What the press missed in its rush to paint Einstein as a philanderer.

On July 10th, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem made nearly 3,500 sealed pages of Albert Einstein’s personal correspondence public. Some of the more salacious content in the letters—once deemed “too private for release”—has generated a maelstrom of coverage on blogs and newspapers worldwide.

“Phys-sex Genius” wrote the headline wizards at the New York Post. Fox News posted a story by on-air personality Neil Cavuto to its website, titled, “Albert Einstein: Genius, Stud Muffin.” “E = Einstein, the galactic womanizer,” quipped The Sunday Times, UK. “Albert Einstein, sex-fiend” wrote the popular blog Boing Boing. Even a member of the extended Seed family, the ScienceBlog Pure Pedantry, included a post with the title, “Scientific Pimp.”

The press and public latched onto the letters’ scant mentions of Einstein’s infidelity like it was the last branch on a long fall. The headline-hungry were genuinely fascinated by the very idea of Einstein in lust, but why? Because they thought he was too busy reinventing physics to chase skirts?

While the aforementioned media outlets are still digesting the idea that physicists could get laid, I think I’ll use take this opportunity to say “I told you so.”

It’s true: Einstein had many affairs. And the facts of his affairs have been available for years. Indeed, several of his biographers have made light of the fact that Einstein was renowned in his day for his relations amoureuses.

As a younger man, acquaintances described Einstein as “heavily muscled,” having dark, foreign “sun-bright eyes” with a “sensuous” and “fleshy mouth.” A female friend remarked that, “He had the kind of male beauty that, especially at the beginning of the century, caused such a havoc.”  Another friend said he had an effect on women, “as a magnet does on iron filings.”

When Einstein’s first marriage officially dissolved due to “infidelity,” he spent some time deciding whether to shack up with his 42-year-old cousin, Elsa, or her 20-year-old daughter, Ilse. (Such multi-generational dalliances were less frowned-upon back then.) Sensibly, five months after his divorce he married the elder relative, actually disobeying a Swiss court ruling to wait two years.

Not that the marriage changed his ways. As his biographers have noted, the newlywed Einstein quickly succumbed completely to his “weakness for pretty women.”

He was candid with his second wife and family about his many relations: Socialite Toni Mendel would ferry Einstein around in her limousine and openly accompany him to concerts and the theater. Einstein often took another of his girlfriends, Margarete Lenbach, sailing at his country house. After WWII, Einstein carried on an affair with the beautiful Soviet spy Margarita Konenkova, whose husband sculpted a bust of him that now resides in the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ.

Each of these women is mentioned in the newly released letters, but what Einstein’s words provide is little more than confirmation of known facts, and perhaps some insight into the mechanism behind his promiscuity.

“What is also interesting in this case is how often, from his first infatuation as a high school boy, it was he who called a halt to the affair, often saying that it did no good to her or him,” writes noted Einstein scholar Gerald Holton, a professor of physics and history at Harvard University.

The letters also reveal a tender side of Einstein absent from some accounts of his life, and it’s these heartfelt moments, which will likely pervade newer Einstein biographies. The letters portray the physicist for the first time as a devoted family man, deeply concerned with the well being of his son and stepdaughter. In one missive, he is even willing to accept responsibility for a child he had out of wedlock when, in his day, such admissions were quite uncommon. As Holton notes, “This was a test of moral behavior which not everyone in his position might have passed.”

The correspondence provides evidence that Einstein would have rather had quiet time spent playing his violin than entertaining an endless parade of well-wishers. The letters also reveal such mundane details as Einstein’s dislike for socks and toothbrushes. In one letter he even comments on his annoyance with his own theory of relativity.

It’s these less-illicit bits that papers in places like India and China glommed onto. “Albert Einstein never wore socks!” read the headline in India’s Hindustan Times. After running a Reuters story on July 10th with the title “New letters reveal mysteries of Einstein’s love life,” China Daily, the main English-language newspaper in China, re-reported the story two days later under the headline, “Newly-released letters provide clues about relative truth of Einstein.”

If there’s a moral in the world’s coverage of this new Einstein story, perhaps it’s that the press reflects the populace it serves. [Ed. note: Out of dozens of articles in the western press, we found only two (from NPR and The Boston Globe) that didn’t lead with a reference to Einstein’s sex life.]

While many Western outlets focused on the few tawdry details of a science icon, the supposed greatest threats to its scientific legacy focused on the larger issue of the man and his work. So, not only do these cultures presumablycare more about the science, they also apparently care more about sincerity in science reporting.

Originally published August 3, 2006

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