May 12, 2004: Features

Undated photos from Johanna Fantova’s collection: top, Einstein on the front porch of his house on Mercer Street; below, Fantova in Prague before her 1939 arrival in the U.S. (Photographs: Princeton Univerisity Library)

A final glimpse at genius
Einstein’s last musings, captured by a dear friend

Johanna Fantova was the last of Albert Einstein’s close woman friends, the one who cut his famous hair and in whom he confided during the final years of his life. Early this year, library curators were going through Fantova’s personnel files —she was a University librarian who had known the physicist since the 1920s — when they came across an unknown 62-page manuscript, “Gespräche mit Einstein” (Conversations with Einstein). Fantova’s manuscript offers a glimpse of Einstein’s thoughts from October 1953 through April 12, 1955, just a few days before his death at 76.

The diary illustrates that, despite growing loneliness, Einstein’s wry sense of humor remained intact through his last days. Fantova writes of his enjoyment in sailing on Lake Carnegie, even after his health began to fail. “Seldom did I see him so gay and in so light a mood as in this strangely primitive boat,” she notes. “Unfortunately even this pleasure was later denied him by his doctors, along with smoking. He was very saddened by these restrictions.” She recalls that he expressed himself “decisively” about world politics and “felt partially responsible for the creation of the atom bomb, and this responsibility oppressed him greatly.”

In this article, which is excerpted and adapted from the Princeton University Library Chronicle (Vol. 65, No. 1), Alice Calaprice describes Einstein’s life during this period, as captured in Fantova’s manuscript. Calaprice, a former senior editor at Princeton University Press, oversaw the Press’s Collected Papers of Albert Einstein series and the accompanying English-language translation project.

The daily mail

Einstein received many unsolicited manuscripts and letters. In the conversations recorded by Fantova, he declares himself to be a magnet for all the crazy people of the world, yet admits that he finds it interesting to try to reconstruct their thinking processes. He expresses sympathy for them and says he often tries to help them.

Einstein’s 75th birthday occurred March 14, 1954, and he eagerly tells Fantova about the many cards, letters, and telegrams that were arriving by mail. He complains that he was eating too much birthday cake and was receiving strange presents in the mail, including an amulet with a picture of the Virgin Mary, with instructions to wear it around his neck to save his soul. His favorite gift is a live parrot, sent by the staff of a hospital. Einstein frets about its well-being for the next few days, explaining that the poor bird is traumatized because it had been boxed and shipped like an ordinary piece of mail. Slowly, he encourages the parrot to eat out of his hand and tells jokes that the sad bird doesn’t seem to appreciate.

J. Robert Oppenheimer

Both Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Institute for Advanced Study, where Einstein had been working since October 1933, were politically outspoken in favor of liberal social and political causes. During World War II, Oppenheimer had directed the Los Alamos Laboratory, the site of the Manhattan Project that produced the atomic bomb. By 1954 the U.S. government considered him a security risk, and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) decided to investigate his background and life. During this period, the two men had several exchanges about their confrontations with McCarthyism.

In March 1954, Oppenheimer came to Einstein’s home at 112 Mercer Street with a message. He had received a letter from an Institute trustee expressing concern that Einstein’s political outspokenness might be tarnishing the Institute’s reputation. The next day, Einstein tells Fantova that one has to do what one has to do, even if it brings a reprimand. Later he notes that Oppenheimer always had assured him that he would never try to influence him in this regard, and had remained true to his word.

At the beginning of June, Einstein reports that Oppenheimer was depressed by the outcome of the HUAC hearings and his consequent dismissal as a consultant for the Atomic Energy Commission. Einstein tells Fantova that he has a new name for the A.E.C.: Atomic Extermination Conspiracy. After discussing Oppenheimer’s sensitivity to criticism, Einstein tells Fantova that he himself was born with an elephant’s skin, that no one can wound him.

Contemporary physics

Einstein admits that he is no longer at the forefront of physics. He is considered a heretic, he says, and he will not see his latest ideas – presumably, his search for a unified field theory – accepted or proven in his lifetime.

In 1953 Einstein published his most recent equations for a unified field theory as an appendix to the fourth edition of The Meaning of Relativity. He says in October that colleagues have been bombarding him with questions, wanting to amend the equations. He insists that he has worked very hard on them, and they cannot be improved further.

In late January 1954, Eric Rogers, a physicist neighbor, tells Einstein that many young people talk about him and his ideas at scientific conferences, but not in a positive way. They believe he is out of touch with current physics. But a confident Einstein says he is convinced that gradual breakthroughs will occur in his unified field theory, and he again maintains that it will be a long time before the theory is appreciated – after he is dead.


Among the many visitors to Einstein’s home was former presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson ’22, who saw Einstein in June 1954, when Stevenson was in town to receive an honorary degree. Einstein tells Fantova that he liked him better in person than when listening to his political speeches, which he regarded as too pompous. Before parting, Stevenson thanked Einstein for his vote, and Einstein jokingly replied that he voted for the Democrat only because he trusted Dwight Eisenhower even less.

Israel and the Jews

Einstein was always proud of being a Jew, even though his family was secular and had assimilated into German society. He supported the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Israel, more for cultural than political reasons, with the caveat that the Arabs should be treated fairly.

In November 1953, when Israel raided the Jordanian village of Kibya, the United States joined Britain and France in introducing a United Nations resolution condemning Israel for this act of aggression. Einstein tells Fantova that he approves of this reprimand, saying that Israel deserved it.

The Israelis, he says in January 1954, should have chosen English instead of Hebrew as their national language, but the Jews were too fanatical about the Hebrew language to consider anything else. A month later, Einstein expresses annoyance at the German Jews who are returning to Germany, especially to accept awards. Wanting to give the Germans a kick in the rear, as he puts it, he proudly tells Fantova that he turned down every one of their offers to show him recognition.

Sigmund Freud

Early in November 1953, Einstein had a vivid dream about his sister’s dress, which he had draped over a chair. He tried to fold it but was unsuccessful, whereupon the dress suddenly disappeared. In place of the dress, which he could no longer find, a friend appeared sitting in the chair.

This dream led Einstein to read a book about dreams in which the author made reference to Sigmund Freud, thus prompting him to read Freud’s Totem and Taboo. Einstein remarks to Fantova that the Oedipus complex, a son’s jealousy of his father, is a remarkable, hair-raising concept. He asks Fantova rhetorically if women have an Oedipus complex and goes on to say that, to him, the whole business is idiotic. That repressed conflicts are expressed in dreams is not so absurd, but it is dubious that our actions can be traced back to origins of which we are not aware. Einstein does not think it impossible that dreams are repressed wishes, but he’s not convinced. Furthermore, he says, he does not recall ever having dreamed about the castration complex.

He allows that Freud was very intelligent, but he thinks that much of his theory is nonsense, and therefore he is opposed to Fantova undergoing analysis.

Getting old

One winter day, a gloomy Einstein tells Fantova that he is a very isolated man: Even though everyone knows who he is, very few people really know him. By April 1954, soon after his 75th birthday, Einstein is feeling his age, no longer so keen to do his work. He enjoys living, but he would have no objection if it all suddenly ended. In August he complains of weakness and lack of energy, and stays home instead of going to the Institute. His doctor takes X-rays, but Einstein is not interested in the results, he says, just as a bird wouldn’t be interested in knowing why it doesn’t feel well. Every day, he says, he tries to work on some calculations, but the effort has become too damned difficult.

Einstein’s last conversations with Fantova took place on April 10 and 12, 1955. He laments that he had not yet put together a radio speech on behalf of Israel, and he talks about the importance of the new Salk polio vaccine, pleased that Salk is a Jew. On April 15, Einstein was admitted to Princeton Hospital. He died in the early morning of April 18, 1955, of a ruptured arteriosclerotic aneurysm of the abdominal aorta, having opposed any surgery to prolong his life.

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