The Sunday Times (London). July 16, 2006.
An equation is for eternity, Albert Einstein observed, but it seems his wives were just for Christmas. Being faithful to his two spouses–and many girlfriends was a matter of relativity to the physicist, often characterised as a handsome flirt, an inconstant lover, a cruel husband and a distant father.
Correspondence released only last week shows him as a thoughtless man who felt free to discuss his affairs -and complain about being chased by love-crazed women -in letters to his second wife Elsa and even to his stepdaughter Margot.
The author of the theory of relativity was an attractive and charismatic titan with broad shoulders, thick curly hair and a sensuous mouth curved in a permanent smile. His mind may have been preoccupied with life’s mysteries, but he was acutely aware that women were attracted to him like iron filings are to a magnet.
“The upper half plans and thinks while the lower half determines our fate,” he wrote. Even Marilyn Monroe is said to have fancied him and wanted his baby.
Einstein’s career as a lady-killer began early. At the age of 16 he fell in love with Marie Winteler, the daughter of a German school teacher, who was two years older than him. He wrote to her:
“If you were here at the moment, I would defy all reason and give you a kiss for punishment and would have a good laugh at you as you deserve, sweet little angel.”
When he became a student at the Zurich Polytechnic the next year, Marie took a teaching job in a nearby town, meeting him at weekends and carting away his laundry.
Einstein was soon two-timing her with Mileva Maric, a shy, thin 21-year-old Hungarian with dark brooding eyes who walked with a limp. Four years older than him, she was the only woman studying physics at the institute. Despite his mother’s opposition, Einstein fell in love with her and expressed his passion in a little poem:
So crazy with desire, While thinking of his Dollie, His pillow catches fire It was not long, however, before the irrepressible Einstein was involved with someone else, Anneli Schmidt, the beautiful, 17-year-old strawberry blonde daughter of an innkeper in the Swiss town of Mettmenstetten, where his mother had taken him on holiday. His summer romance was to rebound on him later.
Then Mileva became pregnant. Marriage was out of the question due to the couple’s impoverishment and opposition by both families. Their illegitimate daughter was born in January 1902 and then vanished.
“Nobody knows what happened to the baby,” says Barbara Wolff, the Einstein archivist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which released the latest letters. “One theory is that the child was given up for adoption, while others think it died at an early age.”
A year later Einstein had got a job at the patent office and six years on was finally able to marry Mileva. They had two sons, Hans Albert and then Eduard, a sickly child who was later diagnosed with schizophrenia. Einstein later unkindly suggested it would have been better if Eduard had not been born, although he scrupulously paid for his medical treatment.
In 1909 he heard again from his former girlfriend Anneli, now married, congratulating him on becoming a professor at Zurich University. Einstein replied: “I cherish the memories of the lovely week that I was allowed to spend near you at the Paradise (Inn).” However, her reply was intercepted by a furious Mileva. Not for the first time, Einstein played the aggrieved innocent to his wife.
In 1912 he began an affair with his cousin, Elsa Lowenthal, a curvaceous woman with yellow hair, blue eyes and a sympathetic disposition. Newly divorced, she had two daughters, Ilse, 13, and Margot, 11. He complained to Elsa in a letter that his wife was “an unfriendly, humourless creature”.
In another letter he wrote: “I treat my wife as an employee whom I cannot fire.”
This was no exaggeration. As his marriage fell apart in 1914, he tersely spelt out Mileva’s duties in a letter: “You will expect no affection from me and you will not reproach me for this … You must answer me at once when I speak to you …
You must leave my bedroom or study at once without protesting when I ask you to go.”
Einstein confessed to Elsa: “I have grown so fond of you during those few days that I can hardly tell you how,” but he broke off the romance, explaining: “It will not be good for the two of us, or for others.”
However, after a year his need for female affection weakened his resolve. “I have to have someone to love, otherwise life is miserable,” he wrote to Elsa. “And that someone is you.”
Elsa lived in Berlin, which provided a pretext for Einstein to move to the city and “fire” his wife with the promise that if Mileva agreed to a divorce she would get the Nobel prize money that he expected. She returned to Zurich where she suffered a nervous breakdown.
Soon after, Einstein collapsed from the strain of work and moved into a flat adjoining Elsa’s, where she could care for him. Mileva finally agreed to a divorce in 1918, leaving the way open for Einstein and Elsa to marry, but once again by the time the wedding was imminent the physicist’s focus had already moved on. This time his roving eye had alighted rather too close to home on Elsa’s daughter, Ilse, then 20.
Einstein then made an extraordinary proposition: he would marry either Elsa, 44, or Ilse and he left it to them to decide which of them it would be. The problem was that Ilse was in love with Einstein’s friend Nikolai, to whom she confided: “Yesterday, suddenly the question was raised about whether A(lbert) wished to marry Mama or me … Albert himself is refusing to take any decision, he is prepared to marry either Mama or me. I know that A(lbert) loves me very much, perhaps more than any other man ever will, he also told me so himself yesterday.”
At 40, Einstein was impressed by the the “stunning youthfulness” of his young sort of stepdaughter but after much discussion, Ilse delivered her judgment: she did love Albert but only “as a father”. So Einstein married her mother.
It could not last. True to form, Einstein was soon head over heels in love with Betty Neumann, the niece of one of his best friends, whom he installed as his secretary and tried to integrate into family life. He conducted an affair with her for a year, apparently with Elsa’s grudging permission.
“Betty Neumann was the love of his life after Mileva,” says Wolff. But even Einstein realised he had gone too far and acknowledged his irresponsibility in exposing a young girl to such a fraught situation. He parted from Betty with the words: “(I) must seek in the stars what was denied to me on earth.”
As it turned out, there were quite a few ready and willing stars on earth. Between the mid-1920s and Einstein’s emigration from Nazi Germany to America in 1933, his correspondence reveals a galaxy of women orbiting him. Was he intimate with them? Woolf believes so: “I think the women jumped on him and then he on women. If someone is the victim of so much attention, maybe it was nice to give in.”
Einstein’s line to his long-suffering wife was that women showered him with “unwanted” affection. The worst offender, he claimed, was Ethel Michanowski, a 30-year-old Berlin socialite who pursued him relentlessly when he took up a position at Oxford.
“It is true that M followed me (to England) and her chasing after me is getting out of control,” he wrote to Margot. “But firstly I could hardly avoid it, and secondly when I see her again I will tell her that she should vanish immediately.”
Elsa died in 1936 and Einstein never married again, although in America he was feted and had many rumoured affairs. The latest batch of his letters shows him to be a more considerate husband and father than supposed, corresponding warmly with his children and stepchildren.
Einstein’s celebrity and attraction for women continued to perplex him.
“Gravitation is not responsible for people falling in love,” he concluded. The puzzle was why a man with his head in the clouds always seemed to end up horizontal.