Did you know that Albert Einstein cheated on both his wives, multiple times. And was kind of a pervert
Albert Einstein’s standing as a scientific genius and cultural icon are second to none. His contributions to physics and his wider intellectual concerns have led to countless accolades: he was named “Person of the Century” by Time magazine five years ago and been voted the greatest physicist of all time by Physics World. But some believe that such glowing tributes are wide of the mark, and point to darker elements in Einstein’s career and personal life.
Probably the most widely believed claim about Einstein’s darker side concerns his first wife, Mileva Maric. Maric was also a physics student, three years older than Einstein, and rumours have spread since the early 1990s that she was the real brains of the partnership. The story reached its widest audience with the 2003 US television documentary, Einstein’s Wife.
Maric came to general attention with the publication of the love letters between herself and Einstein as part of the Princeton Press’ Collected Papers of Albert Einstein. The letters show that the two students discussed their work and planned to carry out research together, and that Maric supported her lover while he looked for work before they married in early 1903.
But did she collaborate on those vital papers of 1905 or even, as some critics claim, do the bulk of the work? Even the 2003 documentary admitted that the evidence was slim. The key piece of evidence waved by Mileva’s advocates comes via the Soviet physicist Abram Joffe who, it is claimed, wrote in a 1955 obituary of seeing an original manuscript signed by ‘Einstein-Marity’ (a Hungarianised form of Maric), implying that the two originally shared credit. However, Joffe makes no claim about having seen the original papers, but believed that such a hyphenated surname was the Swiss custom.
“The fact there was nothing by Maric in her own name or co-signed with Einstein, either before she met him, while they were living together, or in the 30 years after they separated, I take as strong evidence that she never played a major creative role in his thinking,” says John Stachel, director of the Center of Einstein Studies at Boston University, and editor of the Collected Papers.
Mileva did act as Einstein’s amanuensis, checking his calculations and looking up data, but while he continued to discuss his work in his letters to her, Mileva often did not reply in kind. “We have one of his most important letters about the electrodynamics of moving bodies, and her response where she discusses everything else in his letter but that,” Stachel adds. “There’s no evidence she acted as anything more than a sounding board for his ideas.”
Einstein may not have cheated Mileva of her intellectual rights, but he was still far from the ideal husband. A year before they married, Maric gave birth to a daughter, Lieserl, while Einstein was away. The child’s fate is unknown – she is presumed to have been given up for adoption, perhaps under pressure from Einstein, who is thought to have never seen his first born.
After the marriage, Mileva bore two sons but the family was not to stay together. Einstein began an affair with his cousin Elsa Lowenthal while on a trip to Berlin in 1912, leaving Mileva and his family two years later.
Einstein and Mileva finally divorced in 1919, but not until after Einstein sent his wife a list of ‘conditions’ under which he was willing to remain married. The list included such autocratic demands as “You are neither to expect intimacy nor to reproach me in any way”. After the divorce, he saw little of his sons. The elder, Hans Albert, later reflected: “Probably the only project he ever gave up on was me.” The younger, Eduard, was diagnosed with schizophrenia and died in an asylum.
Einstein married Elsa soon after the divorce, but a few years later began an affair with Betty Neumann, the niece of a friend. By one account, Elsa allowed Einstein to carry on with this affair to prevent him sneaking around. That relationship ended in 1924, but Einstein continued to have liaisons with other women until well after Elsa’s death in 1936. He didn’t remarry.
Einstein wanted and enjoyed the company of women, and his intellectual celebrity certainly wouldn’t have hurt his chances with the socialites of Berlin or, later, the women of America. The relationships rarely lasted, however – usually once they were established, Einstein cooled off and looked elsewhere. Avoiding deep emotional ties in this way may have given him the solitude he needed to pursue his work, but few would find such behaviour admirable.