E=ps2 – Genius Takes a Holiday

Writer SHARON MCDONNELL explores the incongruous relationship between Albert Einstein and sunny Palm Springs


The photographs are striking: the grinning world-famous scientist with his unruly shock of graying wavy hair, palm trees or cacti in the background instead of a blackboard of arcane equations. Or chatting with a Navajo princess in a feathered headdress, or with glamorous Pola Negri, the first European actress imported by Hollywood—a Polish-born star and Rudolph Valentino’s lover—his wife, Elsa, next to him, wrapped in a voluminous fringed shawl.


Palm Springs is known as a legendary playground for film stars and entertainers, from Frank Sinatra (his home there had a piano-shaped pool) to Cary Grant and Sonny Bono, who became the city’s mayor. But Albert Einstein? It seems incongruous, yet the father of modern physics adored the place, vacationing there frequently in the thirties and, on at least one occasion, delighting hotel guests with an impromptu violin serenade.


Einstein and his wife stayed at both the winter home of his friend Samuel Untermyer, a prominent and wealthy New York lawyer, in a palm-shaded Mediterranean-style villa at the base of Mount Jacinto, and at El Mirador, one of four big hotels in Palm Springs at the time. He rose each day at dawn to hike the local canyons and admire the desert, a very different sort of nature from that he’d experienced in Germany and Switzerland.


“He was almost childlike in his contact with life and terrifically appreciative of being left alone to wander over the desert, stooping to pick some dried weed to study or staring for many minutes at the vastness of the mountains and sky,” wrote Tony Burke, who escorted the Einsteins around on their visits to Palm Springs, in a 1958 story for the local magazine Villager.