Albert Einstein? Leo Mattersdorf? Fictional?
Dear Quote Investigator: I have been struggling trying to figure out how much I owe to the Internal Revenue Service this year. The quote I would like you to explore does not sound very extraordinary. What makes it funny and outrageous is the identity of the person who supposedly said it:
The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.
Did Albert Einstein really say this? I have seen this statement in many places, and the quote is even listed on the official IRS.gov website with an attribution to Einstein [EIS]. However, I am skeptical because no one seems to have a good reference, and the humor is too perfect.
Quote Investigator: This is a timely and entertaining query, and QI may have found the origin of this quotation. In 1963 a letter written by Leo Mattersdorf appeared in Time magazine with the following assertion: “From the time Professor Einstein came to this country until his death, I prepared his income tax returns and advised him on his tax problems.” Mattersdorf told the following anecdote about Einstein [TLM]:
One year while I was at his Princeton home preparing his return, Mrs. Einstein, who was then still living, asked me to stay for lunch. During the course of the meal, the professor turned to me and with his inimitable chuckle said: “The hardest thing in the world to understand is income taxes.” I replied: “There is one thing more difficult, and that is your theory of relativity.” “Oh, no,” he replied, ”that is easy.” To which Mrs. Einstein commented, “Yes, for you.”
LEO MATTERSDORF New York City
Einstein died in 1955, so this story appeared after his death. Nevertheless, there is solid evidence that Mattersdorf was a friend of Einstein’s, and he performed tax accounting work for him. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In 1937 black-and-white film footage was taken of Albert Einstein walking in a garden with another man. The other man was his friend Leo Mattersdorf according to the title of the video which is available at the Google videos website [EGM].
In 1952 Mattersdorf published a book titled “Insight into Astronomy”, and he included an acknowledgement to Einstein for the help he provided with the manuscript [IAM].
No book can be written without the very helpful assistance and criticism of others. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to Professor Albert Einstein for his kindness in reading the manuscript and, then, sitting down with me and offering many helpful suggestions.
In 1963 the letter to Time magazine with the quotation attributed to Einstein was published as shown above.
In March of 1968 a version of the quote appeared in an article titled “Tax Developments of 1967” in a magazine aimed at aircraft owners and pilots. The wording of the quote was slightly different. The phrase “the Income Tax” was used instead of “income taxes”, and this variant is the most common modern version of the saying [AOP]:
“The hardest thing in the world to understand is the Income Tax.” If these are your sentiments, you are in good company — the words are those of the late Albert Einstein.
In 1971 the quote appeared in the Chicago Tribune as a freestanding item next to an article by Henry W. Bloch, the cofounder of tax preparation company H&R Block [HRE]:
“The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.”
In 1972 a letter writer to the New York Times stated that “vast numbers of taxpayers cannot understand the income-tax forms and even college graduates have trouble understanding them.” He then made an assertion about Einstein and tax forms [TXE]:
Recalling a news item on one of your pages of several years ago, this revelation has to be considered somewhat of an understatement. The item disclosed that no less a person than Albert Einstein was so confounded by the income-tax forms that he gave up in despair and obtained the services of a tax specialist.
WALTER J. PETRY New York, April 17, 1972
In 1985 after the death of Mattersdorf an article in the New York Times mentioned his relationship with Einstein [LME]:
He was also a former chairman of the Amateur Astronomers Association in New York and was the author of “Insight Into Astronomy,” which was also published in paperback as “A Key to the Heavens.” The book was proofread by Albert Einstein, who was an accounting client of Mr. Mattersdorf for many years.
An article dated 2007 on the Washingtonian website by an editor of USA Today discussed an episode at the newspaper concerning Einstein and his taxes [DCE]:
We sometimes went to bizarre lengths to stand out. When Reagan gave a speech saying that even Albert Einstein needed help with the tax code, the staff was asked to find out who had done Einstein’s taxes.
Despite calls across many time zones, we never found out. The incident became newsroom lore—until 2006, when a copyeditor found a Web site revealing that in 1938 Einstein had given a telescope as a gift to Leo Mattersdorf, “his tax accountant and personal friend.”
In conclusion, the quotation is not directly from Einstein, but it is from a man who was his friend and tax accountant. The most common current version differs slightly from the 1963 instance. The earliest known citation is after Einstein’s death, and the accuracy of the anecdote depends on the memory and veracity of Leo Mattersdorf. It certainly is a fun tale for tax time. Thanks for your question, and I hope you receive a large refund check.
[EIS] IRS.gov website, Newsroom: Tax Quotes, Quote attributed to Albert Einstein, “The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.” (Accessed 2011 March 7) link
[EMG] video.google.com website, Title: “1937 B/W MS Albert Einstein walking in garden w/ friend Leo Mattersdorf / Long I”, Google videos. (Accessed 2011 March 7) link
[IAM] 1952, Insight into Astronomy by Leo Mattersdorf, Page 11, Lantern Press, Inc., New York [in collaboration with Sky Publishing Corporation, Cambridge, Massachusetts.] (Google Books snippet; Verified on paper in 1953 second printing) link
[AOP] 1968 March, The AOPA Pilot, Page 61, “Tax Developments of 1967” by Robert I. Keller, Volume 11, Number 3, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (Google Books snippet; Verified with scans; Many thanks for the assistance of the University of New Orleans Earl K. Long library) link
[HRE] 1971 March 21, Chicago Tribune, Why Our Taxes Are So Confusing and Complex by Henry W. Bloch, Page A1, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
[TXE] 1972 April 23, New York Times, Letters to the Editor, Genius-Thwarting IRS by Walter Petry, Page E14, New York. (ProQuest)
[LME] 1985 August 27, New York Times, Leo Mattersdorf, 81, Author And Tax Consultant, Is Dead, Page 20, New York. (GenealogyBank and Online Archive of the New York Times) link
[DCE] 2007 September 1, USA Today: McPaper Grows Up by David Colton, Washingtonian.com website. (Accessed 2011 March 7) link