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Albert Einstein Endorsed a Popular Psychic in 1932. This Is the Controversy that Ensued

Upton Sinclair, among others, leapt to the physicist's defense.

AFP/Getty Images

Why, Dr. Einstein! (March 9, 1932)

A young woman has been appearing at the Warner Brothers’ Theatre, in Hollywood, California, about whom there is an unusual fact. She is a professional prophet; her name is Gene Dennis; and the unusual fact referred to is that she appears before the Hollywoodenheads with the endorsement of Professor Albert Einstein. 

According to Upton Sinclair, Professor Einstein has long been concerned with psychic matters and has done some investigation in the field. When, therefore, he encountered Miss Dennis while weekending at Palm Springs (a desert rest place patronized by tired Hollywood Intellects) he was furiously interested. Miss Dennis disclaims all connection with clairvoyance, fortune-telling, mind-reading and crystal-gazing. All she claims is an ability to foretell the future. She can tell you whether you are going to sell your property; whether you are going to make a success in your profession; or where your wife happens to be, if she has run away an assuming that you are interested. Theatre employees transmit your questions and all you have to do is stand up. Miss Dennis is not solemn. She has a sense of humor and uses it. But she believes in herself sufficiently to tell you what you want to know and to believe that she is telling the truth.

Gene Davis has faith in auras. She announced to the press: “Dr. Einstein is indeed the most remarkable personality I have ever contacted. [Sic.] And his aura is just sublime—pure blue electric sparks, instead of color. It was just like talking to God.” At the same time Dr. Einstein said: “She told me things no one possibly could know, things on which I have been working, and she demonstrated to me that she has a power to do things I cannot at this time explain. Now, I must tell some of my associates about this. It was miraculous indeed.”

Wonderful! Wonderful! And so the scientific method goes crashing to the ground and the world’s greatest relativist becomes an endorser of a “psychic” vaudeville act. He joins hands with the late Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who exclaimed that Gene Dennis was “the eighth wonder of the world!”

Insufficient attention has been paid to the astounding metamorphosis Dr. Einstein has undergone since he first made a visit to America. Then he was a retiring, diffident, charming man who commanded the respect of all and sundry. Now he is the tamest lion in the intellectual zoo. He goes everywhere. He attends picture openings with the regularity and aplomb of Clark Gable. He is at all the public dinners. “A year ago,” runs a newspaper comment, “when Einstein first came to Pasadena to study his famous theory of relativity in the light of the latest astronomic discoveries, he was ‘camera shy,’ although he was to become one of the most photographed celebrities who ever visited California.” He is in a fair way to be known as a “camera mad” celebrity. His place as a publicity-shy celebrity has been taken by Greta Garbo. 

His latest exploit raises serious questions. Anyone who has visited California is astounded by the openness with which superstition flourishes and the prodigality with which those who trade upon it are rewarded. The California public certainly does not need any spectacular endorsement to induce belief in the activities of a well billed vaudevillian like Gene Dennis. Into this situation, where disposition to belief is general and disposition to doubt exceptional, Dr. Einstein precipitated himself and gave his enormous prestige to the side which, if it needs any attention at all from celebrities, needs to be subjected to corrosive skepticism. To be sure, a careful study of his words, as reported in the press, will show that he did not by any means give Gene Dennis a complete endorsement. But it is my firm belief that in any argument about the correctness of her “guesses,” Einstein’s august name will be invoked to support her claims to supernatural powers. Worse, his name will be invoked, by thousands who never gave him a serious thought before, to justify their belief in all sorts of idiotic adepts at the hocus-pocus of card-reading, crystal-gazing, mind-reading, etc., who flourish so magnificently in the California atmosphere. Instead of coming to the support of what is sane and rational consistently and always, in harmony with his position as a great scientist, he has here made a tremendous and, in all probability, resounding contribution to the success of superstition.

The situation raises the much debated question about the worth of the scientific method as a mental discipline. We have seen our scientists, no matter how eminent, reveal themselves time and again utterly “hopeless” once they step outside their narrow specialties. The physicists, particularly, have been guilty of all sorts of strange and weird conduct. We need not concentrate our fire on Dr. Einstein. We can cite the vagaries of Drs. Eddington, Jeans and Whitehead. And then there is Dr. Einstein’s colleague in California, the famous Dr. Robert A. Millikan. But even Millikan hasn’t endorsed any vaudeville actors yet.

It’s a mad world, God knows. And it gets madder and madder. Gene Dennis and Dr. Einstein go blithely tripping along together. Why, Dr. Einstein!

Miss Dennis’ latest revelations will save many people a lot of worry and effort and I feel bound to give them all the publicity I can. She says that Governor James Rolph, Jr., will be in the White House in 1937 and that prosperity is just around the corner.

C. Hartley Grattan

Hollywood, California


Einstein and Spiritualism (April 27, 1932)

Sir: … I have never met the young lady who gave a demonstration to Einstein, but I know that Einstein’s own statement, quoted by Mr. Grattan in The New Republic of March 9, is strictly scientific. Einstein says that she told him things which she could not possibly have known normally. Einstein is the only person who could have passed that judgment, and it seems to me that a man of his standing has a right to expect us to assume that he did not make the statement lightly or unthinkingly. If it was so, he knew it was so; then he had to choose between doing his duty as a scientist, or shrinking from the ridicule of those who are content to judge without investigating and who proceed upon the assumption that we know all there is to know about this universe, and that certain happenings are impossible because they are new and not understood.

Mr. Grattan goes on to tell certain things about the woman in question which sound ridiculous, and this ridicule is supposed to be cast upon Einstein. But a careful reading of the article makes it plain that Einstein had nothing to do with the ridiculous things, and the fact that the woman makes absurd statements, such as that James Rolph, Jr., will be President of the United States in 1937, has nothing to do with whether or not she can read Einstein’s mind when Einstein is in her presence. I myself am prepared to state that on a great number of occasions I have had my mind read, and by several different persons: that is to say, these persons have told me things which were in my mind, and which these persons could not possibly have known normally. Does this mean that I have to believe everything that these various persons say? Does it preclude the possibility that other ideas, of an absurd nature, may drift across the minds of these persons, and that they are without any means of distinguishing between the true and the false? The complications of this subject, and of the human mind which is both the means and the object of our investigation, are so infinite that the slightest thought on the matter should make Mr. Grattan ashamed of having ridiculed a man such as Einstein. The fact that these unknown forces of telepathy and clairvoyance are made use of by charlatans is highly inconvenient; but Mr. Grattan might just as logically deny the reality of a machine gun because it is occasionally used by gangsters.

Incidentally, Einstein is put into the discard because he submitted to being photographed too much in Southern California. Mr. Grattan, having been here, ought to understand our Land of Orange Groves and Jails. Einstein was brought here by an educational institution, in order to be used as an advertisement to help the promoters of the institution get money from the rich. It is a painful but unavoidable fact that that is the only way to keep scientific institutions alive in the United States. Einstein submitted as gracefully and patiently as he could. Being an extremely kind-hearted person, he let himself be taken here and there. He made friendly speeches at banquets, and stood up before the cameras like a lamb before the executioner. After the ordeal was over, he talked about it humorously among his friends. Incidentally, he spoke up for peace and for social justice, and for Tom Mooney—to such effect that a great banker in New York, who had agreed to put up the money to finance his second trip to California, repudiated his promise, declaring that we had enough pacifists and socialists in the United States already, and he did not care to import any from Germany. If you do not believe that and want names, places and dates, I will furnish them. And in fairness to Einstein I might add that I did not get this story from him. On the contrary, he got it from me.

Upton Sinclair

Pasadena, Calif. 

Sir: … After reading Mr. Grattan’s article in The New Republic of March 9, “Why, Dr. Einstein!,” I called on Dr. Gabriel Segall, at the Wilshire Medical Building, whom I know to be a personal friend and physician of Dr. Einstein, and I read the article to him. The following is his answer:

“It is absolutely untrue. Dr. Einstein did not go everywhere. He was too busy at the University and refused thousands of invitations. He did go to the opening of Charlie Chaplin’s picture because Dr. Einstein admires Chaplin, as he considers him an artist. Dr. Einstein refused all public dinners with the exception of the one given in the interest of international peace and the other which he attended as a Jew in the interest of Palestine.

It is absolutely untrue that Dr. Einstein is ‘camera mad.’ He cannot help the situation. When he landed in San Pedro by boat many camera men were there to photograph him. What could he do but to submit to their wishes and often their demands? It is the easiest way out for a man of such a reputation.

The Gene Dennis claims and press reports about this matter are also untrue. Here is how it all happened. A few days after Dr. and Frau Einstein arrived at the hotel in Palm Springs, the manager of the hotel, who was in charge of their stay there, suggested an automobile ride, to which Dr. Einstein agreed. At the time the suggestion was made, Dr. Einstein did not know Gene Dennis and he did not know that she had made this proposal in order to make a contact with the celebrated guest for publicity. Dr. Einstein, like any other person who does not think in terms of tricks or schemes, consented to the ride and made the best of the situation thereafter. He and his wife were introduced to Gene Dennis in the automobile and Dr. Einstein politely and courteously listened to Miss Dennis. He did not endorse any of her bag of tricks and I doubt whether he knows now what her deliberate purpose was. Dr. and Frau Einstein were really trapped into this.

It is possible that Dr. Einstein and Upton Sinclair discussed psychic matters, but I do not believe that Mr. Sinclair would say that Dr. Einstein approved or endorsed any of them. I know that Dr. Einstein discredited the method of telling about the future, which he knows to be ridiculous and impossible. Miss Dennis just exploited his reputation without his knowledge. Dr. Einstein cannot control the tricks of people or of the press. He is a kindly, peaceful and grateful man and makes the best of every situation. There is nothing else he can do.”

Saul S. Klein

Los Angeles, Calif. 

Sir: After carefully reading and considering Mr. Sinclair’s commentary on my article, I find that I have nothing to withdraw or justify. I should like to say, by way of clarification, that my attitude towards psychical phenomena is not one of ill considered hostility. It just happens that I have lately examined the life of William James in detail. James, as everyone knows, was interested in these matters and gave them much attention at a time in his career when his normal activities were very exacting of his time. The upshot of his work was an entirely negative conclusion about the possibilities of communicating with any world beyond our own. This is quite different from the approach of a man of no psychological sensitivity, like T.H. Huxley, though the conclusion is the same. I should like to reiterate my opinion that Einstein was wrong publicly to endorse Gene Dennis, particularly since the endorsement was to be used in an atmosphere like that of Hollywood. I call attention to my statement that he should be on the side of the angels on all occasions. I still think that he should be and I hope that his lack of success in cadging money for C.I.T. has taught him a lesson!

Dr. Segall’s denials are certainly comprehensive enough, but the reader should compare them with Mr. Sinclair’s affirmations and admissions. Above all, it should be known that Einstein wrote a “careful” but sympathetic preface to the German edition of Sinclair’s “Mental Radio.” Also, Gene Dennis’ act ran for several weeks at the Warner Brother’s Hollywood Theatre, and up until February 14, 1932, when I sailed for New York from San Pedro, no denial of the authenticity of Einstein’s endorsement appeared in the press. And I leave it to any reader of the Los Angeles press to comment on Dr. Segall’s description of Einstein’s social activities!

C. Hartley Grattan

New York City 

Einstein and Mental Radio (July 13, 1932)

Sir: In your issue of April 27, Mr. C. Hartley Grattan replies to my comments on his controversy with Albert Einstein. It appears that Einstein and his wife took an automobile ride with a young woman who told him certain things which were in Einstein’s mind, and which the young woman could not have learned normally. At any rate, Einstein declared that this had happened, and Mr. Grattan ridiculed him for having so declared. 

Now it so happens that on innumerable occasions my wife has told me things which were in my mind, and which she had no possible way of knowing normally. Other persons have done this for me, in carefully controlled tests, and I have stated the facts in a book called “Mental Radio,” for the German edition of which Dr. Einstein wrote a preface. Having had these experiences, it was easy for me to believe that the young woman had “read” Einstein’s mind. The fact that this young woman had given demonstrations upon the stage made no difference that I could see. I am not aware of any scientific principle which renders a fact invalid because it has happened to a stage person. To be sure, we expect trickery upon the stage—but what has that to do with the reading of Einstein’s mind while he is riding in an automobile? As I said in my letter to The New Republic:

If it was so, he knew it was so; then he had to choose between doing his duty as a scientist, or shrinking from the ridicule of those who are content to judge without investigating… 

Now comes Mr. Grattan, and his answer avoids the issue completely, he says:

I should like to say, by way of clarification, that my attitude towards psychical phenomena is not one of ill considered hostility. It just happens that I have lately examined the life of William James in detail. James, as everyone knows, was interested in these matters and gave them much attention at a time in his career when his normal activities were very exacting of his time. The upshot of his work was an entirely negative conclusion about the possibilities of communicating with any world beyond our own.

Since I cannot assume that Mr. Grattan is here deftly sidestepping the argument, I am forced to the conclusion that he does not know the difference between telepathy and spiritualism. Why bring up “any world beyond our own”? Einstein said nothing about such a world, nor did I. The subject we were discussing is the passing of an idea from one mind to another by means other than the known sense channels. The title of my book, “Mental Radio,” makes plain that I am discussing the possibility of this happening through some forces of this world. That William James was a believer in this possibility is something which no student can question. He personally told me that he knew telepathy to be a reality, and anyone who will examine the record of his experience with Mrs. Piper will understand that he could not have questioned it.

Apparently The New Republic shares Mr. Grattan’s misconception as to the nature of the discussion; for you put over the controversy the heading “Einstein and Spiritualism.” I pray you both, let the spirits rest in their graves, or their heaven, or wherever they may be, and talk about the thing which Einstein was talking about.

Upton Sinclair

Pasadena, Calif.