Charlie Chaplin? Albert Einstein? János Plesch? Hans Albert Einstein? Eduard Einstein? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: The entertainer Charlie Chaplin and the scientist Albert Einstein were two of the most famous individuals of the last century. I have heard the following anecdote about a meeting between them in the 1930s. While traveling together they were recognized and a crowd of people started to vigorously applaud the luminaries. They waved to the throng and reportedly exchanged the following words:
Einstein: What I most admire about your art, is your universality. You don’t say a word, yet the world understands you!
Chaplin: True. But your glory is even greater! The whole world admires you, even though they don’t understand a word of what you say.
Is there any truth to this tale?
Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in an article written by Charlie Chaplin for “Woman’s Home Companion” in October 1933 . The well-known comedian wrote a series of pieces for the magazine about his world travels, and his latest journey included a stay in Germany.
Previously, when Einstein had traveled to the United States he had visited with Chaplin. Thus, Chaplin decided to reciprocate, and he went to the “modest flat” of Einstein where he was introduced to the scientist’s wife, daughter (a sculptress), and son.
After dinner Chaplin had arranged for a group of Japanese children to perform a dance routine for entertainment. One of the young dancers asked for autographs from both Chaplin and Einstein. Chaplin included a comic sketch of his large shoes while Einstein included one of his equations. Einstein then scrutinized the signatures, and the two luminaries exchanged remarks that prefigured the quotation under examination: 1
“But yours is more interesting,” he said humorously, comparing the two sketches.
“More comprehensible to the little girl perhaps,” I laughed, “and to me and many others.”
Interestingly, Chaplin credited the crucially insightful statement about fame to Einstein’s son. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:
“We sat down to delicious home-baked tarts made by Mrs. Einstein. During the course of conversation, his son remarked on the psychology of the popularity of Einstein and myself.
“You are popular,” he said, “because you are understood by the masses. On the other hand, the professor’s popularity with the masses is because he is not understood.'”
Einstein had two sons: Hans Albert Einstein and Eduard Einstein. QI does not know which son Chaplin meant to credit.
A different tale about the origin of the quotation was later published by one of Einstein’s friends. See below for additional selected citations in chronological order.
János Plesch who was Albert Einstein’s physician and his friend published a memoir. This work was translated into English by Edward Fitzgerald and published in 1947. In this version of the anecdote, the two celebrities Chaplin and Einstein were conversing, and Chaplin presented the comparison between their different types of fame: 2
Once when Einstein was in Hollywood on a visit Chaplin drove him through the town. As the people on the sidewalks recognized two of their greatest, if very different, contemporaries, they gave them a tremendous reception which greatly astonished Einstein. “They’re cheering us both,” said Chaplin: “you because nobody understands you, and me because everybody understands me.” There was a good-humoured pride in his remark, and at the same time a certain humility as at a recognition of the difference between ready popularity and lasting greatness.
Apparently, Plesch was not present when the words were spoken, so his account was second-hand. An episode showing the relationship between Plesch and Einstein was mentioned in the valuable recent biography “Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson. When Einstein wished to obtain some peace and quiet he sometimes sojourned at the estate of his medical-doctor friend to hide from journalists: 3
Einstein wanted some solitude for his fiftieth birthday, a refuge from publicity. So in March 1929 he fled once again, as he had during the publication of his unified field theory paper of a few months earlier, to the gardener’s cottage of an estate on the Havel River owned by Janos Plesch, a flamboyant and gossipy Hungarian-born celebrity doctor who had added Einstein to his showcase collection of patient-friends.
In 1951 the biography “Charlie Chaplin” by Theodore Huff presented the incident. The description and quotation matched the information in “Woman’s Home Companion”: 4
Chaplin returned Einstein’s earlier visit. The comedian found the great scientist a simple and congenial man. At his modest home Einstein’s son quipped, “You are popular because you are understood by the masses. On the other hand, the professor’s popularity with the masses is because he is not understood.”
In 1956 “Albert Einstein: A Documentary Biography” by Carl Seelig was released in English with a translation by Mervyn Savill. A version of the anecdote with additional details was included, and the author cited the memoir of Plesch: 5
An episode which is amusing but in contrasting vein is told by the Hungarian doctor, Professor Johann Plesch (who discovered new methods of blood corpuscular measurements and the registration of blood pressure) in his book of memoirs Janos, The Story of a Doctor.
When Einstein was in Hollywood in 1931, Charlie Chaplin invited him with his wife, his secretary, Helene Dukas and his assistant, Professor Walter Meyer (d. autumn 1948) to dinner in his villa and later to see in his private cinema a performance of the film City Lights.
During the drive to the town they were recognized by the crowd and enthusiastically cheered. Chaplin calmly remarked to his guests: “The people are applauding you because none of them understands you and applauding me because everybody understands me.”
In 1996 the biography “Einstein: A Life” by Denis Brian was published, and it also presented an instance of the anecdote. In the following passage “Cissy” referred to the journalist Eleanor (Cissy) Patterson who was covering Einstein for the “Washington Herald” newspaper. However, the reference notes for this section of the book indicated that the reported words of Chaplin were actually based on the biography of Einstein by Carl Seelig that was excerpted above: 6
A few nights later Cissy covered the premiere of Charlie Chaplin’s movie City Lights, at which Einstein was the guest of honor. Chaplin put his own twist on their rousing reception at the movie theater, telling Einstein, “They are applauding you because none of them understands you and applauding me because everybody understands me.”
The 2007 Einstein biography by Walter Isaacson also recounted the tale. While touring a Hollywood movie studio Einstein mentioned his desire to meet Charlie Chaplin and when Chaplin was notified he immediately joined Einstein for lunch in the commissary: 7
The result, a few days later, was one of the most memorable scenes in the new era of celebrity: Einstein and Chaplin arriving together, dressed in black tie, with Elsa beaming, for the premiere of City Lights. As they were applauded on their way into the theater, Chaplin memorably (and accurately) noted, “They cheer me because they all understand me, and they cheer you because no one understands you.”
The footnote for this passage cited the Einstein biographies by Carl Seelig and Denis Brian for support.
The comprehensive 2010 reference “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press included an entry on this topic which pointed to a 1997 biography for support: 8
They cheer me because they all understand me, and they cheer you because no one understands you.
Actor Charlie Chaplin, after the premiere of City Lights in Los Angeles in January 1931, to which Chaplin had invited Einstein. See Fölsing, Albert Einstein, 457
Fölsing, Albrecht. Albert Einstein. Trans. Ewald Osers. New York: Viking, 1997.
In conclusion, the strongest and earliest evidence for this incident known to QI appeared in the 1933 article by Charlie Chaplin. The quotation about fame was ascribed to Albert Einstein’s son. QI does not know whether credit should be given to Hans Albert Einstein or Eduard Einstein.
QI believes that the anecdote told in János Plesch’s memoir was probably inaccurate. Plesch was not a direct witness of the incident; whereas, Chaplin was a direct witness. Some important biographies of Einstein have relied on the testimony of Plesch either directly or indirectly.
Image Notes: Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin at the City Lights movie premiere 1931. Public domain image from Photoplay periodical accessed via Wikimedia Commons.
(Many thanks to Austin Thompson who told QI about the centrally important citation in “Woman’s Home Companion”. Special thanks to librarian Dana Dalrymple of the Spokane Public Library of Washington who accessed the citation in “Woman’s Home Companion”. Additional thanks to helpful discussants Donna Halper, Sue Watkins , and Dennis Cunniff. Further thanks to John McChesney-Young who found the important 1947 citation and who also obtained scans of the 1947 and 1956 citations. Finally, thanks to Miguel Méndez whose inquiry gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. All errors are the responsibility of QI.)
- 1933 October, Woman’s Home Companion, Volume 60, Number 10, A Comedian Sees the World – Part II by Charles Chaplin, Start Page 15, Quote Page 17, The Crowell Publishing Company, Springfield, Ohio. (Verified; thanks to the staff of the Downtown Public Library of Spokane, Washington) ↩
- 1947, János: The Story of a Doctor by John Plesch (János Plesch), Translated to English by Edward Fitzgerald, Quote Page 211, Victor Gollancz, London. (Verified with scans; thanks to John McChesney-Young and the University of California, Berkeley library system) ↩
- 2007, Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson, Chapter 16: Turning Fifty, Quote Page 357, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Kindle Edition) ↩
- 1951 Copyright, Charlie Chaplin by Theodore Huff, Chapter 26: Trip around the world; Paulette Goddard, Quote Page 245 and 246, Henry Schuman, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1956, Albert Einstein: A Documentary Biography by Carl Seelig, Translated to English by Mervyn Savill, Quote Page 193 and 194, Staples Press, London. (Verified with scans; thanks to John McChesney-Young and the University of California, Berkeley library system) ↩
- 1996, Einstein: A Life by Denis Brian, Quote Page 214, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2007, Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson, Chapter 16: Turning Fifty, Quote Page 374, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Kindle Edition) ↩
- 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Section: Others on Einstein, Quote Page 493, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper) ↩