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Portrait of Albert Einstein by John D. Schiff, [ca. 1945], Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Love and Intrigue at Princeton: Newly Opened Letters from Einstein’s Love Affair with Margarita Konenkova

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This post is coauthored by Manuscript Division archivist Rachel McNellis and Josh Levy, historian of science and technology.

In September 1945, just a few weeks after the end of World War II, Margarita Konenkova was on her way back to the Soviet Union with her homesick, emotionally distant husband, Russian sculptor Sergey Konenkov. Before she left, she entrusted her New York neighbor with a half dozen letters she’d received from the widowed Albert Einstein during their brief, passionate affair. The neighbor, Marjorie Bishop, left instructions that in case of her death, the letters be “burned without further ado.”

Bishop never burned the letters. Instead, in 1969, she gave them to psychoanalyst Muriel Gardiner, Margarita’s friend and her husband’s patron. Gardiner, describing their author only as an “outstanding personality,” sent them to the Sigmund Freud Archives, which then placed them in the Library of Congress where they remained closed to researchers for the next 50 years. The letters, all authored by Einstein between January 4, 1944, and September 25, 1945, finally opened for research in 2019.

Passionate, poetic, and personal, the six letters, written in German, portray a man madly in love. One, postmarked March 9, 1944, includes a sketch of Einstein and Konenkova’s “Half-Nest,” a homey room with a book-covered desk and broad window that strongly resembles the study in Einstein’s Princeton home. Admitting that the sketch is quite simple, Einstein quickly clarifies that he was not drunk when creating it. He simply wished to capture the room he associated with Konenkova and their weekends together.

The letters alternate between big ideas and the human scale of everyday life. In one, Einstein expresses his excitement for Konenkova’s upcoming birthday, but also insists that “birthday parties are stupid bourgeois affairs.” In another, he retreats from his disdain for birthday celebrations, noting how thrilled he was when colleagues Peter and Margot Bergmann gave him Vivaldi concerti for his own birthday – even if it meant he needed to learn to play the violin again.

Einstein professes his love for Konenkova as he recounts his day-to-day life. We see him incapacitated by illness, prevented from sailing due to dangerous weather conditions, attending a Jewish funeral, visiting friends, and smoking the pipes that Konenkova sent him. Then he becomes Princeton University’s most renowned theoretical physicist again. One night, Einstein writes, he invited J. Robert Oppenheimer, Bertrand Russell, Wolfgang Pauli, and Kurt Gödel to his home for a philosophical debate. The letters seamlessly mix Einstein’s human qualities with his genius, the mundanity of his life with its exceptionalism.

Einstein occasionally mentions global politics as well. Just before his assault on the institution of the birthday party he mysteriously states: “I admire Stalin’s sagacity. He does it significantly better than the others, not only militarily but also politically.” No further context is provided. In another letter, penned on September 13, 1945, less than a month after the catastrophic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he offers support for physicists who opposed the permanent classification of information pertaining to atomic weapons, sharing their fear that such secrecy could negatively impact international relations and threaten another war. He also expresses concern for Konenkova’s personal grief over the alienation between Russians in the United States and those in Russia, referring to it as “a kind of personal expatriation.”

Their affair was, of course, a secret. While Einstein became a widower after the death of his second wife in 1936, Konenkova remained married to her husband Sergey, a brilliant modernist sculptor who was increasingly absorbed in what Muriel Gardiner diagnosed as a “religious mania,” one peppered with prophesies and seemingly based on “the Bible and the pyramids, and maybe his own instincts.” Margarita, charming, sociable, and full of life, must have felt forced to seek company elsewhere. Still, their friends remained discreet. When asked many years later whether Konenkova had an affair with Einstein, Gardiner would only offer, “I certainly hope so! They were two lonely people.”

News of the affair did eventually leak. A 1994 article in the Russian Army newspaper Red Star revealed the discovery of other letters between Einstein and Margarita at Moscow’s Konenkov Memorial Museum. Four years later, Sotheby’s made a global splash with the revelation that not only had Konenkova been Einstein’s lover, she had also worked as a Soviet spy, tasked with extracting information on the atomic bomb and delivering it to the communists. Sotheby’s offered a different batch of love letters to any well-heeled buyer who might be interested in learning more.

It was a good story, and one that certainly succeeded in bringing attention to the auction. But the claim, based solely on the much-discredited memoir of former “Soviet spymaster” Pavel Sudoplatov, has since been greeted with skepticism. Less dramatic, but perhaps closer to the truth, is the Red Star’s account of Margarita being prevailed upon by Soviet vice-consul Pavel Mikhailov for a personal introduction to Einstein while she was deep into a multiyear negotiation to secure the papers needed to return home. In fact, that meeting did take place at Mikhailov’s home in November 1945. As far as we know, there was no follow-up encounter. But Mikhailov did suggest that Einstein rally his fellow scientists to express their concern for international peace, and apparently leaned on Margarita to persuade Einstein to pay a visit to the Soviet Union. That visit might have been something of a propaganda coup, had it occurred.

Needless to say, the six letters at the Library of Congress contain no classified information, and nothing that demonstrates Konenkova was pressing Einstein for nuclear secrets. But they do shed a little more light on a clandestine wartime encounter between two lonely people.

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“The neighbor…” Marjorie Bishop, note dated July 9, 1960, Albert Einstein Papers, Box 1, SFC-14, Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection, Sigmund Freud Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (hereafter cited as Albert Einstein Papers, SFC-14, Library of Congress). All six of the Einstein letters are in German, and quotations appearing here were translated by Rachel McNellis.

“Gardiner, describing…” Muriel Gardiner to Kurt Eissler, August 27, 1969, Albert Einstein Papers, SFC-14, Library of Congress.

“In one, Einstein expresses…” “Es ist obschön diese Geburtstagerei eine blöde Bourgeois-Angelegenheit…,” Albert Einstein to Margarita Konenkova, March 9, 1944, Albert Einstein Papers, SFC-14, Library of Congress.

“In another, he retreats…” “Für diese werde ich mich wieder im Geigen über müssen,” Albert Einstein to Margarita Konenkova, March 15, 1944, Albert Einstein Papers, SFC-14, Library of Congress.

“Just before…”Ich bewundere Stalins Klugheit; er macht es bedeutend besser als die andern, nicht nur militärisch sondern auch politisch,” Albert Einstein to Margarita Konenkova, March 9, 1944, Albert Einstein Papers, SFC-14, Library of Congress.

“He also expresses…” “…eine Art persönliche Ausbürgerung,” Albert Einstein to Margarita Konenkova, September 25, 1945, Albert Einstein Papers, SFC-14, Library of Congress.

“While Einstein became…” Muriel Gardiner, “My Friendship with Konenkov, 1926-1945” in The Uncommon Vision of Sergei Konenkov, 1874-1971 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2001), 187.

“When asked…” Marie Turbow Lampard, “Sergei Konenkov: An Introduction” in The Uncommon Vision of Sergei Konenkov, 50.

“That visit…” Lampard, The Uncommon Vision of Sergei Konenkov, 50-51; Pavel Sudoplatov, Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness, a Soviet Spymaster (Boston: Little and Brown, 1995).

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