The Unlikely Friendship Between Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin

Everett Collection, Alamy
Everett Collection, Alamy

Who would have thought that one of history’s most renowned geniuses and a slapstick silent movie star would hit it off? And yet they did.

Charlie Chaplin first met Albert Einstein on the famed physicist's second trip to America, in 1930-31, when he was invited to lecture at the California Institute of Technology. Einstein was then at the height of his fame, with newspapers tracking his every move and academics clamoring for explanations of his theories. Yet it was not fellow academics whom Einstein wanted to meet in California—it was a funny little tramp.

When Einstein arrived on American soil that December, he first spent a couple of days in New York—where he was feted and given the keys to the city—before traveling on to California. The scientist was known to be a massive movie buff, and the head of Universal Studios, Carl Laemmle, invited him to Hollywood to watch All Quiet on the Western Front (in his diaries, Einstein pronounced it “a nice piece"). Einstein also took the opportunity to ask the studio head to introduce him to Charlie Chaplin, whom Laemmle phoned shortly thereafter.

The first meeting between the great scientist and the comedy star took place at Universal Studios, where the pair took a tour and had lunch together. They hit it off straight away, sharing quick wits and curious minds. Chaplin later wrote in his autobiography of his early impressions of Einstein: “He looked the typical Alpine German in the nicest sense, jovial and friendly. And although his manner was calm and gentle, I felt it concealed a highly emotional temperament, and that from this source came his extraordinary intellectual energy.”

According to Chaplin’s autobiography, it was during the tour that Einstein’s wife Elsa bustled over, took him aside, and invited herself and her husband to Chaplin’s house. Chaplin was only too happy to oblige. He arranged an intimate dinner, at which Elsa regaled him with the story of when Einstein came up with his world-changing theory, sometime around 1915. She revealed that one morning, when she asked Einstein why he had barely touched his breakfast, he replied, "Darling, I have a wonderful idea." The scientist proceeded to sit and play the piano, stopping occasionally to take notes. Elsa could bear the suspense no longer and asked her husband to reveal all, but he said he needed to figure it out a bit more and soon retreated to his room. Einstein stayed in his room for two weeks, taking all his meals there, until he finally emerged, pale and tired, with his theory of general relativity written on two sheets of paper. He presented these to Elsa with a simple “That’s it.”

Chaplin and Einstein stayed in touch after that successful first meeting. The actor invited Einstein to attend his next premiere, for the movie City Lights (1931), as his special guest. As the tramp and the genius arrived together, both sporting black tie, the press clamored for photos and crowds went wild. According to popular legend, as the crowds cheered the pair, Einstein looked puzzled, and Chaplin explained, "They're cheering us both. You because nobody understands you, and me because everybody understands me." (Another version of events, from Chaplin's 1933-34 travelogue A Comedian Sees the World, says the line actually came from one of Einstein's sons, who uttered it while Chaplin was visiting Einstein in Germany about a month after the premiere: "You are popular [because] you are understood by the masses. On the other hand, the professor's popularity with the masses is because he is not understood.")

When Einstein came to California again in the winter of 1932-33, Chaplin decided to throw a dinner party in his honor. The comedian planned to introduce him to the great media mogul William Randolph Hearst, with high hopes of glittering conversation and witty repartee. Unfortunately, Einstein was not in the mood to explain his complicated theory to a non-academic audience, and Hearst, seemingly tongue-tied, took to playing with his dessert. An awkward silence fell across the table, which was finally broken when Hearst's mistress, the comedy actress Marion Davies, entwined her fingers in Einstein's famously unruly mop and quipped "Why don't you get your hair cut?"

It’s not clear whether the friendship survived the disastrous dinner to endure in the years that followed. Einstein renounced his German citizenship in 1933 and soon moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where his social circle widened considerably. But the existing accounts of their early meetings show that the two men shared, perhaps fleetingly, a deep understanding of one another—and their very different forms of genius.

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6 Amazing Facts About Sally Ride

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are six things you might not know about the groundbreaking astronaut, who was born on May 26, 1951.

1. Sally Ride proved there is such thing as a stupid question.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. Had she taken Billie Jean King's advice, Sally Ride might have been a professional tennis player.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. Home economics was not Sally Ride's best subject.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. Sally Ride had a strong tie to the Challenger.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. Sally Ride had no interest in cashing in on her worldwide fame.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

6. Sally Ride was the first openly LGBTQ astronaut.

Ride passed away on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61, following a long (and very private) battle with pancreatic cancer. While Ride's brief marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley was widely known to the public (they were married from 1982 to 1987), it wasn't until her death that Ride's longtime relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy—a childhood friend and science writer—was made public. Which meant that even in death, Ride was still changing the world, as she is the world's first openly LGBTQ astronaut.