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Nyiregyházi and Einstein
by Kevin Bazzana (5.21.2008)

A reader of Lost Genius recently alerted Kevin Bazzana to a Nyiregyházi anecdote that appears in The Wind and Beyond, the autobiography of Theodore von Kármán, published posthumously in 1967. Kármán (1881-1963) was a renowned research engineer whose work, first in his native Hungary and later in Germany and the United States, greatly influenced various fields of technology, notably aeronautics and astronautics. In 1930, he became director of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, and he often socialized among the many other Hungarian émigrés in the Los Angeles area, including celebrities like the actors Paul Lukas and Bela Lugosi.

Chapter 23 of Kármán’s autobiography, titled “Bohr, Fermi, Einstein,” includes (on page 183) the following anecdote, which, sadly, offers yet more evidence that Nyiregyházi’s pride was one of the greatest impediments to his career:

One undertaking of mine involving [Albert] Einstein was a complete failure, but, happily, it was not in the scientific field. I had discovered that Nyiregy Hazi [sic], an eminent Hungarian concert pianist, was reduced by unfortunate circumstances to playing background music in a large hotel in Pasadena. In Budapest, he had been regarded as a genius, a Wunderkind; in fact, a psychology professor had written a book about him. My sister and I felt sorry for him. We thought he needed a chance to make good in this country, so we decided to help out by providing him with a large audience of Southern California artists and concert agents. We did this by arranging a party to honor Einstein and we invited the best-known concert agents in Southern California to meet the great mathematician and hear him play the violin. Needless to say, they all came.

During the evening, as we expected, Hazi was asked to play the piano. Unfortunately at that moment Mrs. Einstein got the idea that her husband should accompany Hazi on the violin. Everyone was delighted, but Hazi was indignant. “I do not accompany anyone,” he snapped and refused to play.

So our plan of bringing Hazi to the attention of the American music world ended in failure. Einstein, on the other hand, was delighted to play the violin, which he did. Everyone congratulated him and forgot the Wunderkind of Budapest.
This was not the first time Nyiregyházi and Einstein met, incidentally. Sometime between 1915 and 1917, when he was studying in Berlin, Nyiregyházi apparently visited Einstein at his home. (As a young prodigy, he was often shown off before local celebrities.) According to Nyiregyházi’s recollections, recorded by his last wife, Doris, this meeting was not congenial. For one thing, there was a clash of musical tastes: Einstein preferred Mozart and other Classical fare, while Nyiregyházi favored arch-Romantics like Liszt. Einstein, who fancied himself an expert amateur violinist, played for his young visitor, apparently with great pride, though Nyiregyházi (like many others who heard Einstein play) was not impressed. Whether Einstein recalled the earlier visit when Nyiregyházi appeared at Kármán’s party is not known.

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