Memories of Heinz Pagels

Jeremy Bernstein

Reading Elaine Pagels’s new book, Why Religion? A Personal Story, brought back memories of my friendship with her husband Heinz Pagels. I met him in 1966 when he arrived at the Rockefeller University. I had no knowledge of his work but he struck me as a golden boy. He was very handsome and looked more like someone who might sing folk songs for a living than a theoretical physicist. He had been born in New York City in 1939 and attended Princeton. He then went to Stanford for his graduate work and took his PhD in 1965 under the direction of Sidney Drell. I recently looked at the paper they published and it still holds up. Heinz then spent a brief time at the University of North Carolina. I do not know how he found his way to the Rockefeller but there he was.

The Rockefeller University began in 1913 as the Rockefeller Institute, devoted to biomedical research. That is still its main focus but in 1954 it became a PhD-granting university. There are no undergraduates and no courses taught. Pagels was there for 16 years without getting tenure. He had had an offer from Columbia which he turned down because Abraham Pais had promised him tenure at the Rockefeller. For much of the time Pagels was there I was a visitor in Baqi Beg’s laboratory. It became clear to me that Pagels was not going to get tenure no matter what Pais had promised. The other theorists did not want a tenure position to go to someone outside their fields unless he or she was going to get a Nobel Prize.

Michael Cohen, a student of Richard Feynman’s at CalTech, had a friend named George Stranahan who was not only a physicist but also an heir to the Champion Spark Plug fortune. After teaching at a university for a couple of years Stranahan decided to establish himself in the Aspen Valley. He had been skiing in Aspen with his family when he was younger and wanted to make it his permanent home. He bought vast tracts of land near Woody Creek and named it the Flying Dog Ranch. Cohen pitched an idea to him: a place where working physicists could assemble to talk to each other, with no students and none of the administrative responsibilities of academic life. Robert Craig, the president of the Aspen Institute, thought it an excellent idea and suggested it could be part of the Institute which would provide the land. Stranahan donated enough money for the first building, which still bears his name. A second building was named for Hans Bethe, who donated part of his Nobel Prize money towards its construction. The Aspen Center for Physics opened its doors in 1962. I had heard about it from Cohen and began spending parts of my summers there. Pagels too began coming to Aspen and before long we were sharing an office.

Aspen is surrounded by high mountains several of them over 4000 metres in altitude. The physicists either were or became climbers. We did so much climbing that eventually we wrote a little guide. I came to know some of the local climbers and they often joined us. We came to have a routine of climbing every Saturday and on Thursdays going for a long bike ride, usually to the Pine Creek Cookhouse, about twelve miles from the physics centre at an altitude of about 3000 metres. We chose Thursday because one of the locals was Bill Dunaway who owned the weekly Aspen Times which was put to bed on Thursday mornings.

By the late 1980s Pagels had become a widely read author of popular science books. (I once wrote a book that was chosen by the Book of the Month Club and they sent a photographer to Aspen to take pictures of me. I arrived at the centre to find the photographer taking pictures of Pagels, who had claimed to be me. To prove otherwise I had to show the photographer my driver’s licence. He was not amused.) Pagels was also the executive director of the New York Academy of Sciences and had succeeded in transforming what had been a second-rate, rather moribund institution into a dynamic success.

We began the summer of 1988 in Aspen with our usual Thursday bike ride. Pagels decided that it would be amusing to race me up some hills, races that he won uncontested. I arrived at the Cookhouse to find him on the floor in excruciating pain. He was suffering from leg cramps. A kind patron of the restaurant got him and his bicycle into a vehicle and drove him home. The next day he appeared in the office as chipper as ever and ready to discuss Saturday’s climb. We had decided to climb Blue Peak. I had climbed it several times and been rewarded by an incredible 360-degree view of the surrounding mountains. There were a couple of different routes, all of them easy. In the spring, people often skied down from near the summit. We expected a pleasant ramble and Pagels brought along Seth Lloyd who had just taken his PhD with him at Rockefeller. Near the summit Pagels announced that it would be unsporting to take the same route down. He proposed that we go to the top and down the other side. This was a route that none of us knew and I am always wary of trying novelties on descents. You can readily find yourself in a situation where you can go neither up nor down. But Pagels took off and lemming-like we all followed.

We were confronted almost immediately by a steep cliff. Fortunately there were good holds and we all got down safely onto a broad ridge. We could walk along it until we came to a comfortable scree slope down which we could slalom to a trail below. We surprised a few hikers who had no idea where we had come from. I was feeling rather pleased about the whole thing until I saw Pagels lying on the grass. His leg had apparently given away. He had had polio as a child and it had left a weakness in his legs. Considering the way he loped down mountain trails this was the last thing I would have suspected. I also noted that his boots were absolutely horrible, beaten up and pronated out of shape. I told him he was crazy to climb and hike in boots like that but he said they were comfortable. There was no arguing with him.

On Saturday, 23 July I had arranged with my brother and sister-in-law to go on a nice climb not far from Vail. I suggested that Heinz come along but he said that he had promised to take Seth Lloyd up Pyramid Peak, one of the more difficult 4000-metre mountains in Colorado. At one point on the north-north-west ridge – I’d noted it climbing the route with Heinz the previous year – there’s a step onto a ledge that takes you briefly over the sheer north face of the mountain, a drop of more than 600 metres. I wished Heinz well and the next day did the climb with my brother and sister-in-law. I came back to Aspen in the late afternoon. I had just taken a hot shower when the phone rang. It was Elaine Pagels. Heinz had been killed on Pyramid Peak.

Pyramid Peak © Wolfgang Moroder

Pyramid Peak © Wolfgang Moroder

Seth Lloyd later told me what had happened. They had done the traverse from the north-north-east ridge over the top and were descending the north-north-west ridge when Heinz fell at the spot I had marked a year earlier. He was still wearing his awful boots and probably his leg gave way. He fell over the north face and never had a chance. The only thing that Seth could do was get down as fast as he could to notify the park rangers.

Some weeks later Elaine called me to say that the New York Academy of Sciences had cut off Heinz’s salary at the moment of his death which had left her in some distress until the estate was probated. I called the chairman of the board of trustees, whom I knew, and told him that Heinz had rescued his institution from mediocrity and that if this policy persisted I would do my best to make it widely known with the hope that it might put them out of business. They restored Heinz’s salary.

For a few years on the anniversary of the accident Elaine held a reception for people who knew Heinz at their house in Aspen, and we met from time to time on other occasions, but it was only on reading her new memoir that I realised how little I knew about her.

She was born Elaine Hiesey on 13 February 1943. Her father was a plant biologist at a Carnegie institution on the Stanford Campus. He sounds like a very unpleasant man with a vile temper and her mother was having her own problems. Elaine found real affection with her maternal grandparents. As a teenager she began hanging out with a group in Menlo Park that included Jerry Garcia. She had a romance with a painter who was killed in a car crash. She graduated from Stanford and moved to New York to study dance with Martha Graham. But the life of a dancer was not for her and she applied to Harvard to do a PhD in the history of religion. They wrote to her:

Ordinarily we would admit an applicant with your qualifications. However we are not able to offer a place in our doctoral program to a woman, since we have so many qualified applicants, and we are able to admit only seven to our doctoral program. In our experience, unfortunately, women students always have quit before completing the degree.

But she eventually got her degree from Harvard, and later an honorary one too. Her first book, The Gnostic Gospels, was a tremendous success and she was one of the early MacArthur ‘genius’ fellows.

She first spotted Heinz when she was 17 and still in high school. He was a stunning presence but nothing came of it. She met him again at Stanford and then again five years later, and this time he invited her to New York. They married in 1969 and after several years had a son, Mark, who was born with an incurable heart defect. He died in 1987 at the age of six and a half. They also had two adopted children.

Heinz fell from Pyramid Peak only a year after Mark’s death. Elaine writes that she wanted to see his body in the hospital but was told she could not because they had found it in fragments. She could feel what was left of it through the body bag. There was a service at the Episcopal Church. Elaine held onto the metal coffin. Seth spoke about their climb and the pleasure they had in reaching the summit. Heinz was cremated and the ashes sent to Elaine. I found this part of her book almost unbearable to read.


  • 8 January 2019 at 10:32pm
    Rod Miller says:
    Jeez. I'd known a tiny little something of Elaine Pagel's work, mostly through interviews and articles, and gathered from what she said she lived in Philadelphia. Then I found myself reading a paperback entitled “The Cosmic Code” by one Heinz Pagels – in which he mentions growing up in Philadelphia -- and thought This can’t be a coincidence: they must be siblings; talented family.

    Later I learned the truth, but no details.

    Living in the Alps, I have to say it makes me sigh with incomprehension when I read that he had lousy shoes and took no better precautions for his legs. You simply don’t trifle with mountains.

    The story about the photographer made me laugh – makes Pagels sound likeably playful.