The professor Albert Einstein with his wife Elsa while on a trip in Egypt circa 1921 © Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

The women behind the genius Einstein

Family man or ladies' man? David Bodanis, author of "Einstein's Greatest Mistake", gives us an insight into the women who had the most impact in the great theoretical physicist's life.

Everybody knows of Albert Einstein as the elderly genius with wild hair, but when he was younger he was something of a ladies’ man: strikingly handsome, and, as those who saw him take off his shirt when out sailing noted, remarkably fit. During the 1920s, the great physicist was involved in a string of affairs, but the significance of women in his life goes much beyond that. David Bodanis, author of Einstein’s Greatest Mistake, explains.

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Pauline Einstein – Einstein’s mother

Pauline Einstein (née Koch)
Pauline Einstein (née Koch)

Every great scientist needs someone to nurture them, and also someone to react against. Einstein’s mother played both roles to perfection.

She always believed in her son’s genius: even when his school reports were less than perfect (as when his professor of Greek in secondary school, one Dr Degenhart, insisted Einstein “would never get anywhere in life”); even when he decided, impromptu, to drop out of school age 16 and travel on his own across the Alps to Italy.

That was the positive side, but she also found it difficult to draw a line, and stop feeling it was her job to make sure her son stayed safely within her orbit. In July 1900, when Albert Einstein was 20, he told her that he was going to marry his university sweetheart: a non-Jewish girl, from what is now Serbia. He remembered that “Mama [then] threw herself on the bed, buried her head in the pillow, and cried like a child.” She said that he was ruining his future, that no decent family would have her, and that “if she gets pregnant you’ll really be in a pretty mess.”

Aside from that, she took it pretty well.

Mileva Maric – first wife

Albert Einstein, German-Swiss theoretical physicist, with his first wife Mileva, c1905 © Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images
Albert Einstein, German-Swiss theoretical physicist, with his first wife Mileva, c1905 © Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

This is the woman Einstein’s mother took against. She’d been a superb secondary school student in Budapest, and – much as Einstein did when he travelled to Italy – travelled on her own across Europe, to take up a position in the same course Einstein was taking at the Polytechnic in Zurich (known by its German initials, as ETH). At the beginning they were wildly in love, so much so that on a sledding trip in the snows above Lake Como where, as she put it, “I held my sweetheart  firmly in my arms under the coats”, she became pregnant.

Given the mores of the time, an unmarried couple of their class couldn’t keep the child, and so the daughter Einstein never met – known as Lieserl Einstein (from Elizabeth) – was put up for adoption, probably in Budapest.

Maric returned to Switzerland, and in January 1903 she and Albert married. He was nearly twenty-four, and she was twenty-eight. They wouldn’t have been human if they didn’t miss their daughter, but they were also confident about the future. “We shall remain students together for as long as we live,” Einstein wrote exultantly, “and not give a damn about the world.”

Their high point perhaps came late in 1905, just after his paper on E=mc2, the one showing that mass and energy are just different forms of the same, underlying ‘thing’. A postcard survives from a night out celebrating, signed by both of them, “Both of us, alas, dead drunk under the table”.

Gradually that faded though, as Maric became busy with the two sons they’d soon had, and time for her own career slipped away. Perhaps, also, because a natural sorrow she had, which several others remarked in her personality, gradually came to the fore. By 1914 all their warmth was lost, and Einstein wrote harsh conditions for their staying together:

  • You will make sure that my clothes and laundry are kept in good order.
  • You will not expect any intimacy from me.
  • You will undertake not to belittle me in front of our children, either through words or behaviour.

The isolation was good for his creativity: “One creates a small little world for oneself,” Einstein wrote, around the time that he was at the peak of his powers, creating his General Theory of Relativity. But he was desperate not to remain alone.

Elsa Löwenthal – second wife

Physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) with his wife Elsa in Chicago © George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images
Physicist Albert Einstein (1879-1955) with his wife Elsa in Chicago © George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images

In 1919 Einstein married again, to a woman who was the opposite of the bohemian, romantic Maric. Elsa Löwenthal was a sophisticated resident of Berlin, with an elegant apartment, and cultivated friends. Einstein was entranced at first, though by the early 1920s that changed.

It’s around this time when he started growing his hair long, seemingly in protest at the constraints of her bourgeois life. That was also when, world-famous after an English astronomical team ‘proved’ that his remarkable theories of curved space were true, he began to have affairs. His mere presence, an architect who knew him well remembered, “acted upon women as a magnet acts on iron filings.”

He spent evenings with a wealthy widow at her villa in Berlin and accompanied another woman, a fashionable entrepreneur, to concerts or the theatre, riding with her in her chauffeured limousine. Einstein’s housekeeper remembers laughter and good spirits whenever he would bring one of these women back. He was discreet, using his country house for trysts, and keeping them at least semi-private from his wife. Even so it must have hurt. When she was old and bed-ridden, she remarked with sad surprise that Albert “has been so upset by my illness… I never thought he loved me so much. And that comforts me.”

Maja Einstein – younger sister

Albert Einstein, (1879-1955), theoretical physicist, and his sister Maja as small children, 1880s. © Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images
Albert Einstein, (1879-1955), theoretical physicist, and his sister Maja as small children, 1880s. © Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Perhaps Einstein’s closest connection of all was with his younger sister, Maja. They’d had a sweet, teasing relationship, from childhood in 1880s Munich, to retirement in 1940s Princeton. When she was old, and bed-ridden, he used to trudge back from the campus each day to read to her from the favourite books they shared: Dostoevsky above all. When she died, in 1951, Einstein sat on the back porch of his now empty home for hours on end. “I miss her more than can be imagined,” he told a visitor who tried to console him.

There was a sadness he felt at never being able to sustain the true closeness he always sought. That helped him focus on getting close to the cold, impersonal laws of the Universe – but whether he would have traded that for the contentment others felt, we will never know.

Einstein's Greatest Mistake by David Bodanis is out now (£20, Little, Brown)
Einstein’s Greatest Mistake by David Bodanis is out now (£20, Little, Brown)

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