Getting Einstein’s Autograph

It’s Certainly the Closest to Genius I’ll Ever Get , but It’s Still a Good Story

Family-owned pic, used with permission.

Parents can leave behind the darnedest things. Like, for instance, Albert Einstein’s autograph.

Back in the 1950s my father liked to collect autographs. Very special autographs. Among his collection are signatures of former U.S. presidents, diplomats and army generals, a revered First Lady and, yes, the greatest physicist the world has ever known. In other words, some of the most famous names of the 20th Century. All of them signed on blocks of commemorative stamps and mailed back to the house at 435 South 68th Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Throughout his life Dad was an avid philatelist, or stamp collector to you and me. He was also a history buff. Sometime in 1953 he came up with a rather novel idea. Somehow he found official mailing addresses for these dignitaries — and no, I don’t know how he managed to do that. Wish I did. Anyway, he then mailed out letters with variations of the following request:

Dear Mr. — — — :

I have what I believe is a most interesting hobby for my daughter and myself and I am taking the liberty of imposing on you. I collect signatures of dignitaries on commemorative stamp issues, and I would be deeply indebted to you if you would kindly sign the two enclosed blocks of stamps. Your signature would add a great prestige to my collection. Two recent signatures I have secured are those of President Harry Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt.

I have enclosed a self-addressed stamped envelope. Many thanks for this imposition, and the best of wishes to you.

Sincerely,

Clarence J. Stolt

Like I said, we’re talking big names here. A few, like the poet Carl Sandburg and medical missionary Albert Schweitzer, never responded. Some, like Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill, had office staffers send back what they acknowledged were signature replicas.

But as for the rest, the response was nothing short of amazing: Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover, U.S. Generals Omar Bradley and George Marshall, Frank Lloyd Wright and Billy Graham. Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Senator Joe McCarthy — and more. A veritable who’s who of late twentieth century American history.

(He even managed to track down the two oldest living soldiers who fought in the Civil War and get their signatures — Union soldier Albert Woolson, who died in 1956 and Confederate Walter Williams, who lived until 1959.)

But the ultimate prize for me would have to be the signature of Albert Einstein — the man often called the father of modern physics; the man who would later become Time magazine’s Person of the Twentieth Century.

The man who was described by writer Frederic Golden as “the genius among geniuses who discovered, merely by thinking about it, that the universe was not as it seemed.”

I mean, having the autograph of the most recognized scientist in the history of modern man — how cool is that?

Family-owned pic, used with permission.

Is it the real thing? All I can say is it looks real to me, and I have no reason to doubt its authenticity. I might be more skeptical of trying to obtain any such autograph in today’s insulated, public relations world. But back in the 1950s this had to have been, for all these dignitaries, a rather extraordinary request from an ordinary man from Milwaukee.

‘What a peculiar idea,’ an elderly Einstein might have thought after reading the typewritten note from my father that came in with that day’s mail batch. Maybe another second or two of thought. Then — ‘Why not?’

He picks up a pen and carefully signs his name and the year — ’53 —on one small three-cent stamp before putting it in the return envelope and getting on with the rest of his day. A secretary or assistant would see that it got mailed out in the self-addressed envelope that was provided.

It’s fun to think that just maybe that’s how it happened.

And yet in a way I don’t really care if the signature is genuine or not. For one thing, this whole collection is too personal and priceless for me to try to sell it just to make a few buck. And if Dad had the wherewithal to write a letter to Albert Einstein and all these other famous people in the first place, well, that’s good enough for me to hold on to it right there.

But by way of providing proof of authenticity I do have the self-addressed return envelope that was used and it is postmarked 7 am on June 3, 1953 from Princeton, New Jersey.

Family-owned pic, used with permission.

What I do know for sure is that this unique project was a labor of love for my father. And where once he delighted in playing ever so lightly in the footnotes of history, well, now so can I.

Wisconsin-based writer, storyteller and history buff. Keep it simple. Make it real.

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