At the turn of the 20th century, one man single-handedly changed the face of science. Albert Einstein, perhaps the world’s most famous physicist, had a profound effect on the planet, the results of which can still be felt today. And as you might expect, being a celebrity genius was a lucrative business, even back then. But after his death, his wealth didn’t go to his family. Instead, it went to a unique place. And that decision would turn out to have serious repercussions for some of his relatives.
Starting in 1905, Einstein spent much of his life turning physics on its head. From the Theory of Relativity to perhaps the best-known equation ever written, E=mc2, his ideas and discoveries have shaped the modern world in incredible ways. In fact, without him, the planet would be a very different place indeed.
Take something upon which we all rely these days: Global Positioning System (G.P.S.) navigation. From Google Maps to sat navs, without Einstein we’d all be lost. And that’s because, through the Theory of Relativity, he discovered something incredible. Clocks orbiting the planet are 38,000 nanoseconds faster than those on Earth.
That might not sound like a huge amount of time, but if that difference wasn’t taken into account, you’d end up miles away from your destination. Einstein theorized that gravity can affect time, making it run faster or slower. And he was right. And then there’s solar power: his discovery of the photoelectric effect made that possible.
Einstein won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921 for first describing the phenomenon that led to solar power. The photoelectric effect describes how light can be converted into energy under the right conditions. This very idea underpins solar panel technology. Of course, his contribution to the modern world doesn’t end there.
The Nobel Prize winner also came up with the equation E=mc2. Simply put, this explains that energy, E, and mass, M, are two sides of the same coin. In fact, under certain conditions, one can become the other. And mass’s multiplication by c2, or the speed of light squared, reveals how much energy is contained in an object. This revelation is the basis for some of the most profound scientific advances in the modern world.
Indeed, the equation helped scientists understand atomic energy, leading to nuclear power, along with the atomic bomb. It also explains some of what happens in and around black holes, is used in positron emission tomography (P.E.T.) and computerized tomography (C.T.) scans and is even the basis for radiocarbon dating, which enables archaeologists to accurately age ancient objects. But Einstein’s achievements still haven’t come to an end.
In addition to the technology that Einstein’s discoveries spawned, his work also opened up new fields of scientific research. Those previously unknown areas include high-energy particle physics, the best example of which is the Large Hadron Collider in Europe. This hi-tech bit of kit fires particles into one another at incredibly high speeds. And it does this in an attempt to understand the beginning of the universe. Clearly, the man was a physics genius. And a rich one at that.
At the time of Einstein’s death in 1955, he left an estate reportedly worth over $1,000,000, which equates to about ten times as much today. Indeed, during his lifetime, the physicist was one of the wealthiest academics around. But that wasn’t always the way. The German-born scientist, while always a successful academic, couldn’t find his desired employment at one time.
After leaving university in 1900, Einstein struggled to find the teaching work for which he’d trained. Instead, he took a job in the Swiss Patent Office around 1901. There, to start with he earned just under 4,000 Swiss francs per year (roughly $4,000; worth about $120,000 today) for his full-time efforts. It was while working as a clerk that the physicist published some of his most famous work, including E=mc2. And at that point, academia beckoned.
Over the next few years, Einstein taught physics in Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Germany. Those positions saw his earnings rise to 9,000 Swiss francs by 1910. His move to America’s Princeton University, though, resulted in a salary of $10,000. By today’s standards, that’s a whopping $300,000. Add in speaking engagements and articles and the physician was probably making enough money to take care of his family for generations. But, it seems, the genius’ personal life was, at best, complicated.
Einstein met his first wife, Mileva Maric, while they were both students at university. The couple married in 1903 and their sons, Hans Albert and Eduard, followed in 1904 and 1910 respectively. But it appears that their marriage wasn’t a happy one. Work took precedence over family for the physicist, who once described his wife as “an employee whom I cannot fire.” And this led to some very odd living arrangements.
The couple’s marriage broke down to such an extent that the physicist did something quite unusual. He had his wife agree to some very strict rules, setting the boundaries of their relationship. And it makes for very uncomfortable reading. Mileva had to “renounce all personal relations” with her husband, including sitting in the same room. And the conditions just got worse from there.
In addition to sitting alone, Mileva would have to “stop talking” should he “request it.” She’d also have to “leave [the] bedroom or study” when so told. And this was in addition to the clean house, laundry and three meals a day he expected. Unsurprisingly, their marriage didn’t survive the contract. And, it seems, Einstein’s relationship with his sons wasn’t much better.
Einstein’s youngest son, Eduard, suffered with mental health issues most of his life. When he died in a psychiatric unit, he reportedly hadn’t seen his father in 30 years. And Hans Albert didn’t fare much better. While the physicist’s work-related absenteeism improved as the boys became adults, the eldest son once said of his dad, “The only project he ever gave up on was me.”
Mileva, though, may well have disagreed with that sentiment. Her divorce from Einstein in 1919 wasn’t just down to that list of marriage rules. The physicist, in fact, was in love with another woman. And in an extra twist to the family dynamic, Elsa Lowenthal also happened to be his cousin. But the familial relationship with his future second wife was more complicated than that.
Lowenthal was, in fact, both Einstein’s first and second cousin. How is that possible? Well, it seems they were directly related on his mother’s side, and slightly less related than that on his father’s. That confusing situation continued until 1936, when she died from kidney and heart heart complications shortly after the couple’s emigration to America.
Across the country, meanwhile, another Einstein had made his home. Hans Albert had recently taken a position as an engineering professor in California. As a result, he’d moved his family – wife Frieda, son Bernard and adopted daughter Evelyn – to the west coast from Chicago. The little girl had been born to a teenage mom in 1941, and put up for adoption.
Hans Albert and Frieda adopted Evelyn when she was just eight days old. In that moment, she became Einstein’s first granddaughter. During her early years, she saw the physicist rarely, but later recalled addressing him as “grampa.” He died when she was a teenager. But her grandfather’s legacy would follow her for the rest of her life.
After suffering internal bleeding resulting from a burst aortic aneurysm, Einstein died in April 1955. True to form, he reportedly carried on working regardless, stating his wish to die “elegantly.” Following his demise, it seems that familial relationships continued to be odd. But before we get into exactly why, let’s have a look at Evelyn’s life.
As we mentioned earlier, Evelyn was adopted as a baby. Aware of that situation, she often wondered if she was, in fact, actually biologically an Einstein after all. Rumors that she was the product of a fling between the physicist and a dancer (presumably adopted by Hans Albert and Frieda to cover up the illegitimate birth) flew around the family. But even though she had no proof, she always wondered. She once told an interviewer, “I thought if I broached this subject with people, they would think I was crazy.”
Multilingual and with a masters degree from the University of California in medieval literature, it’s clear that Evelyn inherited some of the family smarts. Her famous name, though, was as much of a curse as a blessing. Talking to author Michael Paterniti in 2000, she recalled some of the difficulty it caused. “It’s not so easy being an Einstein. When I was in school at Berkeley in the ’60s, I could never tell if men wanted to be with me because of me or my name. To say, you know, ‘I had an Einstein.’”
Evelyn eventually married respected anthropologist Grover Krantz, who’s now best remembered for his attempts to prove the existence of Bigfoot. After 13 years, though, the marriage fell apart, the subsequent divorce leaving her destitute. She went back to live with her father for a short while, but found herself homeless when he died a few months later. Spending a period on the streets before getting back on her feet, she then held a series of varied jobs.
Indeed, Evelyn had stints as a boat caretaker, a dog catcher, a police officer, and a bank teller. She even spent a while working as a cult deprogrammer, helping people adjust to life on the outside. She eventually found a home, sharing a place with three other women. But why was Einstein’s only grandchild having to live in such conditions, given his wealth?
Following Einstein’s death, his estate wasn’t willed to a family member. In fact, it went to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Israel. Of his entire fortune, the physicist’s granddaughter received just $5,000 back when she was a little girl. As a result, his relatives have seen little income from his earnings post-death. But why do such a thing in the first place?
Einstein had, in fact, helped to found the university and bequeathed not only money, but also his entire archive of 75,000 papers to the institution. The endowment was meant to support scholarships and research there. But since then, vast amounts of money have been generated through lucrative licensing agreements.
Products such as Baby Einstein, T-shirts, posters and everything in between have carried the physicist’s name and likeness. So lucrative is the German-born scientist that he’s among the highest-earning dead celebrities. According to Forbes magazine, he joined the likes of Michael Jackson and Elvis in the top ten in 2010.
In fact, Einstein’s estate earns more than $10,000,000 a year, thanks in large part to those aforementioned products. That’s a sum which, we can all agree, would pay for a lot of research. None of it however, reaches the family. And that’s why Evelyn was forced to live solely on her wits. Given her grandfather’s wishes, surely that situation is perfectly legitimate?
Well, it turns out there’s one small alleged snag with the whole endowment set-up. According to Evelyn, the university only has the rights to Einstein’s literary legacy. In 2011 she expounded her point of view to The New York Post newspaper. “I never made any issue of the fact that they were willed the literary estate,” she said. But that wasn’t the problem.
Evelyn then went on, “But what does a bobblehead have to do with a literary estate?” She was, of course, making reference to the many non-academic products bearing her family name. That same year, now in her 70s, she was involved in a fight with the university over that exact thing. Needing, but unable, to afford a home in an assisted living facility in her dotage, she wanted a small amount of the Einstein profits to help pay for it.
Einstein’s granddaughter told CNN in 2011, “It’s hard for me to believe they would treat the family the way they have, which is abysmally.” It was, however, a fight Evelyn would not win. But not because she gave up. Suffering from diabetes along with heart and lung disease, she passed away in April 2011. And although that fight was brought to an unexpected end, she’d been far more successful in the past.
As Einstein’s relative, it seems Evelyn had in her possession an unpublished manuscript, although she didn’t find it until the 1980s. Written by her mother, the work appeared to be something of a biography of the Nobel Prize-winning scientist. And its pages contained references to something that hadn’t been seen by the public before.
The manuscript contained excerpts from previously unseen letters from Einstein’s private correspondence. And this included love-letters describing his unhappy marriage to Mileva. The unpublished work led to the discovery of a cache of thousands of pages of the physicist’s handwritten messages. The information within them painted an intimate picture of his personal life.
The cache also included incredibly sweet love-letters to his first wife. But the intimate messages didn’t end there. They also proved that the couple had a daughter before they were married. It appears that the little girl, Lieserl, contracted scarlet fever as a toddler, and, after 1904, was never mentioned again by her father.
The letters, some of which are written on the reverse of important scientific notes, also reveal something else about Einstein. It seems that he had a very strained relationship with his mother, who disapproved of his marriage to Mileva. Clearly, the handwritten documents were an important find, and it was all thanks to Evelyn.
The cache of 500 documents eventually went up for auction in the 1990s, selling for a whopping $900,000. But despite having found the manuscript that led to their discovery, Evelyn didn’t see a penny of the sale’s proceeds. So, Einstein’s granddaughter decided to fight for her share.
Evelyn, along with other members of the extended Einstein family, decided to sue for a share of the proceeds from the sale of the documents. After all, without her, the letters may well have remained hidden forever. The case, though, ended with little fanfare. Settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, this was a fight she very much won.
Following Evelyn’s death in 2011, many media outlets paid tribute to Einstein’s granddaughter. Her friend, lawyer Allen P. Wilkinson, told The New York Times newspaper, “She thought Albert was not just a great scientist. To her, he was grampa.” He also revealed that she had been working on a memoir before she died. Sadly it appears unfinished. The family, though, might be glad of that.
Always feeling on the outside of the family, Evelyn once told an interviewer that her existence embarrassed the Einsteins. And she had her own theory as to why. The reason for that mortification, she said, was “my homeliness, my being fat, my being in a wheelchair, and my having an opinion.” But her explanation didn’t end there.
Evelyn went on, “And my being more intelligent than any of them!” That Einsteinian inner confidence, then, definitely ran in her blood. And while she never quite got the inheritance that she claimed she deserved, she did once get close to owning her very own piece of Einstein history. And as we’ve come to expect, it’s an odd tale.
After the physicist’s death, the pathologist who performed the autopsy removed his brain. Not just from Einstein, either, but from the building. He then drove cross-country with it, hoping a neuroscientist could discover the source of the Nobel Prize-winner’s genius. The physician offered Evelyn a piece of her grandfather’s gray matter, which she accepted. Perhaps fittingly, she never received it. It now resides in Washington D.C.’s National Museum of Health and Science.