The Hardest Thing in the World to Understand is Income Taxes

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.”

—Albert Einstein

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

[TLM] 1963 February 22, Time, “Letters: Feb. 22, 1963″, Time, Inc., New York. (Online Time magazine archive; Accessed 2011 March 7) link 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

 

7 thoughts on “The Hardest Thing in the World to Understand is Income Taxes

  1. I am Leo Mattersdorf’s grandson. My grandfather was indeed Albert Einstein’s tax accountant (and friend). My mother, Stephanie Asker, first met Albert Einstein when she was 4 years old (and is also in the 1937 black and white film mentioned in the article – that was the day she met him). My mother, who currently lives in Northern California, last saw Albert Einstein when she was 18 years old.

    Leo Mattersdorf was born and grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which at the time had a large German-speaking population, and he didn’t speak English until he was 5 years old and went to public elementary school. One of my grandfather’s clients was Dr. Gustav Bucky, a German-Jewish physicist who had emigrated to the United States. Dr. Bucky was friends with Albert Einstein, and when he found out that Prof. Einstein needed help with his taxes in the mid-1930′s, Dr. Bucky suggested to Prof. Einstein that my grandfather become his accountant, since my grandfather spoke German.

    My grandfather was at one time the secretary of the National Tax Association. He was also an avid amateur astronomer, and was at one point the president of the American Amateur Astronomer’s Association, based out of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. My grandfather never sent Albert Einstein a bill, as he had too much respect for the professor. When my grandfather won a tax case the IRS had brought against Albert Einstein in the mid-1930′s, out of gratitude Albert Einstein gave my grandfather his telescope, which is still in my family’s possession.

    Besides the accountant/client relationship, Albert Einstein and my grandfather were also friends. My grandfather was interested in science, he spoke German, and having grown up in the United States perhaps also helped Prof. Einstein in adjusting to his adopted country. My mother considered Prof. Einstein to be an uncle.

    My brother and I were born after Prof. Einstein’s death, but our sister was born several months before he died. She almost met him, as our parents were supposed to drive down to Princeton to visit him, but his secretary Helen Dukas called to tell them to put off the visit as the professor was ill. He died a week later. (My brother, sister and I did get to a chance to visit Helen Dukas and Prof. Einstein’s step-daughter Margo at the house in Princeton in the mid-1960′s.)

    -David S. Miller, Copenhagen, Denmark

    [Update: On April 16, 2013 the position of Leo Mattersdorf in the National Tax Association was included as: "secretary of the National Tax Association".]

  2. David S. Miller
    Thank you very much for visiting the website and sharing this valuable information that provides additional context for the quotation.

  3. The things one finds late at night on Internet while working on income taxes… I have filed taxes in the U.S. (Federal, Idaho and California), Spain, Canada (Federal, Quebec) and France. Now I am filing Virginia State Income Tax and it is by far the most incomprehensible that I have encountered. Thank you.

  4. I can vouch for everything David S Miller wrote, with one exception. The telescope that he refers to is on display at a museum and I have seen it with my own eyes, along with a beautiful photograph of David’s mother and her family posed with Albert Einstein. This story is also related in pretty much the same way.

    I have been racking my brain for the past 10 minutes trying to figure out where I saw it (as a space buff, I’ve been to many space museums and observatories) – I believe it is at the Yerkes observatory in Wisconsin.

    http://astro.uchicago.edu/yerkes/index.html

  5. It is possible that the family that controls the telescope allows it to be displayed at science museums. For example, the website of the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, California discussed a talk that a daughter of Leo Mattersdorf presented in 2011. The center has exhibited one of Einstein’s personal telescopes which may have been loaned to the museum by the family. Here is a link to a calendar event at the science center.

  6. [Here is another message from Leo Mattersdorf's grandson, David S. Miller.]

    The telescope is still in our family’s possession, and it is indeed on loan to the Chabot Science Center in Oakland, California. My brother Dan was on the Board of Chabot for many years, and he arranged for the telescope to be displayed in the lobby along with a copy of a photo of our mother at the age of 9 together with Professor Einstein, Einstein’s sister, Dr. Bucky, and our grandfather Leo Mattersdorf. Also displayed is a copy of the letter Professor Einstein wrote in German to our grandfather thanking him for winning the case against the IRS, and presenting him with the telescope.

    Our grandfather had many quotes from Professor Einstein, and no matter how many times he told them, they never changed. (He was a stickler for detail.) I would consider the 1963 letter to Time Magazine version to be the correct quote, just as if a journalist had heard it directly from Einstein and written it down.

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