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[Conversation]

Cuckoo Spit and Ski Jumps

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Michael Paterniti discusses “Driving Mr. Albert,” a story he wrote for Harper’s, in 1997, about driving across America with Albert Einstein’s brain.

Illustration by Lou Beach.

Illustration by Lou Beach

Nearly twenty years ago, Michael Paterniti got his start writing long reported essays with a story titled “Driving Mr. Albert,” which appeared in the October 1997 issue of Harper’s Magazine. In it, he travels across the country with Thomas Harvey, the doctor who performed the autopsy on Albert Einstein and wound up taking permanent possession of the great man’s brain. During their road trip, they kept the brain in a Tupperware container in the trunk.

To mark the publication of Paterniti’s collection Love and Other Ways of Dying, out this week from The Dial Press, we’ve made “Driving Mr. Albert” available for free to all readers. Last week, I met Paterniti and his former Harper’s editor, Colin Harrison, for breakfast at the Noho Star, in Manhattan, to talk about how that story came to be.

CC: How did you first hit upon Einstein’s brain as a potential story? 

MP: One of my friends told me the urban legend: Einstein’s brain is in a garage in Saskatchewan. I started retelling it and embellishing it—“the guy who had Einstein’s brain was a hunchback”—just to amuse myself. But I was telling this story one day to my landlord in Santa Fe, and he said, “Uh, I don’t think so. I think the guy who has Einstein’s brain lives next to William”—that was William Burroughs—“in Lawrence, Kansas.” My landlord had been part of Burroughs’s coterie in the Eighties. He had cooked for him for two years, and this guy Harvey lived around the corner. Then I said, “Can we ask for a phone number? Is there any way to get a phone number for Harvey? Would William have it?” And he said, “Well, I’m sure William has it, though William is not going to find it. But his assistant will.” So then I got his full name—Thomas Harvey—and I had a number. 

CC: Through Burroughs.

MP: Yeah. So then I started calling. And calling and calling and calling. Eventually I got him on the phone, and I told him I wanted to come see him. He seemed nice but a little guarded. I said I could come out in four weeks. When I called back a few weeks later, the phone had been disconnected. So then I was at square one.

A few months later, an article came out from a Canadian researcher who had some of the brain, and I called her. Sandra Witelson. She was not really excited to be talking to me, but she said she would check with him to see if it would be okay to give out his new phone number. When I called back I got her assistant. It had been a while, and she clearly hadn’t been in touch with him at all. And I said, “Dr. Witelson was going to call me back with the number. I don’t know if you can help me but I need Tom Harvey’s number if you’ve got it.” She gave it to me. He was in New Jersey, and I just dialed him up and said, “I want to come now,” and he said yeah. He was living with his girlfriend and he was eighty-four years old.

[Excerpt]
Dr. Harvey

From “Driving Mr. Albert,” a story by Michael Paterniti, published in the October 1997 issue of Harper’s Magazine, about driving Albert Einstein’s brain across America with its caretaker, Dr. Thomas Harvey. Read the full essay for free in the Harper’s archive.

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.

CC: And in the article, all of this boils down to: “It has taken me more than a year to find Harvey.” Colin, when did you get involved?

 CH: Mike calls me up, conversation goes something like this: “Hey Colin, how are you?” “Hey Mike, what’s up? What’s happening?” “Well, I got this kind of crazy thing I’m doing, and I was wondering, maybe, if possibly there might be a tiny chance that you guys want to do a piece.” “Oh, what are you doing?” “Well, tomorrow I’m driving across the country with this crazy old doctor with Einstein’s brain in the back of the” “We are commissioning that piece right now, Mike.” That’s basically what I remember happening. Maybe I am embellishing my memory, but as I recall, you needed a decision pretty quickly.

MP: Yeah, because I needed money to rent the car. I actually found the original contract in a box when we were renovating our house this summer. I think I was going to be paid $5,000 for 8,000 words. 

CH: Yeah, that sounds about right.

MP: I remember we were thinking, “It’s a road trip—let’s let it breathe a little bit.”

CC: And it was published at 18,000 words.

CH: Did you hand in one version or two versions at first? There was the cuckoo-spit version, as I called it.

MP: I remember writing something that wasn’t really completely coherent, but it had a lot of energy.

CH: Mike handed in this rendering of his trip, which was highly poetical and marginally journalistic. And as I recall, there was at some point a line about cuckoo spit. It had a lot of vivid language in there, but we needed a journalistic treatment. So he sent in a completely different draft, the straight-man version.

MP: It was the version I really didn’t want to write.

CH: I said, “This has got all of the information in it, but it’s lost its zing. How about if I try to put these two together?”

MP: It was a total Reese’s-peanut-butter-cup moment. It’s never happened to me since. Colin sent me the combined version, and it wasn’t like someone had written over anything; it was just the perfect melding of these two pieces.

CH: And then we came here, to the Noho Star, and I read the whole piece aloud to Mike and we made little adjustments. It could have easily have been this table.

MP: We sat here for hours.

CH: We sat here for hours and I read the whole piece aloud to him. And he would make a change and I would write it down. The piece still had journalistic integrity, but it was a whole other kind of piece. It was a piece of music.

MP: One of the things about Harper’s is that there is this unbelievable freedom of “please blow our minds.”

CH: Absolutely. We had license to kill at the time, and we had enough money, and we had enough pages, and we had enough editorial talent collectively that we would take these shots. David Foster Wallace, Mike, other people. I don’t know how magazines are working these days, but I imagine that it’s not as easy to just call someone up and say, “I am going to be in the car with Einstein’s brain.” And then it’s commissioned. 

MP: The willingness to take a flyer. To be honest with you, there was no reason Colin should have said yes. He had no proof of my writing ability.

CH: I disagree. Let me look at it from my point of view. I like to apply—and I still do this as a book editor—a simple question. Am I going to see this opportunity again, ever, in my life? In this case, obviously, no. This is never happening again. Einstein’s brain changed the twentieth century, and now it’s chopped up in little pieces in the back of a car, and the writer gets to drive it across the country. I would have been really stupid not to say yes. A hundred out of a hundred smart magazine editors would have said yes.

MP: I do remember one little side story. Do you remember I had called Errol Morris because I had read that he was obsessed with Einstein’s brain and he had always wanted to make a movie about it? When he found out I had this opportunity, he wanted to put a bunch of cameras in the car. The big question was: Was the nature of the trip going to change significantly if you had a chase car and eight little cameras in the car that you were in, and you were being over-directed by a documentary filmmaker? It was pretty easy to say no, but I do remember he got very in the middle of it for a moment.

CC: Harvey remains a fairly static character throughout the article. Was it apparent from the beginning that he wouldn’t be offering you any flashes of insight into Einstein, or into the meaning of your trip?

MP: I knew it was going to be pretty hard to get anything out of him. Everything was either going to happen around him or it was going to be gestural. Harvey doesn’t change in the story, so the person who is changing is the narrator and the narrator’s conception of these ideas about America, about immortality, all of the things that animate the piece.

I thought maybe by the end of the road trip there would be the possibility of secrets being shared and told. But when we finally got to Evelyn Einstein’s place and he tried to leave, he was on the phone and he said, “The chauffeur won’t give me a ride.” When he said that, I knew that’s all I was to him.

He never gave me much, but he did allow me into this little part of his world as we went along. And that was enough. The fact that he was holographic or enigmatic made it more interesting in a way. He wasn’t trying to defend himself. He just was. The proof of his existence was this brain, and by attaching himself to it, and the power of it, he created a little bit of immortality for himself.

CH: You couldn’t depend upon him as a subject, so you had to press down on the experience and see what kind of weird, pink smoke came curling out of the sides of the whole thing. The landscape. Dr. Senegal.

MP: Visiting Burroughs, right. I knew when we went to Lawrence we were going to have some slightly interesting, perhaps slightly odd experiences. It was a meeting they both wanted, and it was good for the piece. The same with Evelyn at the end. Harvey wanted to see her; he wanted to bring the brain to her. When I called her, she said, “No, I don’t want to do it. My house is an absolute mess.” And I remember I called Colin, and I said, “Can we pay to have her house cleaned?” 

CH: What did I say? 

MP: You said yeah, find out how much it is. But when I called her back, she decided she didn’t care. She said, “I just want to see this guy. He’s got my grandfather’s brain. You guys just come when you get here.”

CC: When he leaves Evelyn’s house early and goes to get on the train, and it’s clear that what might have been a climax has turned out to be an anticlimax, were you worried for your story?

MP: I was pretty bummed. But I wasn’t really thinking about the story at that point. I was trying to convince him to stay for at least the dinner, just to be polite. I felt like we owed it to Evelyn. I was much more involved in trying to negotiate the social moment. But then when he left the brain behind I thought, “This is crazy, did he leave it on purpose?”

CC: How did you get the brain back to him? 

MP: Originally, I figured we were going to be staying at some motel, whatever we could find near Berkeley. I didn’t know he was going to bail. When he left I said, “Am I going to see you tomorrow, because we have an appointment at the university tomorrow at eleven?” And he said, “Yeah, I’ll be there.” But this is after days of being on the road with him and trying to take care of him, and I watched him go and I thought, “Maybe he won’t be there.”

CC: But he was there.

MP: He was there and I had the brain.

CC: Was he mad that he’d left it behind?

MP: He acted like I had carried his bag out to the car. He just took it. 

CC: How did you come up with the ending, where you either do or do not have Einstein’s brain in your hands, alone outside your motel room? 

CH: We wanted to have a ski-jump ending. It’s the end of the piece; you fly off the end of the jump and you’re done. In that moment, Mike has the whole thing caught in language.

MP: I was grasping for something significant, like a crescendo signaled by the beating of the kettledrum. The film version would be a couple of crushed cans in a parking lot, and it would be more of a punchline. But I remember being pushed by Colin. You’re 18,000 words in, you’re at the very end. Let’s go for this thing. You’ve earned it. Let’s make sure it goes out on something that feels physical, and out of the physical comes all the other metaphysical stuff.

Read Michael Paterniti’s “Driving Mr. Albert” for free at Harpers.org. Subscribe to Harper’s Magazine for instant digital access to the entire 164-year archive.

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