Monday, June 30, 2014

The Bug Under the Rug (Arthur Rubinstein & Luis Alvarez)

The Post-Standard [Syracuse, NY]
26 December 1961, p. 11.

By Leonard Lyons

ARTUR RUBINSTEIN tells of a French couple he knew who made their first trip to Moscow. They’d been warned that their hotel room probably would be bugged, so they searched for hidden wires. They found a lump under the rug, and there were the wires. They cut them and retired for the night… The next day the manager asked if they’d slept well. They said yes. “You weren’t awakened?” he asked. No.

“That’s strange,” said the manager, “because during the night the chandelier in the room directly below yours suddenly crashed down.”

Denys Parsons, Funny Ho Ho and Funny Fantastic (London: Pan Books, 1967), p. 23.

Miss Dorothy Provine, as she indicated but did not say, was clearly on the watch for secret agents following her and tapped telephones. She recalled a tale told her by pianist Rubinstein of one of his visits to Moscow. Mr Rubinstein, seeking for bugging in his hotel room, discovered some cunningly concealed wires under the carpet and carefully cut them all with his nail scissors, before going to bed.

‘The next morning,’ said Miss Provine, ‘the chambermaid told him: “A funny thing happened last night. For no reason at all the chandelier in the room below fell down.”’ Evening Standard

[The pianist is unidentified in the following three snippets from Google Book Search, but Rubinstein’s name does appear elsewhere on the page, so it may be about him. This variant ends with a fatality, which is unusual.]

Percy Tucker, Just the Ticket! (Jonathan Ball, 1997), p. 149.

During his first visit to Moscow after World War II, the pianist was convinced that his hotel room was bugged. Since many of the friends who would be visiting him were politically suspect in the Communist era, he instituted a thorough search of his room but could find no sign of a bugging device. At the dead of night, unable to sleep, he crawled

Using the only tool at hand, his nail file, he patiently sawed through the wires and climbed back into bed for a good night’s sleep.

exclaimed, “Thank heavens you are all right, maestro.” He then told the bemused pianist that the man in the room directly beneath his own had been found dead, killed by the fall of a chandelier directly above his bed…

[While researching the Rubinstein variant, I came across the following item which, if Hollander’s memory is correct, dates the legend to at least 1956.]

Jack Hollander, My Lunch with Shostakovich (Lulu, Inc., 2009), pp. 118-9.

When in spring 1956 I informed the Laboratory director, Ernest Lawrence, of my interest in visiting the Soviet Union, he responded that it was still politically premature – invitations were only beginning to come. And indeed, the first exchange visits, which took place shortly afterwards, involved very high level scientists. The first group of Soviet scientists to visit the Laboratory were prominent high-energy physicists, and their visit was soon followed by the return visit to the Soviet Union of a group of American physicists, which included the great Berkeley physicist, Luis Alvarez (1968 Nobel laureate).

[…] Immediately upon his return from the Soviet Union, Luis described what he had learned about Soviet physics at a packed laboratory-wide colloquium, and he included the following story. Suspicious about his hosts’ intentions, he assumed that his hotel room would be bugged, and he was determined to locate evidence of the bug. When he searched his room on the first evening, initially he found nothing. But then he lifted the carpet and there they were, in the middle of the floor – a large set of wires that were surely part of the electronic bugging system. Reaching for the little pliers he carried in his suitcase, Luis cut the wires and went to bed, satisfied with his sleuthing. When he was having breakfast the next morning, he was accosted by the maître-d, who asked, “Professor Alvarez, did you stay in Room 304 last night?” When Luis responded “No, I was in Room 404” the maître-d looked relieved and said “Oh, I am glad, because in the middle of the night the chandelier in Room 304 came loose and crashed to the floor!”