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My Friend Evelyn Einstein

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October 1, 2013

The author reflects on her fifteen-year friendship with the physicist’s granddaughter—or perhaps his second illegitimate daughter.

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Image from Flickr via Tanaka

On June 16, 1995, Evelyn Einstein—Albert Einstein’s granddaughter, or perhaps his second illegitimate daughter—appointed me her sole authorized biographer. She gave me “permission to publish any, or all, of the information” that I had gathered through my research. I never wrote that biography, nor will I. A book-length biography would have had to include her family, and I’m tired of them. They still make me angry because of their cruel behavior toward Evelyn. But I wanted to write this essay to put Evelyn Einstein in perspective for future readers. She wanted her story in the history books to be as close to the truth as possible. Evelyn, difficult as she was, still has my sympathy and interest. We were the same age. We liked the same books. I enjoyed her intelligence and humor. And Albert had once been important to me. He was the only Jewish figure who didn’t elicit ugly, anti-Semitic rhetoric in the small town where I grew up. It never entered my mind that I would grow to dislike him deeply. But I did.

*                      *                     *

In 1987, the New York Times ran an article about the discovery of love letters between Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić. In that correspondence it was disclosed for the first time that in 1902, before they were married, they had a daughter. They named her Lieserl. Until those letters were discovered, she had not been written into the Einstein story.

It intrigued me to think that hidden deep in the Balkans lurked the mystery of Einstein’s missing child, a child whose fate remained unknown. Impetuously, naively, I decided to find her.

It took me almost seven years to write Einstein’s Daughter: The Search for Lieserl. My research took me on extensive trips to London, Berlin, Zurich, Bern, and Budapest, and three times to Serbia—twice while the country was at war, and once when there was promise in the air.

*                      *                     *

One day in 1994, I drove along the freeway that edges San Francisco Bay to Albany, California. It was a foggy day and the saltwater scent of the bay was delicious. I had an appointment to visit Evelyn Einstein. That first visit prompted a turbulent fifteen years of friendship.

A few days earlier, a water pipe had burst and flooded the living room. The sofa was heaped with musty, wet boxes. “Oh, don’t be concerned,” she said. “My house is always a bit upside down.”

Evelyn met me at the front door and then quickly sat down in a wheelchair that was decorated with garish plastic Star Trek decals. She was a heavy, somewhat plain-looking woman with cropped brown-and-silver hair; she wore black pants, tan Birkenstock sandals, and a bright crimson shirt. (Each time I saw her over the next fifteen years, she was wearing the exact same well-pressed shirt.) Attached to her collar was a silver Star Trek pin with a button.

“I like pushing this button,” she said to me as soon as we shook hands. “Look.” She pushed it and laughed when I was startled by the loud noise.

Then she said in a commanding tone, “You have Robert Schulmann [the former director of the Einstein Papers Project] to thank for my letting you into my house.”

As she guided me into the living room, I was swept back in time to the rooms I had seen in her grandmother Mileva’s houses in both Titel and Novi Sad, in Serbia. Evelyn’s furniture was the same style—heavy and dark and uninviting. The upholstery was gray, matching the chilly shadows created as the sun attempted to push through the drawn drapes.

A few days earlier, a water pipe had burst and flooded the living room. The tables were covered with piles of damp paper. The sofa was heaped with musty, wet boxes. I was soon to become familiar with Evelyn’s house: a chaotic, jumbled repository of history.

When I tried to sympathize with her about the disaster, she merely laughed. “Oh, don’t be concerned,” she said. “My house is always a bit upside down.”

I was invited to move some boxes and sit on a clammy sofa while Evelyn faced me in her wheelchair.

“I have to apologize,” she said, “for not dressing up for your visit. You see, my mother never taught me how to dress. And, as you can see,” she said, making a sweeping motion with her arm, “I have inherited my family’s slovenly behavior. I’m not elegant. You could shoot me before you would get me into nylon stockings. High heels have always horrified me! Anyway, I try not to stand out in company.”

All of a sudden, a crowd of clocks began to chime.

“I have twenty Swiss pendulum clocks,” Evelyn said over the racket, “and I love the cacophony.”

Evelyn seemed to take a perverse joy in confusion. From that day, when I began interviewing her, I had to check and double check every piece of Einstein information. She wasn’t trying to present an untrue picture. But because her mind was filled with so much minutiae about the Einstein family’s history, Evelyn often sacrificed a larger and clearer picture to suit her mood. I soon learned that she would begin a conversation, whether on the phone or in person, cautiously. If I simply chatted about my family, or what I was doing, she would begin to warm up. By the time we were halfway into our visit, she was speaking freely and easily, with a wonderful, high-spirited sense of humor. And I could always depend on hearing her lively—and cranky—reflections on world politics.

As I was writing my book about Lieserl, I made several trips to meet with her and ask questions. We agreed that she would be allowed to vet anything I wrote about her. I was careful, but I didn’t alter what I had written to make her feel better. Primarily, I was writing about trying to find Lieserl. I wasn’t writing about Evelyn. Still, it took awhile for her to trust me.

Our relationship changed when I visited her for the third time. Being curious, I had looked in a cardboard box. “What are these?” I asked.

“It’s none of your business,” she said.

I closed the flaps.

“Well,” she teased, “you could look at the top one.”

And I did.

“Evelyn, what are these?” I asked. “They’re creepy.”

What I had found was her Uncle Eduard’s cache of semi-pornographic drawings. There were hundreds of them, each drawn with a blue ballpoint pen. Every one pictured a woman with lots of curly hair. The faces had no expression. Every woman’s torso had the same gigantic breasts and accentuated nipples that stuck straight out like noses. There were also short poems, in German, which Evelyn said were pornographic, too.

“You’re never to write about this while I’m alive,” she said. And I did not; it was her way of testing me.

The next time I visited, Evelyn talked about her mother’s jewelry. “Come,” she said, and I followed her into her bedroom. “Lift the edge of the mattress. There,” she said, pointing. I lifted. There were loose pieces of jewelry, scattered under the mattress so as not to make bumps. “I know if there’s a burglar,” she said, “they won’t want to lift a fat woman like me to see what’s under the mattress!”

Evelyn was often impossible, yet I enjoyed her shrewd intelligence and her madcap humor. When I visited, I could make her happy by driving her to her favorite Japanese restaurant in Berkeley and treating her to whatever she wanted. One late afternoon, over an enormous plate of sushi, she said, “Most of the time, I’m alone. I’m quite a hermit. My problems drive my friends away. I feel totally abandoned. You’ll drop out of my life at some time. Just wait and see.”

Many years passed before her demands and her insatiable need for attention finally wore me down, just as she had predicted.

*                      *                     *

Against his father’s wishes, in 1927 in Zurich, Switzerland, Hans Albert, the physicist’s elder son, married Frieda Knecht, a woman nine years older than he. “There is a difference of age,” Albert complained, “even worse than it was in my case.” (Mileva Einstein was four years older than Albert.) “How I suffered from this and how difficult it will be for you! . . . In ten years she will no longer satisfy you; you will find marriage an unbearable fetter: she will be insanely jealous.” Albert was afraid that Frieda carried bad genes. “[I]f they would never have children, I could rest easy,” he wrote Mileva. “But the heredity of our children is not without blemish.”

Evelyn’s birth mother was listed as Joan Hire, who stated that she was sixteen when she gave birth to Evelyn out of wedlock. When Evelyn called her years later, Hire said, “I would suggest that you don’t try to blackmail me,” and she hung up.

Albert was correct. His son Eduard, known as “Tede,” had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. His daughter Lieserl may have had Down syndrome. But Hans Albert and Frieda’s first child, Bernhard, born in 1930, was healthy. A second child, Klaus, was born in 1932. The family immigrated to the United States in 1938. Soon thereafter, Klaus died of diphtheria. Their last child—another son, David—died soon after his birth.

In 1941, when Frieda was forty-six years old and already showing signs of heart disease, she and Hans Albert adopted Evelyn, who was eight and a half days old (as recorded on her birth certificate), from the Cradle Society in Evanston, Illinois. Evelyn’s birth mother was listed as Joan Hire, who stated that she was sixteen when she gave birth to Evelyn out of wedlock. When Evelyn called her years later, Hire said, “I would suggest that you don’t try to blackmail me. You’ll be sorry,” and she hung up.

When I offered to call Hire back, Evelyn refused. “It’s too upsetting,” she said. “Neither mother wanted me.” She began to cry. I didn’t push.

But what really astonished me was something else. “Since I was eight years old,” Evelyn said, “I’ve been told that I was really Albert Einstein’s second daughter—the first one being Lieserl, the daughter you’re looking for.”

“I realized,” she continued, “that this big dark secret about my birth was an open book to many people. Since I had no proof, I thought that if I broached this subject with people, they would think I was crazy. So I never spoke about it. I was even hesitant to tell Robert [Schulmann], whom I trust implicitly. I was afraid he was going to think that I was a total fruitcake!”

“One day, when he was visiting me from Boston, we were sitting in this living room. I said that I needed to talk to him about something very personal.”

“‘I think I know what you’re going to tell me,’ he said. And then he told me exactly what I had decided to confide in him.”

Schulmann had learned about Evelyn’s birth story from Gina Zangger in Zurich. The Zangger family had been friends with Albert and Mileva Einstein when they all lived in Bern. When Albert left Mileva and moved to Berlin to be near his work and his first cousin, Elsa (who became his second wife), the Zanggers looked after Mileva, who was heartbroken. Gina had attended the same boarding school in Switzerland where Evelyn would be a student many years later. Gina remembered that Frieda (Evelyn’s adoptive mother) had told school officials that she and her husband were raising Evelyn as a favor to Albert.

“Later, they tried to squiggle out of it,” Evelyn said. “They tried to turn it around by claiming that they heard about it from the wife of the headmaster of the school I was attending—and that I was the one who told everybody.”

“How could I have done that,” she asked me, “since I didn’t know anything about it in the first place?” But others later reinforced the idea. “Even my sister-in-law, Aude, told me I was a blood member of the family. And she didn’t even like me!”

*                      *                     *

Hans Albert and Frieda had a next-door neighbor, Ethel, on Crestone Drive in Berkeley. She was fond of Evelyn, who spent much time visiting her. One day Frieda asked Ethel to translate a pile of papers from German to English. Frieda was planning to sell a book called Einstein’s Letters to His Family to a publishing house in Switzerland. “It was a manuscript of many pages,” Ethel wrote. “I was so stunned at the revelation of Albert Einstein’s out-of-wedlock daughter [Lieserl] that I do not remember other material in those pages.”

But the book was never published. Albert Einstein had left all his papers to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His executor, Dr. Otto Nathan, began legal proceedings that blocked the publication of Frieda’s book.

*                      *                     *

In 1995, Evelyn decided to file a lawsuit to remove her nephew, Dr. Thomas Einstein, from the trust that was overseeing Albert Einstein’s personal letters. The trust was estimated to be worth fifteen million dollars. By that time, Evelyn was suffering from cancer, liver disease, and other illnesses. She claimed that she needed money for her escalating medical expenses.

I asked if she had been left money by her grandfather. “Five grand,” she said. “Not a penny more.”

It was an ugly court case. Not only did I attend the proceedings with her, but I was deposed, too. “Since my family won’t speak with me, since they so detest me,” she said, “then let them pay for my illnesses. They’ve caused them because of their behavior toward me.” During the trial, Evelyn was almost mute.

She was physically ill, but I felt that she needed psychological help far more than anything else. By this time, we were having telephone conversations two or three times a week. I once brought up the idea of counseling. She immediately shut me down.

Her former neighbor, Ethel, spoke of the abuse Evelyn had suffered at the hands of her family. “If there is any sort of sworn testimony I can give to you during this terrible lawsuit period, you can count on me to give it to you in a deposition,” Ethel wrote to Evelyn. “I was a witness to the contemptible treatment you received from your sister-in-law, Aude, as well as your stepmother, Elizabeth [Hans Albert’s second wife]. These people, as well as Hans, had a consistent lack of respect for you. I found that curious—as though they were afraid of something.”

“I was like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle that was thrown on the floor,” she told me. For a while she lived in her car and ate out of Berkeley’s dumpsters. “I can tell you every good garbage dumpster in the area,” she said.

“I have always been bitter about the abuse doled out to you by your family, and it’s my fondest hope that you receive the inheritance these vicious people have tried to steal from you when you were in such need. That your family did this to you is unconscionable, but it follows their past performance.”

Evelyn lost the case.

*                      *                     *

Ethel’s letter went on to say: “And I do believe that there is merit to your belief that you are Albert’s daughter. This may sound sarcastic, but it is the truth that the Einsteins never concealed their basic contempt for the U.S. or the average American, even though both gave them refuge before WWII. This contempt was expressed in many ways, right out in the open. Hans and Frieda never, ever would have left the East Coast and gone inland to the Chicago area to adopt a child of the people that the Einsteins scorned. Never. You, that baby, had to be an Einstein. I believe that Albert pressured his son, Hans, to adopt you because he had already lost one out-of-wedlock daughter.”

Evelyn told me, “Hans Albert, my adoptive father, may really be my brother—and my brother, Bernhard, may really be my nephew. And when I’m in a good mood, I enjoy a perverse delight in the entire scenario!”

*                      *                     *

Evelyn earned a master’s degree in medieval literature. “I don’t know literature past Chaucer,” she told me. “I haven’t read Shakespeare in English. Read him in German. When I tried reading him in English, I didn’t understand him.”

When I responded with admiration, she said, “Now tell me how a supposed child of an Illinois farm girl could earn such a degree. Don’t you think it shows more Einstein genes than Fraulein Hire’s?”

Evelyn was married for a short time; she did not have children. She felt overwhelmed by the sexism she perceived in the academic world. Her husband found work, but she could not. Evelyn detested the role of wife, and the marriage broke apart.

She had trouble fitting the pieces of her life together. “I was like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle that was thrown on the floor,” she told me. For a while she lived in her car and ate out of Berkeley’s dumpsters. “I can tell you every good garbage dumpster in the area,” she said, “but I never panhandled a penny.”

By the time Evelyn was homeless, her mother had died and Hans Albert had married Elizabeth Roboz, whom Evelyn called “the witch of the west.” Her father refused to offer any assistance to Evelyn.

With help from some friends, and her tenacious will to survive, she pulled herself out of her depression. She began to find jobs. Dogcatcher. Reserve police officer, carrying twenty-five pounds of equipment around her waist. Volunteer at the Bach Society. Bank teller. Electronics apprentice at the Alameda Naval Station. Assistant taking care of boats in the Berkeley Marina. And—most successfully—a cult de-programmer.

While working in that capacity, Evelyn became ill with both breast cancer and liver disease. She was forced to go on disability, and she was still on it when I met her. For a time I tried to get home care for her through the State of California, but she was too depressed to follow through, and I lived far away. Her isolation had become frightening to her friends, and she felt she had alienated them.

She had been forced to define herself in relation to the world’s adoration for Albert Einstein. By the end of her life, she was totally isolated from the Einstein family.

How she kept even flashes of her sense of humor for so long is a mystery. She seemed to live in a morass of depression. Then, when the occasion came for her to leave her house, for a doctor’s appointment or a very rare social visit, she lifted out of the depression for a short time. If, when I called, I could catch her shortly after a foray into the world, she would answer the phone. Otherwise, I grew used to leaving friendly messages. Often she would call me back, but it could easily be a month later.

*                      *                     *

The psychological issues that haunted her also drained her of her ability to find relief for her unhappiness. She had been forced to define herself in relation to the world’s adoration for Albert Einstein. By the end of her life, she was totally isolated from the Einstein family.

“I embarrass them,” she said. And she started to count the reasons on her fingers: “My homeliness; my being fat; my being in a wheelchair; and my having an opinion. Oh, and my being more intelligent than any of them!”

*                      *                     *

In 2007, four years before Evelyn’s death, a book of mine was published and I was doing a reading in a Berkeley bookstore. I invited Evelyn, never expecting her to attend. I was astonished, the night of the reading, to see her there in her wheelchair, with the same red shirt and the same silver Star Trek pin. It must have cost her an enormous effort to get there in her van. I was moved, but nervous. Her face was blank. Her eyes were vacant.

When I finished the reading, she wheeled herself to the table and asked me to sign her book. “To our friendship,” I wrote. “I hope it continues!”

She looked at me blankly. “Thank you.”

“How are you, Evelyn?” I asked.

“Can’t you tell?” she answered. “I’m dying. I have every disease you can think of and no one will listen to me.”

“But I’ve talked with your doctor,” I said, “and she said that you hadn’t arrived for your appointment.”

“What appointment?” Evelyn said. “The doctor is lying. They all lie.”

And she rolled away to make room for the next person in line.

I had planned to ask Evelyn to join me for dinner after the reading. But when I saw her starting out the door, I didn’t go after her.

*                      *                     *

Years earlier, when Evelyn’s birthday was approaching, I asked her what she wanted more than anything in the world. She told me that she dreamed of meeting the actor Robin Williams. “He’s the most intelligent, funny, intuitive person I have ever seen.”

Through a friend, I wrote him a letter, and within two weeks had scheduled a meeting. Williams, who lived in the San Francisco area, went to Evelyn’s house. They spent two hours together. She was thrilled. Over the telephone after the visit, her voice sounded more hopeful than it ever had. I asked her how the meeting went.

“I don’t remember ever meeting a famous person,” she told me. I gently reminded her about Robert Oppenheimer, about Churchill’s daughter, about Edward Teller’s nephew (whom she had been encouraged to date). I reminded her about her grandfather.

“They were not anywhere in the same league as Williams!” Evelyn exclaimed, and laughed. “He is special; they are ordinary.”

G

Michele Zackheim’s next book is Last Train to Paris to be published by Europa Editions in January 2014. Before turning to writing, Zackheim was a visual artist whose work was shown in numerous museums and galleries. She is also the author of the nonfiction book Einstein’s Daughter: The Search for Lieserl and the novels Violette’s Embrace (Riverhead) and Broken Colors (Europa Editions). She lives in New York City.

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