Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin's friendship began with a hilarious exchange of mutual admiration
Chaplin teased the world's most famous physicist with his quick wit.
Albert Einstein and Charlie Chaplin are two of the most famous figures of the 20th century for completely different reasons, and an exchange early in their friendship sums up those differences perfectly—and hilariously.
According to the Nobel Prize committee, Einstein had only been keenly interested in meeting one person in Hollywood: Charlie Chaplin. He got the chance while visiting the U.S. when the scientist and silent film star were introduced during a tour of Universal Studios. The two hit it off, and in 1931, Einstein attended the premiere of Chaplin's 1931 film, "City Lights."
Reportedly, the men exchanged an expression of mutual admiration that demonstrated the actor's quick wit.
"What I most admire about your art, is your universality," Einstein said to Chaplin. "You don’t say a word, yet the world understands you!"
Chaplin replied with perfect comedic timing.
"True. But your glory is even greater!" he told the physicist. "The whole world admires you, even though they don’t understand a word of what you say."
The anecdote was shared by the Nobel Prize organization, but there is some question as to the accuracy of the quotes—though not the sentiment of the joke.
According to Quote Investigator, there are a few published accounts of similar quotes referring to Chaplin being beloved because everyone understands him and Einstein being admired because no one does. For instance, in October 1933, an article written by Charlie Chaplin for “Woman’s Home Companion” included the following anecdote attributing a similar quote to Einstein's son:
“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.'"
In another instance, the joke was attributed to Chaplin. Einstein's physician and friend János Plesch shared in a memoir published in 1947:
"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."
Different biographies of Chaplin and Einstein include different versions of the story, including the one shared by the Nobel Prize organization on Instagram. Though we don't know for sure exactly what was said or by whom, it's clear that the two men shared a joke about their unique paths to fame and popularity.
How delightful that the mutual admiration of these two legends not only led to them meeting but forging a genuine, if unlikely, friendship.