Charlie Chaplin? Albert Einstein? János Plesch? 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 of this anecdote known to QI appeared in a memoir by János Plesch who was Albert Einstein’s physician and also his friend. This work was translated into English by Edward Fitzgerald and published in 1947. In this version of the tale the two celebrities Charlie Chaplin and Albert Einstein were conversing, but only Chaplin presented the comparison between their different types of fame. Boldface has been added to excerpts below: 1
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: 2
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.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
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: 3
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: 4
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: 5
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: 6
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 evidence for this anecdote known to QI appeared in the memoir of János Plesch which was published in English in 1947. The Chaplin movie “City Lights” was released to theaters in 1931. So the account was printed a number of years after the event. When QI has examined the accounts given in other biographies he has typically found a chain of references leading back to Plesch’s memoir. Important biographers have found the quotation attributed to Chaplin credible though the precise wording varies.
Image Notes: Charlie Chaplin image cropped from Modern Times movie poster. Albert Einstein in 1921 by Ferdinand Schmutzer. Both images in public domain obtained via Wikimedia Commons. Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin City Lights premier. Photoplay image with unrenewed copyright via Wikimedia Commons.
(Great thanks to John McChesney-Young who found the important 1947 citation and who also obtained scans of the 1947 and 1956 citations. Special thanks to Miguel Méndez whose inquiry gave impetus to QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)
- 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) ↩
- 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) ↩