Einstein’s Unending Quest for Privacy
His endless battles with reporters, paparazzi and intruders
Though many decades have passed since his death in 1955, Einstein has remained an iconic figure — the very emblem of genius. In Einstein’s lifetime, however, public treatment of him was decidedly mixed. While for some he was a prophet to be revered, to others he was a radical enemy of the state. Ironically, the suspicion with which his pacifist beliefs were viewed carried over from Germany, where anti-Semitic student protesters hounded him throughout the 1920s, to the United States, where a right-wing group known as the Woman Patriot Corporation called for his deportation.
While Einstein was fortunate to have left Germany before the start of the Nazi regime, he witnessed from abroad the assassination of his character and threats against his life and property. But over here, he met with a different kind of intimidation. Recently released FBI files show how, during the McCarthy era, the agency monitored his activities and addressed a stream of correspondence questioning his patriotism.
One of the most prominent threats against Einstein — an attempted assassination — took place on Jan. 31, 1925. Marie Dickson, a deranged Russian widow, forced her way into his Berlin apartment brandishing a weapon. Luckily, Elsa Einstein found a ruse to protect her husband, upstairs in his study, while she called the police and had Dickson arrested.
Like many celebrities, Einstein had to flee from paparazzi. While he had great interest in conveying his ideas, he stressed that his personal matters should be off limits. When he turned 50, for example, he publicly released a new “theory of everything,” and privately retreated to an estate in the Berlin suburbs to celebrate with his family. Nevertheless, a reporter tracked him down and offered the public a complete rundown of his birthday party. What could he do?
Not even Einstein’s hospital stays were off limits. In 1949, he needed abdominal surgery and was operated on at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital. After the operation, he tried to leave the facility quietly via its back exit. Newspaper photographers found out, surrounded him, and tried to take his picture. He begged for them to leave him alone and ended up having to get a police escort.
Before Einstein died in 1955, he stressed that he wanted no memorial and asked that his body be cremated. Even in death, however, his expressed wishes for anonymity were violated when physician Thomas Harvey removed his brain for study. Slices of his brain have been on exhibit at various museums.
Einstein’s prominence served him well in getting his ideas across and in mustering support for the social causes that he advocated. Yet due to his fame, he was forced to wage an unceasing battle for the right to a private life. His struggle raises many questions about the rights of celebrities, politicians and other public figures to carve out corners for themselves where they are out of view of the camera.
An iconic photo of Einstein shows him sticking out his tongue, purportedly to ruin the shot. With humor, he illuminated the fight for privacy that he grappled with for much of his adult life.
A version of this piece was originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer in April 2015.
Paul Halpern is the author of Einstein’s Dice and Schrödinger’s Cat: How Two Great Minds Battled Quantum Randomness to Create a Unified Theory of Physics.