Al’s Vacation

Look: a tourist t-shirt from Monterey, California, across the Monterey Bay from my home in Santa Cruz. I can wave at Monterey from the Santa Cruz shore.

Monterey does a good tourist business with its Cannery Row tourist district, giant aquarium, weather and natural beauty. I’m sure that they sell a lot of “Monterey” t-shirts to vacationers.

Taken as an artifact, then, this t-shirt is unexceptional: nothing more than a random graphic chosen by a souvenir vendor to be printed on cotton along with the town’s name.

Or is it?

I’m recently retired — yay. And with time on my hands, I’m growing a tendency to take something ordinary and dive right down the rabbit hole with it. It’s called “going meta,” short for “going metaphysical.”

When you go meta, you don’t just look for a reason. You look for a reason behind the reason:

Why a picture of Einstein? Does Einstein have something to do with Monterey? Sure, the image of Einstein is a well-known work called “Al’s Vacation” by California surf artist Rick Rietveld. It’s been on t-shirts for decades. And Monterey is on the California coast.

But why did the souvenir shop who ordered souvenir tees imprinted with “Monterey” really choose that graphic? Did they know something? Did Einstein actually come to Monterey? Or this this tee about nothing more than the California beach vibe after all?

Know this about tourist areas like Santa Cruz and Monterey: they’re all about creating as many photographable attractions as possible. If, say, John F. Kennedy had wandered through here and thrown up on the sidewalk after a night’s bender, you’d by now find that piece of pavement surrounded with a bronze ring bearing a nice plaque (“On this spot in 1959…”) for all the tourists to photograph.

I exaggerate: not very much, though. Not at all.

And Einstein is a giant of the 20th Century; its prophet, almost. My “going meta” obsession insisted that I find out if he’d ever made it up this way. Because he had definitely made it to California. In the ‘30s, he almost commuted to California

Starting in 1931, Einstein taught winter quarters at the Cal Tech campus in Pasadena. Even Pasadena sure beat Berlin in January. Einstein and his wife enjoyed California immensely; to them, it was a paradise.

This winter-quarter gig lasted through 1933, when Hitler took power in Germany and Einstein could no longer go home. He eventually landed at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in New Jersey.

But while he lived in California, Einstein got around. Even online, his travels through the southland are well documented. Yet nothing is said about trips to Northern California or the Central Coast.

Except… for a trip to Santa Barbara in early February, 1931, where he appeared at the opening o natural history museum. From that trip there exists a rather forlorn picture of Einstein in an overcoat on the beach in Santa Barbara, staring at the haze. Welcome to the Central Coast, Dr. Einstein. It looks like that sometimes.

Einstein in Santa Barbara

And as I looked closer, Einstein would return to Santa Barbara more than once; one of the Caltech trustees had a home there. The famous picture of Einstein on a bicycle was snapped at the trustee’s Santa Barbara house in February 1933, according to the photo info in the Calisphere online archives of California.

At any rate, Monterey lies 230 miles north of Santa Barbara by car. Einstein could have continued north on to Monterey on either trip, or not stopped in Santa Barbara at all. But what could have drawn him to the Monterey area?

At this point, my research began to stall out: I’m sheltering at home. I ‘m not leaving the house to go to the library, so I can’t read books on Einstein, if they even mention this minor period in the great man’s life. I’m limited to the online world.

But there exists a community of scholars who could assist me: the reference librarians of the Greater Monterey Bay Area, especially those from the Monterey Public Library. They answer email promptly. And one of them found an “Einstein Cottage” at a hotel in Carmel-by-the-Sea called the Forest Lodge. Carmel, not Monterey: but it’s just down the road.

I checked; the cottage exists. And one wall of the Forest Lodge’s main building features a mural of Einstein holding a protest sign. The sign reads “Love is the Answer.”

An artist who calls himself Mr. Brainwash painted the mural; he’s an acolyte and imitator of the famous street artist Banksy. Mr. Brainwash hit town in 2010 for the Carmel art and cinema festival and offered a free mural to anyone who’d give him a blank wall. Apparently the Forest Lodge offered their wall, and Einstein.

So I’d found an Einstein marker. I sent hotel an email and searched for links between Einstein and Carmel.

One existed. Just one.


His name was Johan Hagemeyer, and he was a photographer: portraits and landscapes, for your hire or for his own pleasure. In the 1920s, his photography studio in San Francisco pulled in the society customers, and his summer studio in Carmel pulled in the tourists.

Carmel was a well-known Bohemian art colony in those days, maybe a few years from hitting the very big time — and becoming less bohemian, But at that time it remained a very hip and beautiful place for starving artists to be, and create.

Hagemeyer was a somewhat big wheel in this art colony. In the ’20s, he owned one of the few galleries where work could be displayed. Hageman’s gallery staged famed photographer Ansel Adams’ first exhibition.

This vegetarian Dutch immigrant belonged to the pictorialists, a school of photography that held that fine photography should look like a painting: soft focus, a little hazy, soft lines. Making people look good was both his art and his livelihood. He’d alter photos after the fact to get the effect he wanted. This was all fine for pictorialists, the dominant force in artistic photography up to the ’20s.

Big Al kicks back.

He did well at it, and in early 1931 Hagemeyer took some rather sporty portraits of Einstein in Los Angeles. I like this goo-goo-eyed photo that Hagemeyer took of the great man.

So I thought I had it nailed: Einstein and Hagemeyer got along well at the studio session. And then perhaps Einstein came north to visit Carmel at Hagemeyer’s invitation. Hagemeyer was good with clients, good at chatting them up and relating to them. Maybe he and Einstein had become friendly and made some plans together.

Einstein must have been impressed with Hagemeyer overall, because the inventory of Hagemeyer’s papers in the Center for Creative Photography archives at the University Arizona includes one thank-you letter from Albert Einstein. I’d really like to see that thank-you letter.

And Einstein’s trip up to Santa Barbara took place just a few weeks after Hagemeyer snapped Einstein’s picture in LA. Makes you wonder if Einstein headed north from Santa Barbara instead of south again.

And if not that time, perhaps another. Einstein did have colleagues in Berkeley, after all, who had come down to greet him at Cal Tech when he first arrived; Carmel could have made a stop on the way to the Bay Area.

This t-shirt design is the classic “Einstein on a Bicycle” photo. Somebody changed the background and ‘shopped in a bike helmet.

Heck, I even found another Einstein t-shirt from Monterey in my collection. You’ll recognize the picture, slightly altered.

Then the Forest Lodge got back to me by email. They threw me for a loop. The concierge wrote:

Einstein did stay at the Forest Lodge long before it became a hotel. I’m not sure of all the details, but Edward Weston, famed photographer here, Owned or lived on that property and often had gatherings of guests including Einstein and Salvadore Dali, Must have been incredible here then during the Bohemian days. I don’t know of any documentation, ie: photos etc, but since Weston was a photographer and his family still owns a gallery here, that might be a place to start.

Who ate Pepper No. 30?

Edward Weston? I was completely confused. Weston was a brilliant innovator in 20th century artistic photography and the bane of pictorialists like Hagemeyer. He believed in clean sharp lines, not hazy imitation paintings, and he liked natural forms. If he took your portrait — and he did a bit of that — you’d see what was there. Whether you liked it or not.

And if Weston’s photograph of a natural shape led to — ahem — salacious interpretions in the minds of some, that wasn’t his problem. Behold one of Weston’s most famous photographs, Pepper No. 30. Weston photographed a lot of organic forms; for awhile, it was all about peppers . After he photographed them, he ate them; money was tight. Weston liked to joke about eating his models. For years he and one of his sons argued jokingly over which of them actually ate Pepper No. 30.

Weston, photograph by Hagemeyer.

Weston hung with Imogen Cunningham, Ansel Adams and other photographers of similar bent who would, steer artistic photography in the direction of clean lines, artful light, and the interest to be gleaned from natural or everyday shapes.

Weston and Hagemeyer were good friends, despite their philosophical differences. But how was Hagemeyer a link between Einstein and Weston? It drove me crazy.

But as I would finally learn: Weston was never in the picture at all. Hagemeyer moved to Los Angeles in 1929 in search of fat Hollywood commissions. He stayed in LA awhile, and let Weston live in his Carmel cottage for a year or more. Hagemeyer’s cottage is the Einstein Cottage, 90 years on.

A reference librarian — bless those people — connected me with Weston’s grandchildren and their spouses, who happily confirmed between them that the cottage was Hagemeyer’s, and that they’d never heard of an Einstein/Weston meeting.

Hagemeyer returned to Carmel in about ’31 (probably soon after his portrait session with Einstein) and took back his cottage. Hagemeyer and Weston argued over rent money, and weren’t as close after that. Weston settled elsewhere in Carmel and became very famous if not rich. Hagemeyer gave up his San Francisco studio and made a comfortable living in Carmel through the ’30s and ‘40s, though his school of photography was no longer as popular.

Hagemeyer left town forever in ’47, because he felt that bohemian Carmel was becoming too commercial. He should see it now. Hagemeyer moved on to the Bay Area and eventual obscurity.

As for the hotel’s garbled story: 90 years is a long time. Think of a game of telephone that’s 90 years long. Einstein, Hagemeyer, Weston: they’re all connected to the cottage. Two of those names are photographers. Two of those names are famous. Over time and retelling, Hagemeyer — not famous — drops out of the account.

That’s my theory: the legend came to be about a meeting between Weston and Einstein instead of Hagemeyer and Einstein, because Weston’s still a household name in Carmel but Hagemeyer’s nearly forgotten. It’s possible that Weston was present when Einstein visited, but it was Hagemeyer’s party.

Moreover, the hotel concierge mentioned that Salvador Dali visited the cottage and was hosted by Weston also. That’s another garble, because Dali didn’t show up until the ’40s — he waited out the war in America, mostly in Carmel — and Weston was long out of Hagemeyer’s cottage by then. I’d certainly bet a dollar that Hagemeyer invited the famous surrealist over to the cottage at least once.

So I’m convinced that Einstein stopped for a visit and look-around in Carmel. It welcomed tourists even then — so why not? What did he and Hagemeyer talk about, or do? No one knows.

We now return to the original meta-question: did the person who put Einstein’s picture on a tourist tee 80 years later know any of this, or was it just another kewl vacation graphic to them? Possibly they knew; I know now that the Einstein story floats around Monterey and Carmel in garbled form. But it’s clear that a lot of people don’t know it; even reference librarians.

But if in this world so much of the truth we’re told is actually bullshit, it’s equally possible that much of the bullshit that we spew is true without our knowledge. This is a very meta thought, and rather daunting. Rather as daunting as finding Einstein virtually in your backyard: revealed by a t-shirt that told a sort of truth, but may not have intended to.

So then, what about the illustration on that t-shirt? What truth does it reveal, whether intended or not? Did Einstein ever cavort free of care on any beach anywhere?

Oh yeah. Nice legs on that physicist.

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