Gillett G. Griffin has made a significant gift to the Historical Society of Princeton of over 50 pieces of material related to Albert Einstein, previously in his personal collection.
Griffin was formerly the Curator of Pre-Columbian Art at the Princeton University Art Museum. He had been a personal friend of Einstein’s from 1953 until Einstein’s death in 1955, frequenting Einstein’s home on 112 Mercer Street, where he also became acquainted with the physicist’s stepdaughter Margot Einstein and friend and confidante, Johanna (Hanna) Fantova.
The collection gifted to the Historical Society includes several personal belongings and accoutrements of Einstein’s, including a drawing of Gandhi that used to hang in Einstein’s study and three small handheld puzzle games that Einstein reportedly used to thrust into the hands of acquaintances to solve upon first meeting them. The collection also includes Einstein’s compass – Einstein explained that his interest in physics arose from compasses he played with as a child – and Einstein’s pipe. The only other intact pipe of Einstein’s that is on public display is in the Smithsonian Institution, and it is the most heavily requested object for research and loans in the Institution’s Modern Physics Collection, according to the Collection’s Curator. Gillett received the puzzles and pipe as a gift directly from Margot.
The collection also contains the original snapshot, bequeathed to Griffin by Jeanette Mirsky, of Einstein sitting on his Mercer Street porch wearing large fuzzy slippers, as well as the only known self-portrait of Einstein. The drawing, scrawled on a sheet of equations, features Hanna Fantova on a beach, holding an umbrella and smoking a cigarette, with Einstein’s face beside her. Above his head is the exclamation, “Ich hab’s!!,” which translates to, “I’ve got it!” Fantova gave the sketch to Griffin as a gift in 1955, the year of Einstein’s death, because “she thought he would like the design,” according to Griffin.
Griffin’s gift supplements HSP’s preexisting Einstein holdings, which include the Einstein Furniture Collection, 65 pieces of furniture that eluded the Nazis and used to adorn Einstein’s home at 112 Mercer Street. The Institute for Advanced Study donated the furniture to the Historical Society in 2004.
Several of the pieces in the Gillett Griffin Collection had been on long-term loan and display at HSP for over a decade. “Gillett has been a dear friend of the Historical Society for many years and we are so unbelievably honored that he has given us the privilege of interpreting his fantastic Einstein collections long into the future,” said HSP Executive Director, Izzy Kasdin. “We are confident they will greatly enhance the permanent place Albert Einstein has in our exhibition program at Updike Farmstead and will help make HSP the destination for Einstein enthusiasts in the United States.”
“I am very pleased to have made this gift at this time, and I am confident that the Princeton Historical Society is the right place to house these items,” said Griffin.
The photographs, manuscript material, sculptures, books, newspaper clippings, personal possessions, and ephemera that comprise the collection will be featured in the Historical Society’s permanent Einstein Salon and Innovators Gallery and can be made available for public research by appointment.
“Albert Einstein was, of course, a remarkable and world-changing scientist, a humanitarian activist, and cultural icon, but he was also a resident of Princeton, and spent 22 years of his life here. At HSP, we try to touch on Einstein as a resident and as a person in a way that only a local Princeton institution can,” said HSP Trustee and Vice President of Collections, Daniel Scheid. “We are proud to have the remarkable collections and personal possessions of Einstein here at the Historical Society that enable us to share Einstein’s human story – his day-to-day life – with the world.”