February 25, 2017


Driving Mr. Albert : A trip across America with Einstein (Michael Paterniti, October 1997, Harper's)

Not long ago. In Maine on a bus. In Massachusetts on a train. In Connecticut behind the wheel of a shiny, teal-colored rental car. The engine purrs. I should know, I'm the driver. I'm on my way to pick up an eighty-four-year-old man named Thomas Harvey, who lives in a modest, low-slung 1950s ranch that belongs to his sixty-seven-year-old girlfriend, Cleora. To get there you caroom through New Jersey's exurbia, through swirls of dead leaves and unruly thickets of oak and pine that give way to well-ordered fields of roan, buttermilk, and black snorting atoms -- horses. Harvey greets me at the door, stooped and chuckling nervously, wearing a red-and-white plaid shirt and a solid-blue Pendleton tie that still bears a waterlogged $10 price tag from some earlier decade. He has peckled, blowsy skin runneled with lines, an eagle nose, stubbed yellow teeth, bitten nails, and a spray of white hair as fine as corn silk that shifts with the wind over the bald patches on his head. He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein -- literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.

Harvey has stoked a fire in the basement, which is dank and dark, and I sit among crocheted rugs and genie bottles of blown glass, Ethiopian cookbooks, and macramé. It has taken me more than a year to find Harvey, and during that time I've had a dim, inchoate feeling -- one that has increased in luminosity -- that if I could somehow reach him and Einstein's brain, I might unravel their strange relationship, one that arcs across this century and America itself. And now, before the future arrives and the supercomputers of the world fritz out and we move to lunar colonies -- before all that hullabaloo -- Harvey and I are finally sitting here together.

That day Harvey tells me the story he's told before -- to friends and family and pilgrims -- one that has made him an odd celebrity even in this age of odd celebrity. He tells it deliberately, assuming that I will be impressed by it as a testament to the rightness of his actions rather than as a cogent defense of them. "You see," he says, "I was just so fortunate to have been there. Just so lucky." [...]

The next morning, April 18, when the chief pathologist of the hospital -- our Harvey, then a strapping forty-two-year-old with Montgomery Clift good looks -- arrived for work, Einstein's body was laid out, naked and mottle-skinned, on a gurney. "Imagine my surprise," Harvey says to me now. "A fellow up in New York, my former teacher Dr. Zimmerman" -- and an acquaintance of Einstein's -- "was going to do the autopsy. But then he couldn't get away. He rang me up, and we agreed that I'd do it." Harvey says that he felt awe when he came face-to-face with the world-famous physicist, the voice of conscience in a century of madness, who had bewildered the world by suggesting that time should be understood as the fourth, and inseparable, dimension. Now he lay alone in the pale light, 180 pounds of mere matter.

Harvey took a scalpel in his hand and sliced Einstein open with a Y incision, scoring the belly, the skin giving like cellophane, then cut the rib cartilage and lifted the sternum. He found nearly three quarts of blood in Einstein's peritoneal cavity, a result of the burst aneurysm, and after investigating his heart and veins concluded that, with an operation, the physicist might have lived for several more years, though how long was hard to tell "because Einstein liked his fatty foods," in particular goose scratchings.

Working under the humming lights, his fingers inside Einstein's opened body, juggling the liver, palpating the heart, Harvey made a decision. Who's to say whether it was inspired by awe or by greed, beneficence or mere pettiness? Who's to say what comes over a mortal, what chemical reaction takes place deep in the thalamus, when faced with the blinding brightness of another's greatness and, with it, a knowledge that I/you/we shall never possess even a cheeseparing of that greatness?

Working quickly with a knife, Harvey tonsured the scalp, peeled the skin back, and, bearing down on a saw, cut through Einstein's head with a quick, hacking motion. He removed a cap of bone, peeled back the meninges, then clipped blood vessels and bundles of nerve and the spinal cord. He reached with his fingers deeper into the chalice of the man's cranium and simply removed the glistening brain. To keep for himself. Forever. In perpetuity. Amen.

What he didn't count on, however, was that with this one act his whole world would go haywire. Apparently, word got out through Zimmerman that Harvey had the brain, and when it was reported in the New York Times a day later, some people were aghast. Einstein's son, Hans Albert, reportedly felt betrayed. Harvey claimed that he was planning to conduct medical research on the brain, and, in an agreement eventually struck with Hans Albert over the phone, he assured that the brain would only be the subject of medical journals and not become a pop-cultural gewgaw, as the Einsteins most feared. Sometime after the autopsy, Harvey was fired from his job for refusing to give up the brain. Years passed, and there were no papers, no findings. And then Harvey fell off the radar screen. When he gave an occasional interview -- in articles from 1956 and 1979 and 1988 -- he always repeated that he was about "a year away from finishing study on the specimen."1

1According to newspaper accounts following Einstein's death, mystery immediately shrouded the brain. Dr. Zimmerman, on staff at New York City's Montefiore Medical Center, expected to receive Einstein's brain from Harvey, but never, in fact, did; Princeton Hospital decided not to relinquish the brain. Harvey, however, also decided not to relinquish the brain and at some point removed it from the hospital.
Forty years later -- after Harvey has gone through three wives, after he has sunk to lesser circumstances, after he has outlived most of his critics and accusers, including Hans Albert - we are sitting together before a hot fire on a cold winter day. And because I like him so much, because somewhere in his watery blue eyes, his genial stumble-footing, and that ineffable cloak of hunched integrity that falls over the old, I find myself feeling for him and cannot bring myself to ask the essential questions:

Is Harvey a grave-robbing thief or a hero? A sham artist or a high priest? Why not heist a finger or a toe? Or a simple earlobe? What about rumors that he plans to sell Einstein's brain to Michael Jackson for $2 million? Does he feel ashamed? Or justified? If the brain is the ultimate Fabergé egg, the Hope diamond, the Cantino map, the One-Penny Magenta stamp, "Guernica," what does it look like? Feel like? Smell like? Does he talk to it as one talks to one's poodle or ferns?

Posted by at February 25, 2017 4:54 AM