When the last of Albert Einstein's sealed personal letters were released this summer, the media couldn't resist taking potshots at the famous genius. Fox News titled its news segment "Albert Einstein: Genius, Stud Muffin." Talk show host Jimmy Kimmel recast Einstein as a B-grade celebrity. "He had like half a dozen girlfriends," Kimmel said. "He was like the Wilmer Valderrama of astrophysics."
Einstein's stepdaughter, Margot, anticipated this kind of snickering, because the letters—a series of intimate family dialogues—reveal that Einstein had affairs with seven or so women while married. When she bequeathed the letters to Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Margot therefore stipulated that they were not to be published until 20 years after her death. To those who understand Einstein best, however, the letters do little to diminish his legend.
Einstein scholars, who have known about the content of these letters for decades, are unfazed by the latest revelations. "You have to keep in mind that in Europe at the time, for a pursued, charismatic man, his behavior wasn't so unusual," says Harvard physicist and science historian Gerald Holton. "Moreover, the letters show that it was generally he who asked to end such relationships." Holton suggests the snide tone of the current headlines may reflect a backlash from last year's centennial-of-relativity celebrations. The record also shows, he points out, that far from bilking his first wife of his Nobel Prize money, over time Einstein provided her and their sons more money than he had received from Stockholm and that his relationship with his sons was much more sympathetic than has been presented by some.
Even more telling is how Einstein discussed his affairs. Instead of denials or apologies, he simply described his feelings and staked out a cosmic perspective: "Out of all the dames, I am in fact attached only to Mrs. L," Einstein wrote to his stepdaughter in 1931 (below, left) as he enlisted her help calming her irate mother. "And even with this there is no danger to the divine world order." Barbara Wolff, an archivist at Hebrew University, suggests that Einstein's behavior may reflect the adage that our greatest strengths are also often our greatest weaknesses. "The fact that he didn't try to hide his mistresses has to do with his need to be frank and open," she says.
Holton agrees that the tone of the letters is consistent with the mindset of the man who rejected scientific convention and dreamed up revolutionary theories of physics. "His character was to be very, very frank about everything, in terms of both scientific and personal matters. I wouldn't draw a straight-line connection, but there's certainly resonance of that in his achievements."