut down the whole operation in both directions and turned traffic back where they had come from.

I hung around through the police report, the flashing lights, the gurney, the blankets, the neck brace and the careful placing of the injured woman in the ambulance (she was issuing a thumbs up), which scooted off. After that, the tow trucks began to arrive.

I turned to Wilson at one point. He had called his wife on the cell and she was on her way.

“America,” he said. [/expand]


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