Beware the fake quotation. They have become so ubiquitous they often appear in books and speeches by politicians and their family members, not that anyone seems to care much. But most of us feel a measure of shame at being duped, as Katharine Rose did when she found herself moved by a letter supposedly written by Albert Einstein to his daughter, Lieserl, “regarding the ‘universal force’ of love.” The letter is a “beautiful read,” and it’s a fake. But many admirers of Einstein were eager to believe it.
Why? Like other famous figures to whom spurious words are attributed, Einstein isn’t just well-known, he is revered, a celebrity, and celebrities are people we feel we know intimately. (A common defense for fake-quote-sharing goes: “Well, if he didn’t say it, then it’s exactly the kind of thing he would say.”) Discussing the theft of Einstein’s brain after his death, Ross Anderson at Aeon observes that “an ordinary person can live and die privately, but a genius—and his grey matter—belongs to the world.” We might add, “and so do the intimate details of his private life.”
The details of Einstein’s marriage, and of his very unpleasant separation and divorce, from Mileva Marić have long been public knowledge. “Few public marriages have been subjected to a more unnuanced verdict,” Maria Popova writes at Brain Pickings. Their love letters first came to light in 1986, discovered by Einstein’s granddaughter Evelyn. They were published in 1992 as The Love Letters, “a collection of fifty-four missives exchanged between the beginning of their romance” when they met as students in 1897 to their marriage in 1903. Dozens more are available at Princeton University’s online collection of Einstein’s papers.
The letters are real, and they are “spicy,” as YouTuber Tibees shows us in the video at the top. No awkward private expression is safe: we begin with letters Einstein wrote to his high school girlfriend, Marie Winteler, including a breakup letter at 3:13. The excerpts here are all timestamped on the video’s YouTube page, with helpful summaries like “Einstein’s mom trying to break them up” (them being Albert and Mileva), “Einstein having an affair with his cousin Elsa,” “Breaking up with Elsa,” and “Getting back with Elsa.”
Elsa, you may know, was Einstein’s second wife, in addition to being his cousin, and the cause of his separation and divorce from Mileva, to whom he had professed undying devotion. In the interest of fully invading the genius’s privacy, we have, above, some readings of his harsh “divorce letters” to Mileva, with hits like “Separation,” “Proposing divorce,” and “Court proceedings.” Love may or may not be a “universal force”—we do not, sadly, have Einstein’s thoughts on the matter—but we do know he found it a troublingly chaotic, unpredictable one.