Sunday Herald Sun (Melbourne, Australia). April 29, 2001.
He was perhaps the 20th century’s greatest mind. But his genius masked a turbulent private life—a wife bent on revenge, a voluptuous mistress and her temptress daughter.
Perched on the sofas in the sitting room, with its yellow wallpaper, portrait of Frederick the Great and busts of Schiller and Goethe, the two women were yet again debating the question that had raged for weeks in the Berlin flat.
Which of them, mother or daughter, should the brilliant physicist Albert Einstein marry?
One was his long-time mistress, the other her nubile daughter with whom he had recently fallen in love. It was he who had suggested to the women that the choice was theirs.
Einstein himself, arguably the greatest problem-solver of the 20th century, sat silently opposite them as the extraordinary discussion continued.
As a new book about the love life of this phenomenal scientist makes clear, Einstein had always been a magnet for women.
Of medium height, with broad shoulders, he had a sensuous mouth that always seemed to be slightly smiling, thick, curly black hair, an energetic love of life and a rebellious confidence that attracted men and women alike.
Although nothing was allowed to interfere with his work—so constantly obsessing him that he would often forget to put on socks or underwear or even eat—he was fascinated by women and extremely flirtatious.
Or as Einstein himself put it: “The upper half plans and thinks while the lower half determines our fate.”
His own fate of a first, unhappy marriage was determined in exactly that way.
He was born in Ulm, in south-west Germany, on March 14, 1879. At school, his fierce independence of mind manifested itself in a general disruptiveness, but early on he showed brilliance in mathematics, philosophy and music.
When his parents moved to Milan, he took the entrance examinations to the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich in 1896 (he did not have the necessary qualification for a university), doing so well in the maths and physics exams that he was accepted on condition he went back to school for a year to bring his languages and history up to standard.
The edict produced his first serious girlfriend. For his year at secondary school, he stayed with one of the teachers, Jost Winteler, soon regarding Winteler’s house as more of a home than his own. Perhaps inevitably, he fell in love with one of the daughters, Marie.
Pretty Marie was two years older but worried that she was not on Einstein’s intellectual level.
He tried to reassure 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,” he wrote.
At 17 he entered the polytechnic, a handsome boy with unruly dark curls and bright, insolent eyes who could play the violin exquisitely. A personality both forceful and charismatic.
Marie took a teaching job in a small mountain town an hour and a half away. During the four years he would be at the polytechnic they planned to meet at the Winteler house at weekends—and she told him she would do his laundry. The physics and mathematics section was small—five students only—but his brilliance was soon noticed.
“This Einstein will one day be a very great man,” wrote a student prophetically to his parents.
One of the group was a 21-year-old Hungarian, Mileva Maric—shy, thin and exotic, with dark hair, a wide mouth, dark brooding eyes and an alluring voice.
Einstein was intrigued by her. Poor Marie—steadfastly collecting his laundry from the station to take home and wash before another journey to the station to return it—at first refused to realise their relationship was fraying and, finally, over.
At the polytechnic, the relationship with Mileva progressed slowly, but by the time Einstein left in the spring of 1899 they were deeply in love. Despite this, he was soon briefly embroiled with someone else.
That summer, his mother took him for a holiday to the little resort town of Mettmensten, about 30 minutes by train from Zurich.
There they stayed at the Paradise Inn. Also staying there, as she did every summer with her family, was the innkeeper’s sister-in-law, Anneli Schmid—a beautiful 17-year-old with strawberry blonde hair and bright blue eyes.
Einstein spent a chaste but enchanted few weeks in her company. But it was a summer romance that would later come back to haunt him.
Back in the real world, work was essential. His hard-pressed family had stopped his monthly allowance the moment he left college. Marriage—vehemently opposed by his parents because he was so young—had to wait temporarily.
He took a series of temporary jobs, wrote his first learned article for a scientific journal and sent letters to Mileva.
“Three-quarters of our stupid time apart is now over, soon I’ll be with my sweetheart again and kiss her, hug her, brew coffee, scold, work, laugh, chat … ad infinitum,” he wrote in August 1900.
Even when Mileva became pregnant, marriage—with both families opposing it and no money—was not an option. Their baby daughter, born in January 1902, was adopted out (nothing is known of what became of her).
A year later, Einstein’s father died and the fight went out of his mother. Einstein, with a permanent job at the Patent Office and several more scientific articles written in his spare time under his belt, was finally able to marry Mileva.
But the bloom had already worn off their six-year relationship, though, at first, all seemed well.
To the delight of both of them, their son Hans Albert was born in May, 1904. Einstein would push him round the town, a pipe in the father’s mouth and a notepad lying open and ready in the pram.
He achieved his doctorate with his first major scientific paper, New Determination of Molecular Dimensions. But he was still tortured by what later became his Theory of Relativity, searching endlessly for a pattern that would make sense of the relationship between time and space.
He became so fed up and exhausted that, as he told a physicist friend when they were walking home from the office one evening: “I’ve decided to give it all up.”
That night, the last pieces fell into place. It took him five weeks of exhausting work to transmute his theory into a mathematical progression that could appear on paper. Then he collapsed and went to bed for a fortnight.
The theory first appeared in 1905 as an article called On the Electrodynamics of Motion. He was 26, a civil servant by trade who had not been inside a laboratory for years, and most of his fellow scientists scoffed.
But his reputation for scientific originality and brilliance was spreading, enabling him to move into the academic world.
I N 1909 he became a professor at Zurich University. A few days later he received a congratulatory note. It was from Anneli, his holiday resort love of 10 years earlier, now a Basle housewife.
Einstein replied at once. “I probably cherish the memories of the lovely weeks that I was allowed to spend near you at the Paradise even more than you do,” he wrote, adding he hoped she would visit him in Zurich.
Anneli’s reply was intercepted by Mileva. Furious, she made Einstein send the letter back, then wrote to Anneli’s husband, George, complaining that his wife’s behaviour was inappropriate.
Einstein was mortified, and in his turn wrote to George saying that his own intentions were pure and Anneli had behaved totally honourably.
“It was wrong of my wife—and excusable only on account of extreme jealousy—to behave without my knowledge the way she did,” he wrote.
Einstein had begun to find Mileva’s obsessive devotion and dark soul burdensome rather than intriguing. But his professional reputation was spreading fast. Soon after the birth of a second son, Edward, in May 1910, he accepted a professorship in Prague.
It was here that he heard some welcome news. In November 1911 Marie Winteler—who had spent some time in a mental institution after the ending of their love affair—had married the manager of a watch factory outside Berne.
With her wedding and the happy news of the birth of her son nine months later, the guilt that Einstein had felt towards her and, by extension, to his adopted family, faded.
“I frankly welcome Marie’s marriage,” he said. “With it a dark point in my life dwindles.”
In 1912, Zurich University reclaimed him. It was a welcome move for Mileva, who had disliked Prague and felt the clean air of Switzerland was a healthier place to bring up children.
For Einstein, growing steadily unhappier in his marriage, there was another change. Before going to Zurich, he visited Berlin where he saw fellow scientists, friends and family—including his second cousin Elsa. It was the first time they had met since his childhood.
She was a plumpish woman with curly yellow hair, bright blue eyes and a warm, sympathetic manner. Newly divorced, she had two daughters, Ilse, 13 and Margot, 11.
Einstein was delighted. Elsa’s sunny nature made a welcome change from Mileva’s depressed intensity and icy coldness. No sooner was he back in Prague than Einstein received a letter from Elsa, to which he replied: “I have grown so fond of you during those few days that I can hardly tell you how.”
Although a month later he wrote to break off the romance (“I have the feeling it will not be good for the two of us, as well as for the others, if we form a closer attachment”), his vow to keep away from Elsa lasted less than a year.
For although entirely focused on his work, he needed female affection.
“I have to have someone to love, otherwise life is miserable,” he wrote to Elsa. “And that someone is you.”
He was a persistent suitor. When she taunted him with being henpecked, he used this to forward their flirtation, assuring her that: “I regard myself as a fully adequate male. Perhaps there’ll be an opportunity to prove it to you.”
Next came an honour unprecedented for a 34-year-old—election to Berlin’s Prussian Academy of Science, a post with a higher salary and no teaching duties.
“Next spring I’ll be coming to Berlin forever,” he told Elsa. “Let’s be happy together!”
From Zurich he wrote that he had moved into a separate bedroom from his wife.
Soon, the marriage finally fractured into separation. After agreeing on an income, Mileva took their sons to Zurich and Einstein moved to a bachelor flat in Berlin. He was there when war was declared on August 4, 1914.
Einstein, who believed in the internationalism of science, felt angrily out of step with his compatriots. His passion for his work meant he felt he had to stay in Berlin and he wrote to Mileva, telling her to divorce him.
“You will see that I will always remain true to you—in my way,” he wrote. But she refused, clinging to the hope they would one day be reunited.
For the next two to three years, Einstein was feverishly active, working exhaustively, until he had further developed his great Theory of Relativity, this time bringing in the effects of gravity.
In February 1917, he finally collapsed with stomach pains. In two months he lost 25kg. He moved into a flat in the same building as Elsa’s, 5 Haberlandstrasse, so she could look after him.
He became increasingly eccentric, often forgetting to put on underwear.
I N 1918 Mileva finally agreed to a divorce. Now the way was finally open for Einstein and Elsa to marry. The only trouble was that he had fallen in love with another woman—Elsa’s daughter, Ilse, now 20.
Ilse herself, though devoted to Einstein, was in love with his friend Nikolai.
“I know that Albert loves me very much,” she wrote to Nikolai, saying Einstein had confessed he had trouble controlling his sexual feelings when he was with her.
Although one friend described his impression of Albert at 40 as one of “stunning youthfulness and very romantic”, Ilse did not find him attractive.
“I have never sensed the wish or the slightest desire to be close to him physically,” she confided to Nikolai.
Einstein, torn between desire and the knowledge his duty lay with Else, suggested the two decide which of them he should marry. He would, he said, abide by their decision.
Else, now 44, conscious that she was losing her looks and anxious not to force Einstein into a marriage he did not want, left the choice to her daughter.
Finally, after hours of exhaustive discussion and letters back and forth to Nikolai, Ilse gave her verdict: much as she loved Albert, “it was as a father.” Albert married Else.
By November 1919 Einstein was world famous. His revolutionary theory had predicted that even light was subject to the effects of gravity, which meant that the light from distant stars could be bent by a large body such as the sun.
To test this theory, a solar eclipse was needed, and in 1919 Britain mounted an expedition to a small island off equatorial West Africa, which confirmed his theory.
As a result, Einstein was feted everywhere, visiting London and New York, honoured by their most distinguished scientists and awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize for Physics (by the terms of his divorce, he gave the award money—the then-huge sum of $US32,000—to Mileva).
Work and fame did not interrupt his love life. Soon after his return from a visit to Japan, he fell in love with Betty Neuman, the young woman who became his secretary after Ilse’s marriage.
But this violent passion ended in late 1924, when he wrote to “dear Betty” saying that he “must seek in the stars that which was denied him on earth.”
His magnetism for women continued. One blonde Austrian beauty called on him every week; another, a wealthy and elegant widow would call for him in her chauffeur-driven car, give Elsa a box of chocolate creams, and drive off with him to the opera or a concert. Although these liaisons were platonic, Elsa naturally hated them, but had little choice.
Einstein went on working in Berlin until Adolf Hitler seized power in January 1933, when he and those around him went into exile in the US.
By October, he was established at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study in New Jersey. Here, he was regarded as a living legend—and there were rumours of numerous infidelities.
On December 21, 1936, Elsa died. Albert survived her for almost 20 years, dying during the night of April 18, 1955, when a weakness in the wall of a major abdominal blood vessel—the cause of his life-long stomach pains—finally burst.