Family Man

By Roger Highfield and Paul Carter
Faber and Faber, 355 pp.

First, the bad news. Remember saintly old Albert Einstein? The genius, pacifist and profoundly moral public figure? It turns out he was a philanderer who may well have died from complications arising from syphilis. He gave up his first child for adoption, probably beat his sons, bought his way out of his first marriage by promising his wife the cash from his Nobel Prize – an honour he hadn’t yet won – then married his cousin, with whom he’d been having an affair. Although the evidence is circumstantial, it’s altogether possible that he struck his wife in the face on at least one occasion.

The kindly, impish eccentric of popular memory takes something of a beating himself at the hands of journalists Roger Highfield and Paul Carter, respectively the science editor of Britain’s Daily Telegraph and a senior editor with The Daily Express. But this is neither a scandal-mongering potboiler nor the latest character assassination of the pantheon’s dead white European male models. The Private Lives of Albert Einstein is an even-handed and clear-headed account of the only aspect of Einstein’s life that hasn’t yet received a public airing. It is about his relations with his family.

True, this is Oprah territory, but if Einstein emerges as a demi-ogre, he had only himself to blame. For the most part, Highfield and Carter’s evidence is his private correspondence – the flawed hero in his own words. Even discounting the tendency in us all to judge the past according to the present, Einstein still looks like a lousy husband, an infuriating father and an intermittent pain to everyone who was close to him.

How this correspondence came to light is a story in itself, and the book closes with a chapter on what amounts to its own making. When Einstein died in 1955, he bequeathed control of his literary estate to his long-time secretary Helen Dukas and the economist Otto Nathan. Together, these two guarded the great man’s reputation with a tenacity that bordered on the maniacal. They suppressed anything that was at odds with Einstein’s hallowed public image, harassed the editors of Princeton University Press who were compiling his collected papers for publication, may well have destroyed the most incriminating correspondence, and went so far as to legally prevent his daughter-in-law from publishing a book based on letters in her possession.

It was only in 1987, after Nathan’s death, that the full correspondence began to be published and a more rounded portrait of Einstein emerged. Even today, the most sensitive documents, such as those pertaining to his divorce, remain under legal seal.

It’s not that Einstein lived a lie, or even that he was a purposely unkind man. He genuinely wished the best for those he loved, but his status as the century’s most celebrated genius meant that he was indulged by all around him, and the compassion he so assiduously cultivated in his public persona seems to have deserted him time and again in his private life.

Headstrong and arrogant as a youth, convinced of his destiny and besotted with the pose of the Bohemian intellectual, he dismissed his parents as “Philistines” (a favourite insult) who prized bourgeois comforts over the life of the soul. Relations with his family were further strained when he took up with Mileva Maric, a fellow student at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic who was a Serb four years his senior, and fathered a daughter out of wedlock whom the couple gave up for adoption.

They married in 1903, over the near-hysterical objections of Einstein’s mother, and set up what at first was a cozy and loving household, marred only by Mileva’s failure to pass her teaching certificate examinations after two attempts and Einstein’s inability to secure any more suitable employment than that of a patent clerk in Berne.

It seems to have been one of those insular marriages in which the couple united themselves against the refusal of the outside world to recognize the husband’s supposed genius. The problem, of course, was that Einstein actually was a genius, and before long he no longer needed the intellectual and emotional support of his wife. In the wake of his work on light quanta and special relativity, he was fielding offers from various universities and travelling across Europe to scientific conferences, while Mileva stayed at home raising their two sons.

The marriage soured and Einstein came to detest his former partner, railing that she was turning the boys against him. In fact, the strains between father and sons appear to have been in large part of Einstein’s own making, given that he belittled their ambitions and accomplishments. The elder, Hans Albert, became a noted hydraulic engineer, but his famous theoretician father sniffed at such a practical occupation. The younger, Eduard, was diagnosed schizophrenic when he was an undergraduate, and died in an asylum in 1965.

Einstein’s second marriage, to his cousin Elsa, was no more successful, and he seems to have treated her as little more than a housekeeper and secretary, while conducting at least one long-running affair under her very nose.

It’s a testament to his charisma that none of this diminished the fanatical loyalty that Einstein could inspire, even among his long-suffering family members. But The Private Lives of Albert Einstein stands as a reminder, if one were needed, that towering intelligence is no guarantee of human

  • Globe and Mail January 8, 1994