Einstein's Wife: Work and Marriage in the Lives of Five Great Twentieth-Century Women
By Andrea Gabor
Viking, 341 pp., $24.95
A marriage of equals. Both spouses are brilliant, working in the same field, and at the top of their profession. What could be more perfect?
Not so fast, says Andrea Gabor in her book "Einstein's Wife: Work and Marriage in the Lives of Five Great Twentieth Century Women." While it may seem like a recipe for success, a marriage of intellectual equals may not, by itself, be enough to ensure a lasting and fulfilling relationship.
Gabor's goal was to take on the "Scylla and Charybdis of modern womanhood" - trying to balance professional goals with personal - and see how successfully five talented women navigated the course between work and marriage.
"By examining the marriages of a handful of accomplished women, the obstacles they faced, and whether, and how, they overcame them, I hoped to paint an impressionistic portrait that might lead young men and women to find better ways of handling their own marriages." Without diving into the realm of self-help, Gabor's account of these women provides absorbing examples of challenges faced by modern-day couples.
Gabor begins with the cautionary tale of Mileva Maric, Albert Einstein's first wife, who has been reduced to a historical footnote. A promising scientist and mathematician, Maric fell in love with Einstein at the University of Zurich, where Maric used to intercede with professors on Einstein's behalf. Einstein wrote: " 'How happy and proud I will be when the two of us together will have brought our work on the relative motion to a victorious conclusion.' "
While the extent of Maric's contribution to Einstein's work will never be known, Einstein credits her with solving many of his mathematical problems, and she probably proofread his papers. But, what began as a partnership spanning both love and science deteriorated over the next 18 years, to Maric's personal and professional ruin.
In a sadly ironic move, Einstein eventually abandoned Maric and their two children to marry his cousin, who, he pointed out had no interest in science.
From Maric, Gabor moves through the lives of Lee Krasner, expressionist painter and wife of Jackson Pollock, and Nobel prizewinning physicist Maria Mayer, who, for much of her career, was unable to find a paying job. In her introduction, Gabor states, "I wanted at least one happy marriage - and, to my surprise, found two."
She concludes, therefore, with the lives of architect and city planner Denise Scott Brown and Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Ms. Scott Brown has both a successful marriage and creative partnership with her husband, architect Robert Venturi. Yet pointedly, society never afforded her the same level of professional acceptance or acclaim as it did her husband.
Mr. Venturi has even been given credit for Scott Brown's solo projects, such as the restoration of Miami Beach's art deco district. In 1991, Venturi alone received architecture's prestigious Pritzker Prize - causing him to decry the exclusion of his wife as unfair.
Mrs. O'Connor's meteoric rise in the law eclipsed that of her husband, John O'Connor, despite her taking time off to raise her children and do philanthropic work.
Gabor writes: "[O'Connor] is important because more than any of the other women portrayed in this volume, she possesses the sort of vital self-knowledge that has helped her - and is indeed central - to create a fulfilling life."
Gabor flavors her narrative with insightful, concrete details and peppers it with interesting bits of gossip. For example, in law school O'Connor dated Chief Justice William Rehnquist and even took him home to meet her parents. The Days told her to ditch him: "They didn't like his table manners."
The book traces the lives of these women from the beginning of this century to the present, starting with marriages that experienced great misfortune and concluding with quite successful unions.
Gabor applies Isaiah Berlin's fox-and-hedgehog theory, which defines personalities as either well-rounded or single-minded, to determine the success of the women's lives. But her argument that those who pursue many interests more often succeed is more interesting than convincing. And her attempts to draw parallels between the women in the text are sporadic and, at times, intrusive.
"Einstein's Wife" succeeds based on the criteria Gabor established in her introduction: as a compelling portrait of five fascinating women.