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History

The great women behind great men

Einstein with his first wife, Mileva. Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Many great men would struggle without their wives, says Helen Lewis in the podcast Great Wives. Take Albert Einstein, who married a fellow physics student, Mileva Maric. “At school Mileva was more of an academic superstar than Albert.” When Einstein told his mother he wanted to marry Mileva, she replied: “Like you, she is a book. But you ought to have a wife.”

Yet Mileva was instrumental in his success. She proofread his work and tweaked his calculations. She also did his laundry and raised his children. “When they were apart, he sent her a sketch of his foot so she could knit him a pair of socks.” She didn’t get much back. Eventually he gave his wife a contract. Mileva, he said, must cook three meals a day, tidy his study and “renounce all personal relations with me insofar as they are not completely necessary for social reasons”. They divorced and the scientist married his first cousin.

There are great husbands, too. Leonard Woolf “endlessly supported” Virginia, Pierre Curie wrote to the Nobel prize board to insist that it acknowledged Marie, and Serena Williams’s husband once flew her to Italy because she was “craving pasta”. But they’re a rarer breed. And just think how many more women would have flourished if they had the support of wives like Mileva Maric. “Would Einstein have had the time to think about photons if he’d had to knit his own socks?”

🎨 👀 👨‍⚖️ Walter Keane was an even worse husband than Einstein, says Lewis. The American conman made millions selling paintings of big-eyed children in the 1960s. He claimed he was the artist – but in reality it was his wife, Margaret. When Mrs Keane confronted Walter publicly, he called her a “boozing, sex-starved psychopath”. In court, the judge challenged them to paint a portrait in front of the jury. Walter feigned a shoulder injury and declined. Margaret, now 93, finished a near-perfect painting in just 53 minutes. 

Listen to the podcast here.