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Einstein Plus

In response to:

The Contradictory Genius from the April 10, 1997 issue

To the Editors:

I agree with Alan Lightman that Albrecht Fölsing has produced in his book, Einstein: A Biography, “a nuanced, nonjudgmental personal portrait, resting firmly on prodigious archival work” [NYR, April 10]. But I disagree with his contention that “of the new biographies,” it is “the fullest by far.”

In fact during my recent conversation with Professor Lightman, he said he had not yet read mine, Einstein: A Life (John Wiley).

Though Fölsing gives many details of Einstein’s scientific work and material from the archives and the press, he includes no new firsthand information from people who knew Einstein either in Europe or the United States.

Should your readers wish to learn more about Einstein the man and what others who knew him well—family, friends, neighbors, colleagues, assistants—thought about him, I suggest they also read my Einstein: A Life.

It includes firsthand accounts of encounters with Einstein by his secretary, Helen Dukas; several close male and female friends; Eugene Wigner, George Wald, Ashley Montagu, Sidney Hook, Abraham Pais; Einstein’s assistants, Banesh Hoffmann and John Kemeny; and the last person to interview him, I. Bernard Cohen.

In my book you will also find how the FBI spent ten futile years investigating Einstein and his secretary Helen Dukas, suspecting they were Communist spies; of Einstein’s unexpected response to a woman who tried to kill him; of his attendance at a séance in California with his friend, Upton Sinclair; why it took so long for him to be awarded the Nobel Prize; how his archives were smuggled into the United States; of his patient conversations with scientists Wilhelm Reich and Immanuel Velikovsky, whom others considered crazy; his response to news that a woman in Europe claimed to be his illegitimate daughter; his flirtation with movie star Luise Rainer; the many occasions he helped strangers in distress including a murderer, a writer threatened with prison, the mother of a young man who believed he was Jesus Christ and would only come down from his mountain retreat if Einstein would talk with him. Which Einstein did.

None of this is in Fölsing’s book.

Alan Lightman also writes that Einstein “consistently demanded exorbitant salaries and lecture fees once he became famous.” This gives a false impression of the least avaricious of men. In fact, he was famous when Abraham Flexner was recruiting him for the Institute for Advanced Study, and then Einstein asked for a modest salary of $5,000, half the amount Flexner was willing to pay. On other occasions, when Einstein was offered huge sums of money to advertise commercial products, he always turned them down. He also declined offers of financial help from Dutch colleagues. As Fölsing writes: “his royalties from foreign editions…always exceeded the customary rate. But he also made sure his translators were decently paid, and on one occasion actually proposed to renounce part of his own earnings in favor of a needy translator of the Czech edition of the book.”

The one example Fölsing gives of the time Einstein asked for a “frighteningly high fee” of $15,000 for a six-week lecture tour in America in 1921, Fölsing adds that Einstein had serious financial worries, and quotes him as saying: “Probably it will scare them off. But if they do bite the bullet, I shall be buying economic independence for myself—and that’s not a thing to sniff at.” They didn’t bite the bullet!

As for the lecture fees he did receive, Einstein often gave them to charities.

Denis Brian
West Palm Beach, Florida

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