The Arty Semite

Einstein and Marilyn, Together Forever?

By Benjamin Ivry

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Albert, Is That You?: Marilyn Monroe, probably not talking to Einstein, in this detail of a film still from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

The fascination with the 20th century’s unsurpassed brain, Albert Einstein, and starriest sex goddess, Marilyn Monroe, inspired Nicolas Roeg’s 1985 film “Insignificance” and a 2005 optical illusion made at MIT still available on the internet, in which an image of Einstein turns into Marilyn if you back away from the computer screen. Although they never in fact met, let alone melded, what would happen if they did is the basis for a novel, “Albert & Marilyn,” out in February from Les éditions Le Pommier.

Written by the French journalist and author of Polish Jewish origin, Jean-Jacques Greif, “Albert & Marilyn” shows the two as chatterboxes with a surprising amount to say to each other, particularly on the subject of Judaism. Greif’s many previous works include two books on Einstein as well as one on Marilyn.

Greif has also published books about his family’s experiences during World War II, including a memoir of his father, an Auschwitz survivor, as well as novels about the Holocaust, such as “Le ring de la mort” which, in 2006, the author translated for Bloomsbury USA Children’s Books as “The Fighter.”

“Albert & Marilyn” fictitiously claims that Greif had met a “cousin of Marilyn’s half-sister, who showed me an odd notebook. It seemed to contain the transcription of several conversations between the star and the scientist, as recorded by Marilyn.” Greif posits that Marilyn was introduced to Einstein by Latvian-born Jewish photographer Philippe Halsman, who did take celebrated images of them on separate occasions. In Greif’s fictional transcription, Marilyn offers such observations as: “I’ve just noticed something which is not trivial, Albert. All your friends are named Max. There’s Max Planck, Max von Laue, Max Born.” To which Einstein replies: “I don’t believe any natural law explains this remarkable phenomenon.” Einstein quotes his friend the Swiss/Italian Jewish scientist Michele Besso, about the impossibility of “ignoring or forgetting” that he was Jewish. Which inspires Marilyn to ask: “What exactly is a Jew? None of my Jewish friends have ever managed to explain it to me.”

Einstein offers an explanation, citing a shared “ideal of mutual help and social justice, an almost fanatical love for justice… devotion to intellectual work… Jews love knowledge for its own sake.” For an informed and unexpected excursus on two twentieth century legends, this novel by Grief, whose tragically short-lived composer brother Olivier Greif is currently enjoying a revival of interest in France, is an appealing read.

Watch the excerpt from Nicholas Roeg’s film Insignificance, in which Marilyn Monroe explains relativity to Einstein.

Watch the MIT optical illusion blending Marilyn and Einstein.

Watch a British TV commercial shoot based on a weary old, oft-repeated joke of the greatest brain meeting the greatest beauty.


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