Getting to Know Einstein’s Wives
Einstein obviously had a tremendous influence on the scientific community and the entire world. Einstein enjoyed people’s company and learned a great deal from those around him – including the two women whom he married over the course of his life.
First wife, Mileva
Mileva Maric was the only female physics major at the Polytechnic in Zurich, where Einstein went to college. During their second semester, Einstein and Mileva began to take interest in each other. Their relationship developed into a romance that eventually led to marriage, in spite of strong opposition from Einstein’s family (especially his mother).
Einstein and Mileva’s romance is well-documented in letters they wrote to each other between 1897 and 1903, which were discovered only in 1987. Not much was known about Mileva before the appearance of these letters.
In her early letters, Mileva wrote with enthusiasm about the physics she was learning in class. As time went on, the focus on physics disappeared, and her letters became love letters, showing her feelings for Einstein and her preoccupation with their relationship. Einstein wrote to her about his love for her, about his family’s reaction to their affair, and about physics.
The letters are an invaluable and direct record of Einstein’s early intellectual development. He proudly told Mileva about his ideas on relativity and about his discoveries of inconsistencies in some of the physics papers that he read. Mileva, with her understanding of physics, seemed to be his sounding board.
Starting a family
After graduating from the Polytechnic and before starting his job at the Bern patent office, Einstein took a temporary job away from Zurich, while Mileva stayed at the Polytechnic. (She had failed final exams and was preparing to try them again.) During those few months, Einstein came to see Mileva in Zurich every Sunday. During one of those visits, Mileva told Einstein that she was pregnant.
The pregnancy didn’t help Mileva in her studies, which had been a struggle for years. She took her finals again and failed. She was devastated, and she quit school. Depressed, she went home to her parents in Hungary, who weren’t happy with either piece of news. Initially, her father angrily prohibited Mileva from marrying Einstein.
During the winter of 1902, Mileva gave birth to a girl, Lieserl. The birth was difficult, and Einstein wasn’t present. He learned about it in a letter from Mileva’s father.
No one knows what happened to Einstein’s only daughter. Soon after her birth, she disappeared, and no record of her has ever been found. Mileva may have given her up for adoption.
About a year later, on January 6, 1903, Einstein and Mileva got married in a civil ceremony at the court house in Bern. Einstein was working at the patent office, making an adequate salary as a civil servant. Life was relatively good for them.
A little more than a year after their marriage, Mileva gave birth to their first son, Hans Albert. Although he initially tried to help Mileva with the baby, overall Einstein wasn’t a good husband. He was interested in his work and paid little attention to Mileva or to his son. It became worse during the burst of creativity in 1905, referred to as his “miracle year.” Their relationship began to suffer.
Struggling with depression
Einstein took refuge in his work. Mileva became depressed. According to one visitor, their house was a mess. Einstein tried to help, but his heart wasn’t in it. He would carry the baby while trying to write his equations on a pad.
On July 28, 1910, Einstein and Mileva’s second son, Eduard, was born. For a while, things improved between them, but that didn’t last. Mileva continued to be depressed and was becoming jealous of the women Einstein flirted with.
In 1911, Einstein and his family moved to Prague, where he’d accepted a nice offer from the university. Mileva hated the city. A year later, Einstein accepted an offer from his alma mater and moved back to Zurich. Mileva was delighted. That lasted only a couple of years. In 1914, Einstein accepted an offer from the University of Berlin and moved his family there.
Mileva was extremely unhappy about moving to Berlin. Einstein’s cousin, Elsa, lived there, and Mileva was jealous of her. Besides, Germans looked down on people of Serbian origin, like Mileva.
Heading toward divorce
Mileva was right about Elsa. Einstein started seeing her often, and that was the beginning of the end for Einstein’s marriage. After a fight, Einstein moved out, and some time later, he wrote a contract for their separation that detailed the support he would provide. Mileva and the boys moved back to Zurich.
In 1916, during one of his visits to see the boys, Einstein asked Mileva for a divorce, which led her to have nervous breakdown. She recovered slowly, but their son Eduard then became a cause for concern. Eduard was extremely gifted. He read Goethe and Friedrich Schiller in first grade and had a photographic memory. He learned anything that he set out to learn with breathtaking speed. But he was troubled. (Eduard had to be placed in a psychiatric hospital in 1933 after he showed signs of mental instability. He died at the hospital in 1965.)
Mileva and Einstein divorced on February 14, 1919. After the divorce, Mileva spent a great deal of her life taking care of Eduard. In 1947, her health began to deteriorate. The next year, she suffered a stroke that left her paralyzed on one side of the body. On August 4, 1948, Mileva died.
Mileva had started out as Einstein’s intellectual equal; they read, studied, and discussed physics together. By 1902, their partnership had changed, because Einstein’s thinking had developed to a different level. But until then, her presence helped him shape his thoughts by providing him with the loving ears of another physicist.
Second Wife, Elsa
Elsa was Einstein’s cousin, the daughter of his “rich uncle” Rudolf Einstein and his aunt Fanny (Pauline’s sister). Elsa was first married to Max Loewenthal, a textile trader from Berlin with whom she had two daughters, Ilse and Margot, and a son who died shortly after birth.
Einstein and Elsa met often while they were growing up but lost contact as adults. During one of Einstein’s visits to Berlin while he was still married to Mileva, he met his cousin again. She was divorced and living with her two daughters in an apartment right above her parents. Einstein felt comfortable with Elsa in this family environment. When he moved to the University of Berlin, he continued seeing her with some frequency.
After his separation from Mileva, Einstein saw Elsa often, and he moved in with her in September of 1917. Elsa was clearly interested in Einstein and kept the pressure on him to divorce Mileva.
After the divorce took place in 1919, Einstein felt free to marry Elsa. His main attraction to her was her cooking. He also felt grateful to her because she had taken care of him when he was ill with stomach problems. There was no passion between them. Nevertheless, they were married on June 2, 1919, three and a half months after his divorce from Mileva. Einstein was 40 and Elsa was 43. Their marriage seems to have been platonic.
Although some of Einstein’s friends criticized Elsa’s eagerness for fame, she was receptive of her husband’s importance and was able to create a nice environment for Einstein to work in. Her efficiency in running the household made Einstein’s life much easier.
As happened during his marriage to Mileva, problems developed because of Einstein’s flirting with other women. He was very famous, and women all over the world were attracted to him.
In 1935, after Einstein and Elsa had moved to the United States, she fell ill with heart and kidney problems. She died on December 20, 1936.
Einstein had been very attentive and caring during Elsa’s last months of her life. After she died, he adjusted quickly. “I have got used extremely well to life here,” he wrote. “I live like a bear in my den . . . This bearishness has been further enhanced by the death of my woman comrade, who was better with other people than I am.”