Newly discovered diary chronicles Einstein's last years
By Steven Schultz
Princeton NJ -- Librarians at Princeton University have discovered a diary written by one of Albert Einstein's closest friends, a woman who recorded the scientist's day-to-day thoughts and activities during the last year and a half of his life.
The diary, written by Johanna Fantova, a former Princeton librarian, relates Einstein's musings on subjects, profound and mundane, from physics and current events to the tribulations of growing old. Fantova, who knew Einstein for more than 25 years, chronicled their regular conversations in more than 200 diary entries.
In an introduction to the diary, Fantova wrote that she intended it to "cast some additional light on our understanding of Einstein, not the great man who became a legend during his own lifetime, not on Einstein the renowned scientist, but on Einstein, the humanitarian."
Fantova met Einstein in the 1920s in Europe and then renewed the friendship in the United States during World War II. The two ate dinners and went sailing together in Princeton; she cut his hair, and he wrote poems to her. They also spoke by telephone two or three evenings a week. She compiled notes from their conversations into a 62-page manuscript, which is written in German and covers the period from October 1953 to Einstein's death in April 1955 at age 76.
Fantova tried unsuccessfully to publish the manuscript before her death in 1981, but did not make its existence widely known. A Princeton librarian conducting research on Fantova discovered the manuscript earlier this year in Fantova's archived employment file.
In their conversations, Einstein and Fantova often discussed the many old friends, acquaintances and strangers who visited the Einstein household. Einstein spoke regularly with Robert Oppenheimer, who directed the Institute for Advanced Study where Einstein worked. Oppenheimer, whom Einstein held in high regard, had led the U.S. effort to build the atomic bomb but was later persecuted by Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. In Fantova's accounts, the McCarthy hearings were a frequent subject of conversation. "This political persecution of his associate was a source of bitter disillusionment," she wrote.
In close succession, Einstein received visits from physicist Werner Heisenberg, who led the Nazi German A-bomb effort, and Aage Bohr, son of physicist Niels Bohr, who became Heisenberg's rival. Fantova recounted that after the visits, Einstein called Heisenberg "a big Nazi" and commented that Bohr was more pleasant but spoke constantly.
In Fantova's accounts, much of Einstein's attention was devoted to politics of the day. Einstein frequently criticized the speeches of presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, but then met with him and did not find him "as pompous as he came across in his speeches." He told Fantova that in his political thinking he was still a "revolutionary" and a "fire-belching Vesuvius."
"He expressed himself very decisively about many developments in world politics, felt partially responsible for the creation of the atom bomb, and this responsibility oppressed him greatly," she wrote.
Throughout these years, Einstein was inundated with letters and, despite complaining that "all the maniacs in the world write to me," showed great openness and curiosity in responding to strangers asking for autographs and endorsements and attempting to convert him to Christianity. Fantova related how Einstein indulged some requests and turned others down with humor. On his birthday, Einstein received, through regular mail, the gift of a parrot and then became attached to the bird, telling it jokes and naming it Bibo.
The diary also recounts the ups and downs of Einstein's continuing work in physics, with one day bringing excitement over a new idea and the next disappointment over newly discovered mistakes. Einstein described himself as isolated from current physics and mathematics and told Fantova that his latest ideas would not be appreciated until after he was dead.
The physics of sailing
As Einstein grew older, Fantova described his efforts to fend off illnesses, including one passed on by the parrot Bibo, and to remain active. "Einstein's health began to fail, but he continued to indulge in what remained his favorite of all pastimes, sailing. Here too, his analytical precision helped him to calculate the smallest movement of air, even on a nearly windless day. Seldom did I see him so gay and in so light a mood as in this strangely primitive little boat."
Fantova said the "exceptional logical simplicity" of Einstein's reasoning extended to all aspects of his life and influenced his opinions of others. "He read widely, but was often bemused by the pretentiousness and length of many contemporary scientific and literary works," she wrote. "Jokingly contrasting his own literary efforts and their impact on the world with those of others, he once remarked: 'I only wrote a tiny book about my Theory of Relativity and it brought about a scientific revolution.'"
All the recollections in the diary may not be entirely accurate. A preliminary reading revealed at least one mistake in which Fantova described Einstein telephoning his sister, who had died in 1951.
Events leading to the discovery of the Fantova diary began with a donation of other papers related to Fantova more than 10 years ago. Gillett Griffin, a retired curator at the Princeton University Art Museum and mutual friend of Einstein and Fantova, gave the library a collection of papers that included photographs of Einstein and poems and letters that Einstein had sent to Fantova. Library staff members recently began working on a series of articles on historic couples for the Princeton University Library Chronicle and planned to feature the Einstein-Fantova poems. In doing research for that publication, retired curator Alfred Bush discovered the Fantova diary in her personnel file.
The finding came as a complete surprise, said Don Skemer, curator of manuscripts. "During the 1990s, I had received a number of inquiries" from people asking whether a diary existed, Skemer said. He referred these people to various experts and collections around the country. "They always reported back to me, 'No one has ever heard of this,'" he said.
Griffin said he also had no idea that Fantova had kept a diary. "I felt that he was a very private person and that I should not make a diary of my visits," Griffin said. "But she was close to him and he may well have realized that she was taking notes on the telephone calls." Griffin noted that Einstein had given Fantova an important scientific manuscript, the original copy of his "Unified Field Theory," as well as other writings in part as "insurance" for her financial security.
Fantova herself wrote that she hesitated for many years to take notes on her conversations with Einstein. "In the last years of his life, however, I was convinced that these monologues were of great interest as historical documents, since they illuminate the man and his era."
Fantova was born in Prague in 1901 and married Otto Fanta. Fanta's family hosted the "Fanta salon," which was known for bringing together famous people of the day, including Einstein. In 1929, Fantova catalogued Einstein's extensive collection of books, which had been disorganized. The two became friends and sailed together near Einstein's home in Germany. Just before World War II, Fantova moved alone to the United States and immediately visited Einstein in Princeton. Recalling her earlier work in his library, Einstein suggested Fantova pursue library school as a means of support. By 1944, she had completed her training and earned a position in the Princeton University library. In 1954, she was appointed curator of maps.
According to Griffin, when Fantova sought U.S. citizenship, her application included supporting letters from Einstein and J. Edgar Hoover, who also had been an acquaintance of her husband. "It's a real irony," said Griffin, noting that Hoover, as FBI director, kept a voluminous secret file on Einstein.
Fantova became one of three women who played key roles in Einstein's later years, the others being his longtime secretary Helen Dukas and his stepdaughter Margot Einstein, both of whom shared his home at 112 Mercer St. It was Fantova who took responsibility for arranging a quiet, private dinner for Einstein's 75th birthday and for cutting his notoriously wild hair, Griffin said.
Griffin said he is grateful that Fantova treasured Einstein's personal side and "was prescient enough to record it. ... Reading what she left us gives me an immediate connection with my own experience and gives everyone the immediacy of knowing Einstein himself," Griffin said.
Fantova's diary, which is typewritten, is available to researchers through the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections in the University library. It has not been formally translated, although the library commissioned an English summary that gives an overview of each day's entry. The diary "will become part of the process of scholarly research, discovery and publication, which, as an institution, we are here to support," said Skemer. "I am sure that in time it will be of considerable interest to Einstein biographers."