Brainy and the Tramp

Einstein and Chaplin were basically besties, and not just in our extensive fanfic series.

Published January 24, 2023

A couple of summers ago, the Nobel Prize’s Instagram account posted a picture of Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin, both in tuxedos with slightly haphazard-looking bow ties, and both of them wearing the casual expressions of men who were familiar with flash bulbs. 

“It was said that Charlie Chaplin was the only person in Hollywood Albert Einstein wanted to meet. In 1931, he got his chance to talk to the actor at the premiere of the film City Lights,” @nobelprize_org captioned the photo.

We feel a little weird fact-checking the Nobel people, but here we are anyway. Though it’s true that Einstein and his wife, Elsa, did accompany Chaplin to the movie’s opening night in Los Angeles, that wasn’t the first time the two of them had a conversation. In fact, by the time the cameras caught them walking into the Los Angeles Theater together, they’d already been friends for several years. According to Chaplin’s autobiography — cleverly titled My Autobiography — he and Einstein first met in 1926, at a lunch organized by Universal Studios co-founder Carl Laemmle.

“I have a theory that scientists and philosophers are sublimated romanticists who channel their passions in another direction,” Chaplin wrote. “This theory fitted well the personality 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.” 

While Laemmle gave them a studio tour, Elsa Einstein straight-up asked Chaplin to invite them over to his house so they could “have a nice chat with just ourselves.” Chaplin agreed and at dinner, Elsa just casually told the story about how Einstein figured out his theory of relativity. (Compare that to the last meal we had with our friends, when the major topics of conversation were the new Miley Cyrus song and whether birds’ mouths are wet on the inside.) 

Chaplin and the Einsteins got together on several other occasions, including at the couple’s apartment in Berlin (“It was like something you might find in the Bronx,” Chaplin wrote); in California, where Albert rolled up with three musicians and played some Mozart jams at Chaplin’s house; and during an incredibly awkward dinner party, where William Randolph Hurst’s side piece “twiddled her middle fingers over [Einstein’s] head, saying ‘Why don’t you get your hair cut?’” 

The Einsteins had apparently hinted that they’d like to go to the City Lights premiere, and Chaplin agreed, even though he didn’t think they’d be ready for… any of it. A massive crowd lined several city blocks and for whatever reason — maybe because people went mental for silent comedies — the waiting mob smashed the glass windows of the stores beside the theater. 

The film’s long-awaited debut was interrupted halfway through, when the Los Angeles Theater’s manager turned off the projector, brought the house lights up, and asked the crowd to take five minutes to learn about the “merits of this beautiful theatre.” Chaplin straight-up raged, threatening to kill the “stupid son of a bitch” who’d stopped the show. After the crowd started booing, the manager got the hint and showed the second half of the film. 

Even if Einstein was annoyed by the interruption, it didn’t stop him from enjoying the feature. “During the final scene I noticed Einstein wiping his eyes – further evidence that scientists are incurable sentimentalists,” Chaplin wrote. 

So there you go: you can’t always believe everything you see on Instagram. We’re pretty sure Albert Einstein said that once.

A version of this story appeared on the news page of Questionist’s parent company, Geeks Who Drink.

Photo illustration: Public domain / Questionist