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:
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:
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.