Einstein Comes to Dinner

By Margaret A. Brucia

Albert Einstein performs a sonata on his violin.

Albert Einstein performs a sonata on his violin.

Julia Gardiner Gayley, fifty-five years old and divorced since 1910, married a second time on Thursday, August 26, 1920. Her unlikely husband, Gano Sillick Dunn, was 49. Julie met Gano (pronounced guh-NO) through her daughters. An older but eligible bachelor, he was part of their broader social circle and, through the years, called on each of them at home — first Mary, next Agnes, then Folly. A regular fixture at Washington Square, Gano in time realized that he was more interested in their dynamic mother than in any of the beautiful Gayley daughters, and he began escorting Julie to social events and intellectual gatherings.

This is the latest in a series of posts based on the letters of the New York socialite, Julia Gardiner Gayley (1864-1937), to her eldest daughter, Mary Gayley Senni (1884-1971), a countess who lived on the outskirts of Rome. In 2010, the author purchased a trove of the letters in a Roman flea market. This mother-daughter correspondence spanned the years 1902-1936 and provides an intimate and unfiltered view of life in New York during the early twentieth century. You can find the earlier posts on our homepage.

Gano Dunn

Gano Dunn

Fluent in German, Gano fostered Julie’s budding interest in German literature and philosophy. They formed a philosophy club with weekly meetings at which they discussed with several friends the work of German philosophers, especially Friedrich Nietzsche. They attended lectures by Morris Cohen, a noted professor of philosophy at City College, with whom they became good friends. Gano inspired Julie to study German for several months in Munich, where she attained a solid understanding of the language, if not fluency. (Julie was already conversant in French.)

Despite their shared interests and the increasing frequency of their time together, neither Julie’s friends nor her family suspected that Julie and Gano were involved in anything more than a friendly relationship. When, in the early summer of 1920, Julie hinted to her daughters that she was considering Gano’s proposal of marriage, after the initial shock, all three tried to dissuade her — although not because they disliked him. They viewed Gano as part of their social set, not hers. But scarcely two months after Julie’s youngest daughter’s wedding, Julie and Gano were quietly married at Grace Church, on Broadway and 10th Street.

The announcement in the New-York Tribune surely generated more than a few arched eyebrows among members of her social circle. “Society will be surprised to learn,” it began, “that Mrs. Julia Gardiner Gayley, daughter of the late Curtis Crane Gardiner, of the Gardiner’s Island family, is to be married, to Gano Dunn, of this city, this afternoon in Grace Church. No formal announcement had been made of the engagement and none but members of the families knew of the approaching marriage...”[1]

The notice said everything in what was left unsaid. A self-made man, Gano brought neither Julie’s impressive pedigree nor the financial wherewithal of her previous husband, James Gayley, first vice president of the U. S. Steel Corporation, to the marriage.

But Gano was far more than just a man “of this city.” Towards the end, the announcement perfunctorily listed a few of Gano’s accomplishments (graduate of Columbia, electrical engineer, and author of “various papers on electrical and engineering subjects”). But it hardly did him justice. A brilliant scientist, Gano’s professional achievements were considerable. He earned one of the first advanced degrees in electrical engineering awarded in America, had several patents to his name, was president of the prestigious J.G. White Engineering Company since 1913, and, as a physicist, was elected to membership in the elite National Academy of Sciences. Moreover, if not fabulously wealthy, Gano certainly earned a decent income, was a well-respected leader in the scientific community, and showed unwavering devotion to Julie. He also offered Julie both the intellectual stimulation she craved and a new position in society as a comfortably married woman.

Since 1909, when she sold her opulent uptown mansion on East 69th Street after her separation from James Gayley, Julie lived in a spacious apartment at 20 Washington Square North. In anticipation of her new life with Gano, Julie lavishly redecorated her home. Most notably, she expanded the library to make room for Gano’s scientific books and his collection of microscopes, and she refurbished the drawing room, where she spent hours each day playing her beloved Steinway.

Julia Gardiner Gayley’s library (above) and drawing room (below) at 20 Washington Square North. Photographs courtesy of Vittoria McIlhenny.

Julia Gardiner Gayley’s library (above) and drawing room (below) at 20 Washington Square North. Photographs courtesy of Vittoria McIlhenny.


Julie’s efforts were well timed. On April 3, 1921, forty-two-year-old Albert Einstein, already a metonymy for genius, disembarked at New York Harbor for his much-anticipated first visit to America. His arrival caused a sensation. Thousands of New Yorkers lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the man who articulated the theory of relativity — a concept most people realized was important, even if they had no idea why.

The opening paragraph of the cover story in the New York Times engagingly captured the Einstein frenzy sweeping America.

Albert Einstein greeted by New Yorkers, 1921

Albert Einstein greeted by New Yorkers, 1921

“A man in a faded gray raincoat and a flopping black hat that nearly concealed the gray hair that straggled over his ears stood on the boat deck of the steamship Rotterdam yesterday, timidly facing a battery of cameramen. In one hand he clutched a shiny briar pipe and with the other clung to a precious violin. He looked like an artist — a musician. He was.”[2]

One of the eleven who purportedly understood Einstein’s theory and a speaker of German, Gano was chosen by the National Academy of Sciences to serve as Einstein’s guide and interpreter.[3] (Einstein spoke no English.) Gano traveled to Washington in Einstein’s entourage, introduced him to President Warren G. Harding, and accompanied him on lecture tours.[4] When anti-German sentiment and mistaken notions about Einstein’s citizenship complicated his reception in Washington, Gano diplomatically undertook the task of setting the matter straight. “I explained this away in several instances,” Gano wrote to a friend at Princeton, “and it made a big difference (I am rather sorry to say) although I can fully understand and actually share the feeling against Germans.... Einstein while born of German parents, is a Swiss citizen who during the war accepted the call to leave Zurich and teach at Berlin only on the written agreement of the Emperor that he should maintain his Swiss citizenship.”[5]

One can only imagine her fluster when Julie learned that Einstein had accepted Gano’s invitation to dinner at Washington Square before his return home in late May. Of course she would ask Einstein to bring his violin, adding another dimension to the mix of her guests. To the requisite assemblage of scientists, philosophers, and academics she would add musicians.

Although Julie did not provide her daughter with an exhaustive guest list, we can glean at least a partial one from the descriptions and anecdotes she wrote to Mary in the afterglow of the evening. “Now for the Einstein party about which I should like to grow lyric. Do you remember how you always laughed at me for looking for a sort of ideal salon in which only intelligent people should be? And perhaps you do not know what an atmosphere of beauty has always seemed to me to lie about those small and insignificant German courts where men like Goethe and Schiller were glad to do homage to genius? In my imagination, too, those salons always had yellow satin on the walls and of course they were lighted by candles. My childhood’s dream came true the other night. For three hours I felt as if I, the Queen of Westphalia, we will say, had summoned the neighboring Queen of Wurtemburg wearing her diamonds (Mrs. Lanier), the loquacious Duchess of the Palatinate (Mrs. Butler), etc., etc., to come and meet the discoverer of a new planet. That he would play the violin would be almost a foregone conclusion.”[6]

James L. Breese (1854-1934). [Mrs. James F. D. Lanier II (neé Harriet Bishop).] Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Mrs. Reginald B. Lanier, 1981. 81.51.3.

James L. Breese (1854-1934). [Mrs. James F. D. Lanier II (neé Harriet Bishop).] Museum of the City of New York. Gift of Mrs. Reginald B. Lanier, 1981. 81.51.3.

“Mrs. Lanier” was Harriet Bishop Lanier, wife of the prominent banker James Franklin Doughty Lanier. But Harriet was known for more than her dazzling jewelry. She founded and presided over the Society of Friends of Music, which aimed to preserve and perform for the New York audience rare and forgotten compositions.[7] “Mrs. Butler” was Kate La Montagne Butler, the controversial second wife of Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University. Although Kate, who spoke French fluently, was a graceful and accomplished hostess, as befitted her station, she could also be somewhat imperious, a characteristic Julie may have hinted at when she likened her to a duchess.[8] Gano remained in close contact with Dr. Butler ever since his student days at Columbia.

Since Julie’s multilingual guests conversed comfortably in English, German, French and Russian, one can only imagine the challenge of creating a seating plan that facilitated and encouraged the free flow of conversation. “There were two moments I shall never forget. The first is comic. I had put Einstein to my right; next to him, Dr. Pupin; then Mrs. Fabbri, Gerry: etc., etc. At my left was Dr. Butler; after him, Dr. Cohen; Mrs. Lanier, etc. I had not wanted Einstein to be hampered by my lack of German and he was very happy talking with Dr. Pupin and, across me, to Dr. Butler; also with me sometimes in French; but at one moment as I looked around the excitable Mrs. Fabbri was leaning toward him with hands outstretched and clasped, assuring him in beautiful German and with ecstatic eyes that he had deepened her faith in immortality!!”

Dr. Mihajlo [“Michael”] Idvorski Pupin was a Serbian-American physicist who immigrated from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to America in 1874. A graduate of Columbia, he earned his doctorate in Berlin and returned to New York to teach mathematical physics in Columbia’s newly formed Department of Electrical Engineering, when Gano was already a star pupil. Among Pupin's most significant scientific contribution was his invention of loading coils, later known as Pupin coils, to increase amplification levels in long distance telephony. In 1900, American Telephone & Telegraph purchased his patents for $455,000, making Dr. Pupin a very wealthy man.[9] Pupin's autobiography, From Immigrant to Inventor, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1924.

Edith Shepard Fabbri, painting by Benjamin C. Porter

Edith Shepard Fabbri, painting by Benjamin C. Porter

The emotive Mrs. Fabbri was Edith Shepard Fabbri, granddaughter of William H. Vanderbilt and wife of Ernesto Fabbri, at whose house on East 95th Street Julie recently dined.[10] “Gerry” was Gerrish Milliken, president of the large textile manufacturing company Deering-Milliken, and Julie’s son-in-law, the husband of her middle daughter, Agnes. Dr. Butler was seated next to Dr. Morris Raphael Cohen, Julie’s much revered philosophy instructor. Dr. Cohen was a Russian Jewish immigrant and a Harvard-educated, left-leaning professor of philosophy at City College, noted for his liberal political views and advocacy of academic freedom.[11] Julie, in an aside later in the letter, revealed some background about her relationship with Dr. Cohen. “Einstein told me at the table that he considered Cohen the finest intellect he had met in America. This was very flattering to me for, as you remember, I picked him out from having heard him at a congress of philosophers in Princeton, and he is the man who came twice a week to me all winter before last. I was much pleased to tell this to Gano who was horrified at my having put him next to Dr. Butler.”

Why, one wonders, was Gano horrified that Julie had seated Nicholas Murray Butler and Morris Raphael Cohen in such close proximity? Clearly there was some friction between the men. Julie hinted at it: “Certainly in this world of science and of university atmospheres, as well as in society itself good grooming and clean linen play a leading part. When I spoke to Dr. Butler last winter about him [Cohen] his first question was — ‘Is he presentable?’”

Next, Julie wrote about the apex of the evening — the after-dinner entertainment in her newly redecorated drawing room. “The second moment to which I refer was far different. It was about ten o’clock and we were all sitting about the drawing room in groups while Harold Bauer played a Mozart Sonata with Einstein standing at his right before my beautiful carved gilt violin stand (ordered with dreams ahead nearly 20 years ago) playing his violin. No living man plays Mozart the way Bauer does and added to this there was a peculiar tenderness which anticipated and filled out and waited for all the places where the violinist followed his own fancy, rather than that of a received model. He played musically, reverently, enthusiastically and with a tremendous beauty of form and accent which everyone felt — Bauer most of all, as he said afterwards. It was the moment of consecration for all the achievements, imperfect as they are, which have made people think this a beautiful room and this a sympathetic place. It was the moment for which the yellow satin and the candles and the violin stand and the too large piano had been waiting, and I was swept away with a sense of fulfillment. You and Giulio would have felt it too had you been here. Even the rough and censorious Dr. Butler, who at table had not been able to resist saying things about philosophers who were unkempt, beamed benevolently and said: ‘This is the Germany of 1890 before it changed.’”

Harold Bauer, pianist

Harold Bauer, pianist

Harold Bauer was a world-renowned, London-born musician who began his career as a violinist but soon switched to piano. He performed throughout Europe before settling in America during the war.

After Einstein and Bauer performed, Ernest Schelling improvised with Bauer on the piano in what was surely the grand finale of the evening. A child prodigy who entered the Academy of Music in his native Philadelphia at the age of four, Schelling, like Bauer, was an internationally acclaimed concert pianist. He studied with Ignacy Paderewski and, for three years, Schelling was Paderewski’s only pupil. “After the beautiful sonata was over, later in the evening, Bauer and Schelling asked me for the music of the Brahms Hungarian dances which I did not have, so they sat down, giggling like two school boys, and played them, four hands, from memory and nudging each other at their own mistakes which we did not perceive.

Julie’s sense of excitement, satisfaction and pride was palpable in her letter to Mary. This was the dinner party of a lifetime. She captured it eloquently for Mary, and Agnes witnessed it firsthand. Her youngest daughter Folly, however, having given birth only two weeks earlier, could not attend. But any disappointment that Folly may have felt about missing the evening with Einstein was superseded by her joy in the birth of Julia, her first child and Julie’s namesake. Folly, who idolized her older sister Mary, deserves the last word.

“Mother says she wrote you all about her ‘Einstein dinner’ — It must have been a perfect party and Ag says Ma never had such a one & it would’nt [sic] happen again —
Good bye for the time being — I send you all my dearest love & wish that you could see Julia —
Your littlest Folly still —
May 30-1921.”[12]

Margaret A. Brucia has taught Latin in New York and Rome for many years and is a Fulbright scholar, the recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome.

[1] “Mrs. Julia Gayley and Gano Dunn are to be Wedded in Grace Church To-day,” New-York Tribune, August 26, 1920.

[2] “Prof. Einstein Here, Explains Relativity,” New York Times, April 3, 1921.

[3] Raymond Moley and Celeste Jedel, “Engineer No. 1,” Saturday Evening Post, October 11, 1941, 29.

[4] József Illy, ed., Albert Meets America: How Journalists Treated Genius During Einstein's 1921 Travels (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005), 134.

[5] Gano Dunn to Oswald Veblen, May 5, 1921, in Albert Meets America, edited by József Illy, 136-37 and n. 44, 336.

[6] Julia Gardiner Gayley to Mary Gayley Senni, May 26, 1921, author’s collection. All subsequent quotations from Julie are excerpted from this letter.

[7] Landmarks Preservation Commission Report, Designation List 127, LP-1048, September 11, 1979. http://www.neighborhoodpreservationcenter.org/db/bb_files/79---JAMES-F.D.-LANIER-RESIDENCE.pdf

[8] Michael Rosenthal, Nicholas Miraculous: The Amazing Career of the Redoubtable Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 250.

[9] Anton A. Huurdeman, The Worldwide History of Telecommunications (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2003), 318.

[10] See Margaret A. Brucia, "Alessandro Fabbri, the Rockefeller Institute & the Immortal Chicken Heart," Gotham: A Blog for Scholars of New York City History, September 5, 2017.[11] See, e.g., Robert Cohen, When the Old Left Was Young (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 23.

[12] Florence Gayley Montgomery to Mary Gayley Senni, May 30, 1921, author’s collection.