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 When she bequeathed the letters to Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Margot therefore stipulated that they were not to be published until 20 years after her death.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."
Below are two letters send to Margot, Einstein's stepdaughter. Click on a letter to view a larger version of each letter (German to English translations provided below each message).
I'm writing to you because you're the most reasonable one and poor mother is really meshugge. It is true that M. followed me and her chasing after me is getting out of control. But, first of all, there was nothing I could do to prevent it and, secondly, the moment I see her I'll tell her to vanish immediately, if for no other reason than just to spare the natural and architectural beauty of England (and so on). Out of all the dames, I am in fact attached only to Mrs. L. who is absolutely harmless and decent, and even with this there is no danger to the divine world order. This morning I am getting all these letters from mother, Estella and Ms. Dukas - expressing horror. I don't care much what people are saying about me, but for mother and Mrs. M. it is better that not every Tom, Dick and Harry gossip about it. It seems all the more funny when on one hand you research the cosmos and on the other hand you need to be engaged in so gracefully ludicrous worldly matters, but that's the way it is with the earthly creature.
Against my expectations I feel very well here and I'm getting used (at least from my stand point of view) to the "England thing". I'm alone most of the time, in the middle of a giant study den making great progress with my work. As for the attached little piece of paper please hand it over to Mr. Mayer and I send you and Dimitri all my kindest regards.
You've twice shown me so much affection during my miseries. I appreciated it very much. I'm so much looking forward to you coming here and bringing your youthful energy into my dungeon. I feel a little better but it will still take some time until I am back to the old pig I used to be. For now all the best to you and Rudi and Ilse.
Courtesy of the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Who's your favorite Einstein? Read Corey Powell's essay about the many faces of the legendary physicist.