Stephen Hawking / A beautiful mind, an ugly possibility
Stephen Hawking Illustration by Vega Altair
A BEAUTIFUL MIND, AN UGLY POSSIBILITY
Forty-one years with Lou Gehrig’s disease has left famous physicist Stephen Hawking’s body utterly vulnerable. After two police investigations, his family and friends reveal why they fear for his life.
To arrive at the truth about Stephen Hawking’s brutal new universe, peruse the old news clips. The icon of science, the second Einstein, as some call him, has endured a series of injuries for many years. Injuries which some people close to him find very suspicious. And the police have yet to bring charges against anyone. So the question becomes, what has happened to Britain’s most eminent scientist? Was he abused or not?
“Police are baffled by a series of mysterious injuries suffered by leading British scientist Stephen Hawking. . . . He refused to say how he had been injured”—from November 2000. “The professor has received a number of mysterious injuries, including a broken arm and split lip”—dated January 2001.
Then, in January 2002: “Stephen Hawking, the star physicist who has survived a remarkable 38 years with motor neuron disease, almost didn’t make it to a week of festivities marking his 60th birthday.” On that occasion, Hawking suffered a broken femur. It happened to be the result of his own carelessness—a crash into a wall (“and the wall won,” Hawking observed). He retains these days only the use of one finger, with which he propels his motorized Quantum Jazzy wheelchair, often in heedless fashion. But given the previous incidents, there were those in the crowd of 400 who doubted his explanation.
Indeed, there were some who had serious concerns about Hawking’s wife, Elaine, an exuberant redhead. There had been witnesses to vulgarity-strewn explosions directed at her husband, and moments of panic. Tucked away in Cambridge, there is also a red notebook containing a list of suspicious incidents. About these instances, the scientist can’t speak, except through a voice synthesizer. A 1985 tracheostomy robbed him of the ability to talk.
On March 29 of this year, the Cambridge police dropped their investigation into the cause of Hawking’s injuries, declaring it to be “extremely thorough.” This despite the fact that, according to police spokesman Hywel Jarman, only 12 people had been interviewed by the authorities, 2 of them Stephen and Elaine Hawking (the latter came voluntarily for less than an hour, a lawyer by her side). As this is the second time in four years the police have investigated charges of abuse—the first time, Hawking threatened to sue them for harassment—it had been expected that they would send their findings to the Crown Prosecution Service for a decision about further proceedings. But this did not happen.
“There’s not a lot we can do about it,” one police source said privately. Four years ago, during the first investigation of abuse, the Hawkings had refused even to respond to police phone calls or letters. This time around, Hawking declared, “I firmly and wholeheartedly reject the allegations that I have been assaulted.” Hawking feels it is only because of Elaine “that I am alive today.”
Which doesn’t explain the following accounts from those concerned about the cosmologist. “It’s been nightmarish, what I’ve seen. With all I gave the police, I cannot believe they still don’t have enough,” says one former employee who tended the scientist. There are the confidences of another, who has reported that on one occasion, when her shift was over and Elaine was “raging,” the scientist typed on his computer: i cannot be left alone with her. please don’t go. get someone to cover the shift. The nurses who worked for Hawking are being very brave here. I am by no means the only person to learn of suspected abuse. People, London’s Daily Mail, and the Telegraph have printed similar startling revelations. When Hawking suffered a fractured wrist in 1999, his reaction was worrisome. Instead of offering his daughter, Lucy Hawking, an explanation, he asked her not to interfere in his life.
But no such revelations marred the joy of the sequential birthday parties at Cambridge, where Hawking is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics (a post once held by Isaac Newton). “There’s nothing like the eureka moment of discovering something that no one knew before—I won’t compare it to sex, but it lasts longer,” Hawking explained charmingly. The reference to sexual activity was vintage Hawking: an act of defiance against robust odds, a claim staked in a thicket of disbelief. “You can’t be fooled by the fact that he’s disabled or a genius,” says a former employee. “Underneath all that, he’s just a guy. And a very powerful guy, too.”
Charm is not necessarily his default setting. Hawking is, as his friend the British astronomer Bernard Carr once described him, “a cult figure,” a status that gives him considerable leeway. He is, for example, famous for using his wheelchair to run over the toes of those who annoy him, Prince Charles reportedly among the transgressors. Some 10 years ago, the Cambridge literature professor John Casey recalls, when Hawking found himself dining in the company of, among others, Edward Teller, father of the hydrogen bomb, the uninflected robotic tones of Hawking’s voice synthesizer—“he is stupid” were his precise words—pierced conversation. Hawking hadn’t troubled to lower the volume.
But he hasn’t many weapons at his disposal. His bones are fragile, his health as well. In the end, it is expected, the progressive neurodegenerative disease that afflicts him, known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or Lou Gehrig’s disease), will incapacitate almost everything except his mind—the part responsible for his book A Brief History of Time. “I knew it was going to be a success when it was translated into Serbo-Croatian,” Hawking once remarked. It sold 10 million copies after its appearance in 1988 and netted him almost $6 million.
Brief it is: 182 pages as dense and mysterious as the universe itself. Partway through, one discovers that the destiny of the cosmos can be understood only in terms of “imaginary time,” where values, when multiplied by themselves, produce negative numbers. At such a point, Hawking explains, “the distinction between time and space disappears completely”—along with, alas, the comprehension of the average reader.
Nor are the ordinary alone in their mystification. It is often pointed out that Hawking is a theorizer; he leaves empiricism and proof behind in the dust. Moreover, some of his more provocative theories have been retracted by Hawking himself after further deliberation. Among them, his 1984 notion that if the universe began collapsing the arrow of time would reverse, and perhaps people might “remember tomorrow’s prices and make a fortune in the stock market.” It is this gift for personalizing infinity that accounts for Hawking’s success. Still, his book was something of a miracle. As Nathan Myhrvold, who worked with Hawking as a postdoctoral fellow for one year in the 80s, told his subordinates at Microsoft, where until four years ago he was Bill Gates’s right-hand man, “It outsold Madonna’s book Sex,and by a huge margin, and who would have predicted that?” (Certainly not Myhrvold, who spent much of his time at Cambridge quietly designing the software that would later become Windows. He ultimately sold his company to Bill Gates.)
After the best-seller’s release, the man in the wheelchair who had to be fed his meals and helped to the bathroom by subordinates underwent what can only be described as serial coronations. With the exception of the Nobel Prize, almost no honor escaped him. From the Queen, he received the insignia of the Companion of Honor. He flew around the world in private jets; his lectures packed the auditoriums of Caltech, Berkeley, and the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Illinois. Bill Clinton welcomed him to the White House, and he has won the admiration of Jim Carrey, Kevin Costner, Shirley MacLaine, and Richard Dreyfuss. For promoting a chain of eyeglass stores as well as other enterprises on British television he received $2 million—a sum that approximates his current annual income.
He delighted in becoming a character on The Simpsons (“I was happy to show that science can also have street cred” was his explanation) and drew more notice when he evolved into what Al Jean, an executive producer of the show, calls a Simpsons “action figure,” which was a best-seller in toy stores. The idea for this product was entirely Hawking’s, according to producer Denise Sirkot.
“No one,” the cosmologist has declared, “can resist the idea of a crippled genius.”
And another thing changed. “The whole of my early life I looked after him, when he wasn’t rich and he wasn’t famous, and we all did—because we loved him,” says Lucy, 33. Her mother, Jane, and brothers Robert, 37, and Tim, 25, were in similar positions, she feels. “And the minute he got fame and money he was gone,” the daughter adds bitterly. “My brothers and I were useful only to be shown off as beautiful blond children, so he could be even more of a superstar.”
On his 60th birthday, Hawking proved a brave and hearty host. As everyone knew, he was engaged at that time in an endeavor far greater than merely cheating death. He intended to be the first to reconcile Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity with Max Planck’s quantum mechanics, which governs atomic and subatomic particles. Dubbed optimistically “the Theory of Everything,” its formulation escaped even Einstein. But its current chief crusader was, as always, engagingly upbeat. This was the holy grail. “A complete theory of the basic laws of the universe,” Hawking had once hoped, could be formulated by 2020. (Earlier, he had bet on the year 2000.) It would lead to a “complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”
As an old idealist, Hawking thrilled to such a future. With a complete theory at hand, cosmology would no longer be confined to the high priests of science. “Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion,” he promised at the end of his best-seller. Nor are such extravagant hopes confined to him. “We will discover eventually why there’s a universe,” Hawking’s friend Rocky Kolb, of the Fermi lab, assures me. “The laws of the universe tell you if you start out with truly nothing, this is unstable and will decay into something. Yes, the universe is inevitable. Nothing cannot exist forever.” A pause. “I usually wear my Zen robes when I talk that way.” Many cosmologists—Hawking especially—deploy humor with calculation, using it as a method of fraternization with the uninitiated, blunting the resentment of the bewildered.
For its biggest celebrity, Cambridge laid on a week’s worth of festivities, to which some of the world’s top scientists and academics flocked. The black-hole physicist Kip Thorne of Caltech, who has said he would rank Hawking, “besides Einstein, as the best in our field,” came, as did Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, who counts Hawking as a close friend.
But sometime after the appearance of a Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Hawking has a large photo of his favorite star on his bathroom door), who sang a whispery “I Want to Be Loved by You,” and before the cancan girls draped themselves all over the famous wheelchair, a former Hawking assistant began speaking about Elaine in low, urgent tones to Neil McKendrick. He is the master of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where Hawking has been a fellow for almost 40 years. There is something about McKendrick that inspires trust. He is an intelligent, engaging man of 68 whose pompadour hairstyle frames an open face. He was visibly upset, I am told, by the time he left the birthday party.
In the Master’s Lodge, where we meet, its walls painted lemon and lined with pieces of Wedgwood, McKendrick leads me to an ivory silk couch near a blazing fire and pours Chablis.
For years, McKendrick tells me, there has been a general sense in Cambridge’s tight-knit community that something was wrong with Hawking. “We all kept hearing of mysterious visits to Addenbrooke’s,” he says, speaking of the local hospital. He has never seen anyone assault the scientist. Nonetheless, he was horrified when the former assistant, Sue Masey (whose name I learn from others), told him, “I left Stephen because I couldn’t stand it. Elaine is a monster.”
When I call Masey, who used to organize the scientist’s care, her tone is brisk. She left Hawking’s employ in part because “I felt very strongly that I could no longer carry on without feeling that I was colluding in what was happening.”
I gather you informed the Cambridge police that you had seen what you believed to be physical abuse of Mr. Hawking, I tell Masey, taking a wild stab. Even before the formal investigation ended, no one had a lot of faith in the police’s ability to build a case. Andrew Brewer, the lawyer for Stephen and Elaine Hawking, was certainly very active on their behalf. The nurses who care for the scientist were asked by the lawyer to sign a “statement of support” for the Hawkings that could then be handed over to detectives. The letter also reminded nurses that they had signed a confidentiality agreement, and that they should treat “the domestic arrangements of Professor and Mrs. Hawkins [sic] as private at all times.” In addition, the lawyer advised them not to talk to the press. In my own case, I am the recipient of a “Dear Madam” letter from Brewer warning that his clients “will take all steps to protect their privacy,” especially when it comes to anyone questioning “their staff.”
So it is much to my surprise that Masey replies, “What if I did see physical abuse? Hundreds of people have seen evidence of physical abuse on Stephen Hawking. . . . I have certainly seen umpteen times the results of what happened to him.” On one occasion—three slash marks had appeared on the side of his face—Hawking tried to explain the injuries by claiming he had fallen forward in his wheelchair, hitting the attached computer screen. This was “totally impossible,” Masey decided, “since the computer screen was on the opposite side of his wheelchair from his injuries.” Moreover, Masey claims, the injuries happened only when husband and wife were alone. “That’s how it always was,” she adds.
Lucy also went to McKendrick with allegations that her father was being physically abused by Elaine. In 1999, Lucy tells me, she heard from one of the people who worked for her father. “I believe that it was Elaine who has broken his wrist”—a subject, she says, Hawking pointedly refused to discuss.
“I went to see a lawyer and discussed the matter with him,” she says. “And as the law stood at the time, my father was the only person who could make a complaint. And he didn’t want to make a complaint.” She shrugs unhappily. There was only one point an irate Hawking, who refused to go to the hospital, wished to make to his daughter.
“He asked me not to interfere in his relationship with Elaine,” says Lucy.
Did your father tell you Elaine didn’t hurt him—it simply didn’t happen? I wonder.
“He didn’t say it didn’t happen,” she replies wearily.
Lucy is very pretty, a tiny, compact blonde of considerable enterprise and vulnerability. She has plenty on her hands: divorced and the mother of an autistic six-year-old son. When I meet her, it is shortly before her first novel, Jaded, is to be published, and right after she has returned from the Meadows, in Arizona, where she has been treated for depression and alcohol abuse. These conditions, she says, arose in part because of her despair over her father’s problems. “The loony bin” is her blithe characterization of this refuge. The issue of credibility is much on her mind.
It was Lucy who, unbeknownst to her father to this day, phoned the police last summer. “Well, I think he could be tortured to death, and I can’t let that happen!” she says. “I have this horrible image of nothing happening.”
For years, Lucy says, she has been hearing stories of physical abuse from Hawking’s nurses, but until recently, when British laws on domestic violence changed, the authorities either quietly dismissed her or said they could do nothing.
“You see, some years ago, I did phone Social Services, and I said, ‘I think my father’s at risk.’ And they didn’t believe me.” Her large, pale eyes, which resemble her father’s, blink rapidly. “Because my father has this reputation as the World’s Greatest Living Scientist or the World’s Most Intelligent Man, people refused to believe that he could be abused!”
Moreover, the family members, who never actually witnessed any physical attacks, were initially reluctant to make their fears generally known: Jane because voicing allegations would make her “seem like the vengeful ex-wife from hell,” as she tells me. Lucy because “I’ve been labeled malicious, spreading nasty rumors about my stepmother because there’s a big inheritance involved.”
Nonetheless, outside the family, the allegations appear untainted by the suggestion of personal interest. I have talked to five Hawking employees, some of them very fearful of retribution, with interesting tales to tell. The worst of it, say Lucy and Tim, is that they have known for years how volatile and verbally abusive Elaine can be. And, curiously, so did their father when in 1995 he chose to replace Jane with Elaine.
“Why are you marrying Elaine?” a Hawking intimate asked.
“She’s mixed up,” the cosmologist acknowledged. “But it’s time I helped someone else. All my adult life people have been helping me.”
Hawking cannot be defined only by his disease. He is a generous father, a lover of women, a tough negotiator extremely interested in money, a commander of intense loyalties, and a brittle, angry combatant who uses the limited means at his disposal to diminish others.
Still, the illness has marked him in specific ways. Unlike most victims of A.L.S., Hawking was only 21 when diagnosed, and it is possibly for this reason, one of his nurses suggests, that his disease progressed more slowly. Frank Hawking, the scientist’s late father, who was a doctor, claimed to his daughter-in-law that Stephen had an “atypical form” of the disease.
Through the years, A.L.S. has been his constant, relentless companion, outlasting love, marriage, and even certain cosmological theories. It has also reduced him from a clumsy child to a young man on crutches with a dying larynx and finally to a great mind “trapped in a wasting frame,” as his first wife puts it.
Jane Wilde was a shy undergraduate of 20 when she decided to marry Hawking. She imputes this decision to an unusual motive. She and Stephen, she says, belonged to a “very idealistic” era, both of them members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament when “there was a very strong feeling you had to do something worthwhile with your life.” This project soon gathered shape and purpose. Although informed that her fiancé would likely soon die, she recalls with gentle gravity, “I think we were both determined he wasn’t going to. It was an unwritten law. He was going to take advantage of the opportunities open to him, and I was going to encourage him to do that.” Thus, her own young life was bordered entirely by his mortality.
Equally limited was her young husband. His aimless youth was spent at St. Albans, a highly competitive boys’ school, with a strong military component, 20 miles from London. There, as he once recalled, two friends bet each other a bag of sweets that young Stephen would “never amount to anything.” Every summer, students were packed off to Yorkshire, where there were forced marches and shooting competitions at which young Hawking was hopeless. Not far from St. Albans was his parents’ large Victorian frame house.
“Plaster leaked from holes in the walls, it really did,” recalls the music critic Michael Church, who was a classmate both in high school and at Oxford. “His parents were intellectuals, and it was beneath them to think about things like plaster.” And their son wasn’t overly concerned about appearances, either. At 15, his world was rocked when he learned that the universe was expanding. “I was sure there must be some mistake,” Hawking would later recall. “A static universe seemed so much more natural. It could have existed and could continue to exist forever. But an expanding universe would change with time.” Very likely, it had a beginning, the teenager realized. And “if it continued to expand it would become virtually empty.” Such were his obsessions.
“I know none of my colleagues, including myself, who was normal as a teenager,” explains Martin Sohnius, whose former obsession—before he left Cambridge and Hawking and got into computers—was supergravity, another attempt to explain the universe. “There’s something about genius that adds another dimension,” he says, “which is a lack of social support for your problems.”
In fact, “Stephen was a bit bullied by other boys; he was small and looked like a monkey,” explains Church. “Quite a comic figure, really. I mean that in both senses—he was both mocked and quite a comedian.”
Once at Oxford, however, Church noticed a change in his friend. A desire to fit in suddenly overwhelmed him. “He was a keen coxswain with the boats, because he was very small and you didn’t have to do anything at all except shout orders to beefy oarsmen,” says Church. “He liked being around those big, beefy oarsmen, who drank a lot. He drank a lot with them.
“And then—it wasn’t very fair. I went to his 21st-birthday party at his home. Just after Stephen was diagnosed,” Church continues. “And I recall he couldn’t pour the drinks properly for us. It really was awful.”
And at the same time, not so awful. “Stephen once tried to convince me his illness was an advantage,” Myhrvold says, “because it helped him to concentrate on the important things.”
But this was only a gradual realization. Initially, Hawking experienced a period of profound depression, during which he drank and played a lot of Wagner very loudly. He had dreams of being executed. On the other hand, before being diagnosed, he had been, he once recalled, “very bored with life. There had not seemed to be anything worth doing.” That period was at an end.
By the early 70s he was deploying his mathematical skills to astonishing effect. The face of the universe, Hawking concluded, was pocked with millions of mini black holes. These, he calculated, had been created within the first hundred-quintillionth of a second after the big bang.
However, the more Hawking thought about them, the more he decided that, although invisible to us, they weren’t really all black. “The discovery was actually embarrassing even to myself,” he told the writer John Boslough, adding that on one notable occasion he actually locked himself in a bathroom to thrash out the strange theory that wouldn’t go away. Finally he came up with a striking conclusion. The black hole is not all black; it emits a stream of particles (“as if it were a hot body,” said Hawking). This is known now as “Hawking radiation,” and its existence is widely accepted.
It was his first step toward reconciling quantum mechanics with general relativity. On that occasion Hawking had some tough words for Einstein, who once famously declared, “God does not play dice with the universe.”
“God not only plays dice, but also sometimes throws them where they cannot be seen,” sniped Hawking—from what private store of rage we can only imagine. In his own life, obviously, the dice had come up snake eyes more than once, which may help explain why Hawking is no fan of the Supreme Gambler. In fact, as time went on, his brand of staunch atheism increasingly distanced him from Jane, a devout member of the Church of England.
As it happens, the field of physics has a lot of atheists. (“I hate to be asked about God. No one ever asks the Pope about quantum cosmology,” complains Rocky Kolb.) Nonetheless, Jane considered Hawking’s stiff-necked views “very, very cruel.” And his rejection of God was not her sole source of anguish. “Let’s face it, after their marriage his life took off; hers was extinguished,” says McKendrick. Jane is aware that she was perceived as living in her husband’s shadow.
“It was obvious that, in the eyes of the media, I had become an appendage, a peep-show, relevant to Stephen’s survival and his success only inasmuch as in the distant past I had married him,” she writes in Music to Move the Stars, a lengthy book about their troubled marriage. As Hawking’s paralysis worsened, Jane found herself doing everything: mornings were spent lifting her husband’s helpless body into his chair, bathing him, and dicing his breakfast into infinitesimal pieces. There were other issues as well. “A masterly puppeteer,” Jane called him in the book. Stephen was her private black hole, sucking in every ounce of her energy.
On the other hand, life outside the home was, for Stephen at least, a glittering affair, crammed with triumph and hope. True, a former assistant informs me, even as Hawking’s reputation soared during the 70s and 80s, he was earning only £19,000 a year as a university fellow—about $25,000. But his talks on the origins of the universe and where it was going were so popular that the director Errol Morris (The Fog of War), who filmed a documentary on Hawking’s book, saw scalpers actually peddling tickets outside lecture halls.
All around were constellations of bright minds, but none who outshone him. “I think what distinguishes Hawking from the rest is, to put it bluntly, his disability,” notes Sohnius. Caius, Hawking’s college, boasted two masters in a row who were Nobel Prize winners. In 1977 the solid-state physicist Sir Nevill Mott, who was the second winner, returned from Stockholm with interesting news. “Sir Nevill told me the discussion over the Nobel Prize was much longer than expected because some people wanted to award it to someone else,” reports Casey, the Cambridge literature professor. “He meant Stephen.”
Abruptly, Casey produces from the bottom of a pile a decades-old, battered brown leather volume known as a “betting book.” It is the repository of a lot of silly wagers made by Cambridge professors in assorted inks that have, over time, turned faint and whispery. Casey points to a scrawled passage summarizing a bet won by a modest zoologist. “Dr. Goodhart is not in the centre of the universe,” it reads. “Settled by Stephen Hawking.” The signature is at least 30 years old.
“Quite historic,” says Casey. We both realize we are gazing on one of the final examples of Hawking’s signature.
‘I don’t ever remember him walking. I do remember when I was very little, like a fairy story—when they say we’ll grant you a wish—I remember thinking, My wish would be that my dad would walk,” Lucy says.
The element of fantasy intrudes with surprising frequency in interactions concerning Hawking. “We all dream the same dream, that he’s talking and walking,” says one of his former nurses. “I dream about it. All the time.”
The matchless loyalty he inspires comes from caretakers, secretaries, rival scientists—even his ex-wife, who still invites him over for family lunches when Elaine is out of town. And it springs not simply from sympathy for Hawking’s condition. It is the fusion of pity and every other possible human emotion. Pity and love. Pity and fear because of his power. Pity and celebrity worship because those within Hawking’s orbit bathe in a glow that—were he healthy—would never warm them. Those who tend him get constantly photographed by the press.
“I felt I was part of a great work,” his former secretary Ann Ralph tells me of her months transcribing Hawking’s bestseller. It took her, however, two full weeks before she could begin to understand the scientist’s dictation, two decades ago. His voice by the early 80s was so faint that “his words were squashed in his throat,” she recalls.
“Like Darth Vader with a head cold,” thought Peter Guzzardi in 1985, when, as an editor at Bantam Books, he met Hawking for the first time. In a nasty California hotel room, Guzzardi took in the limp body in the wheelchair, head lolling to one side “like a broken doll,” and began babbling about what an incredible honor it was to meet the scientist. He was stopped dead by a succession of weak rasps issuing from the wheelchair.
A postdoctoral student translated: “Professor Hawking says, ‘Where’s the contract?’ ”
“So much for the amenities,” Guzzardi thought. That was Hawking. Everything economized—except his demands for money: $250,000 as an advance for his first book, an incredibly lofty price at that time, and that was just for the North American rights. Money up front—no points down the line, said Hawking—for cooperating with Errol Morris on the documentary.
But behind such mercenary demands was despair. Time, whatever its theoretical applications in Hawking’s mathematical world, was in practice growing short. He had a wife on whom he relied who considered him increasingly a despot. “I could not worship the ground under his wheelchair,” Jane says these days.
Lesser minds—or rather minds that produced what Hawking considered inferior work—were treated accordingly. Brian Whitt, a former Cambridge physicist who helped edit Hawking’s book, saw his boss use his wheelchair to “back someone in a corner—that was one of the graduate students.”
“He fights dirty,” declares Sohnius. Around this same period, Sohnius and Hawking attended a conference of astronomers and physicists in Geneva where a young postdoctoral student was presenting a theoretical paper on a group of stars. “For whatever reason, possibly because he wanted to hear about mini black holes,” says Sohnius, Hawking, who was sitting by the dais, seemed displeased.
“Throughout the talk, Stephen whines the motor of his wheelchair in a sub-threshold whine—just enough to make a noise, not enough to move the chair,” recalls Sohnius. “And every now and then he would turn his wheelchair full circle and the entire audience would be unable to concentrate on what this guy has to say because Stephen was turning circles and whining.”
There were other sources of pain. By the mid-80s, Jane had stopped sleeping with her husband. “I was afraid he would die in the act of love,” she explains. It wasn’t the end of family or home, she insists. “I just felt the marriage had outgrown the two people who started it.” Eventually, she found happiness with Jonathan Hellyer Jones, a thin, bearded church choirmaster who had been frequently seen about the Hawking house.
Cambridge, although famous for “unbelievable amounts of gossip,” as Neil McKendrick phrases it between sips of wine in the Master’s Lodge, refused in this one instance to indulge. “Certain people are sufficiently revered so that no one ever wants to tarnish things,” he adds. “And I think Hawking genuinely thought Jonathan was just a friend! I think he was genuinely shocked when he discovered otherwise. I think that’s what precipitated Stephen’s leaving.”
Because Jane insists otherwise in her book—she explains that her affair with Jonathan was “generously accepted” by her husband—I ask her point-blank, “Did you ever tell Stephen specifically that you were in love with Jonathan?”
Jane hesitates, but the next day it is she who brings up the subject with great candor. “The answer is ‘No.’ I never told Stephen I was in love with Jonathan.” That’s the way it was, Jane adds, until Elaine Mason, the handsome red-haired nurse, came along.
More and more, as friends observed, the efficient newcomer to the Hawking establishment was becoming necessary to the scientist—in all sorts of ways. Voiceless by the mid-80s, Hawking needed round-the-clock nursing care, and this was paid for, after much pleading from Jane, by the MacArthur Foundation, which gave the money to Cambridge. Elaine was clearly intent on currying favor with Hawking. “He’s a real inspiration,” she informed the Los Angeles Times in 1988, before uttering a real whopper. “He’s too intelligent to get cross.”
As important to Hawking was Elaine’s husband, David Mason, an engineer who was the father of their two young sons. He has acknowledged that during this period he “worshiped” Hawking. It was he who first set to work on a speech synthesizer integrated into Hawking’s software, which changed the scientist’s life. “If he raised an eyebrow, you would run a mile,” Mason once recalled. “He uses people.”
Elaine, too, was thrilled to be of service. “Seemingly a caring person” was how Jane found her, at first. Born Elaine Sybil Lawson in Hereford, she spent four years working at an orphanage in Bangladesh before marrying Mason. Equally soothing to Jane, the new nurse was the daughter of the Reverend Henry Lawson and a regular churchgoer. In fact, so immersed was Elaine in her Protestant faith that when asked to accompany Hawking on a trip to meet the Pope she acquiesced only with great reluctance, warning everyone, “No way will I shake hands with him!”
Jane recalls Elaine telling her about “one family member who was in a mental asylum,” as well as about a “suicide.” “At the time she said, ‘I hope I won’t go the same way myself.’ I felt sorry for her.”
Amazingly, considering Hawking’s strong atheistic views, he chose a second wife to whom religion is vital—indeed, more than vital. “Hellfire and brimstone, she is,” says Masey. Other than this, very little was known about Elaine. It was observed that she was a strong, robust woman, capable of lifting her helpless patient without assistance.
Indeed, at most moments during those early years Elaine was a large, vigorous presence: “A wonderful bouncing nurse,” recalls Gordon Freedman, who produced Morris’s documentary. The first time Freedman saw Elaine, she “was doing cartwheels on the soundstage.” She was almost 40.
There were those, however, who were less fond of her irrepressibility. At 16, Lucy was eating her breakfast in the family kitchen, listening quietly as Elaine talked to another nurse, who wanted to know if the cosmologist was her only client.
“And Elaine said, ‘Oh no. I want to build up my clients. Because this one won’t last very long,’ ” Lucy recalls. “She said it right as though I wasn’t there.”
Within a few years, some observers realized, the nurse was romantically involved with her patient. “Oh, looking after Stephen is so easy in comparison with looking after my family!” Elaine declared within Hawking’s earshot. Jane believes she knew exactly what Elaine was trying to do. “It was a betrayal of me,” she says. “She knew jolly well how difficult it was to look after Stephen.” Abruptly, her voice turns ragged with distress. “She had a husband at home to do all those difficult things for her!”
When I call David Mason, who gave Hawking his voice, he seems to be choking back hard sobs. He won’t comment on the dissolution of his marriage. “Because, don’t you see, as soon as I do, I will get sucked into this whole mess again!” he says. In short order, his wife left him and their two young sons for the famous scientist. In 1995 they were married, Elaine’s long red hair neatly tucked under a cream pillbox hat with a veil, her lips painted scarlet. Lucy and Tim refused to attend the wedding.
In the six years you worked for Hawking, I ask Whitt, who left Cambridge a year before the cosmologist vacated his family residence for life with Elaine, did you ever see him with odd bruises, broken bones?
“No,” he replies. Jane says the same. “In 25 years of living with me, he had not one unexplained bruise.”
These days Hawking and Elaine live in a spacious, $3.6 million chalet-style home in Newnham, an expensive section of Cambridge where Victorian buildings vie with the modern. Here Hawking is a local treasure, quite literally. By some accounts, much of the funding for the Centre for Mathematical Sciences can be attributed to Hawking’s presence. Four years ago, Myhrvold persuaded Bill Gates to part with $210 million to establish a scholarship fund. The Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences, in Cambridge, is also said to owe its existence to Hawking. Everything reflects his improved circumstances: first-class air tickets, stays at the George V hotel, nights out at the opera, lavish gifts for his children.
Outside the large house stands a large maroon Chrysler van, designed to accommodate a wheelchair. Electric doors open at the touch of Hawking’s computer. The living room, crammed with Wagner and Angela Gheorghiu CDs, has sliding glass doors fronting a pleasant garden. It is in this room the scientist likes to drink his coffee. Most of the rest of the house is inaccessible to him, Elaine’s domain. Hawking brought her here, his prize, and became her most resolute champion.
“I think he’s always looked on Elaine as his great love affair, and him in a sense her knight in shining armor,” says Lucy. “If you’re a disabled man it’s quite hard living with a woman who’s incredibly competent like my mother … and so good-hearted. And Elaine is none of these things.”
Members of Hawking’s family became the hapless chroniclers of Elaine’s tempests. “What I saw was the verbal abuse, at the top of her voice, shouting a lot of f-words,” recalls Tim. “Or more devious abuse. When she was alone with my father, or thought she was alone, she would speak to him in rather hushed tones, but in patronizing, sarcastic terms.”
In 1993, at her father’s invitation, Lucy, then 22, flew first-class (her father’s gift) to Pasadena, California, where Hawking was teaching at Caltech and staying in a house with Elaine. On arrival the young woman went on a mini shopping spree with her father’s money. It was these purchases, Lucy believes, that set off Elaine, whose voice awoke her that night. The nurses were in a house nearby.
“Get rid of her!” Lucy recalls Elaine screaming. “I want you to throw her out—now!” She also heard, in response, her father’s voice synthesizer repeating over and over, “Please let her stay, please let her stay.”
“And then I definitely heard somebody walking, and I saw the door handle to my room turning, and then a rustling,” Lucy continues. She decided to exit through her ground-floor window, and spend the next 90 minutes jogging around Pasadena.
Angry scenes were the least of it. About 10 years ago, a red hardback notebook, measuring eight by six inches, became the repository for notes regarding, as one former nurse says, “perceived cases” of abuse of Hawking. Intended to protect the nursing staff, the little red notebook was first kept by Masey. “It was begun,” she tells me, “because the nurses are very bad in my experience at realizing the importance of covering themselves with documentary evidence. What they tended to do was just talk about things and moan and groan and say how awful it is. The red book, as we called it, only contained a small number of the total incidents.”
There was one other interesting aspect to the notebook. For several years it was tucked away under lock and key at Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, where Hawking worked. David Crighton, the head of the department until his death four years ago, knew all about it, two sources say. Lucy, however, learned of the red notebook’s existence only in November 1999.
That was the year and month she received a seven a.m. call. It was Lucy’s 29th birthday. On the other end was a nurse. Her father’s wrist had been broken. In despair, Lucy went to Crighton, who had reported similar incidents to the police. Lucy and he had to talk to Hawking about the problem, Crighton told her, “and try to get him to take some action to protect himself.” But Hawking refused.
“I felt sick to my soul,” Lucy recalls. “I used to be so proud of my family. You know, what a lot we’ve achieved, even though there’s been a divorce and changes in loyalties,” she adds. “And then all this happened. And it’s all about Elaine. I just felt so ashamed.”
There were more reports of other injuries. A cut lip, swollen limbs, and a black eye. And just last August, word came that Hawking had been left stranded out in the sun on the hottest day of the year, after which he suffered heatstroke and sunburn.
On that August occasion, Lucy went to the police. But what could be done? Hawking initially refused to cooperate with authorities. “Besides,” says a police source, “I’m not saying the allegations aren’t true, but there’s a difference between those allegations and hard evidence that can stand up in court.” Another problem, I learn, is that for the most part the nurses didn’t call police immediately after an alleged incident.
“I was there when she let him slip down in the bath—she scared him,” reports one. The London Times features a similar account, adding that on one occasion it was observed that the water went “in the hole in his throat.”
Apparently, the second Mrs. Hawking is capable of swift changes in mood. “You don’t give a fuck, you don’t give a fuck,” one nurse has heard her scream at her husband. “And the next minute she might kiss him full on the mouth.”
At a Cambridge reception, one nurse says, Elaine called the scientist “you thicko!” in front of his peers. She has permitted him to “wet himself in front of his own mother,” I and other reporters are told, by refusing him the bottle used for such purposes. During one visit to a hospital, the London Times has reported, she was asked to leave by the staff because she was “throwing things around the room.”
“I once asked Elaine how she was going to face her God when the day of reckoning came,” says Masey. “She asked me what I meant. I said, ‘You know very well what I mean.’ Her face seemed to go green.”
There seems to have been some effort on Elaine’s part to repair her battered image with a public display that appeared to lack spontaneity. This past Valentine’s Day, just as police were investigating allegations that she had abused Hawking, she was observed wheeling her husband through Cambridge’s cobblestone streets. Attached to his wheelchair was a red heart-shaped balloon emblazoned with i love you.
“She controls herself incredibly well in front of celebrities” and certain other people, a female observer says. Dr. Mary Hawking, who is Stephen’s younger sister, doesn’t believe that her brother has been abused, Lucy tells me. Nor apparently does Hawking’s good friend Kip Thorne. A phone call to the California cosmologist gets me only his assistant, equipped with an all-purpose response to such inquiries: “I will not dignify the outrageous allegations by commenting on them.” The assistant pauses.
“And Dr. Thorne says you may not quote him on that.”
“That’s pretty odd, considering he hasn’t investigated,” I suggest—a bit hastily. After my call, Thorne flies to England to see his friend.
“You know, part of it is the myth, the beautiful myth,” explains McKendrick in the Master’s Lodge. “This man who can’t move but has everything. Money, house, fame, celebrity, best-sellers, genius, a wife, children. And no one wants to puncture the myth. That’s the thing.”
By the end of March, Cambridgeshire Constabulary had carried out a full and thorough investigation. That’s what a press release from Detective Superintendent Michael Campbell, who headed the investigation, claims, anyway. Its tone is tender with regret: “I appreciate that these allegations have caused some discomfort and distress to Professor and Mrs. Hawking.” However, the detective superintendent “can find no evidence to substantiate any assertion that anyone has perpetrated any criminal acts against Professor Hawking. I am grateful to Professor and Mrs. Hawking for their full and willing cooperation.” Full cooperation from the same Hawkings who asked nurses to sign a statement of support.
Why would the investigation stop when there have been specific allegations that sound pretty compelling? Not to mention the little red notebook.
“Ah, yes,” says Jarman, the police media spokesman. “Ah, perhaps I can get Detective Superintendent Campbell to call you by saying you wish to tell him about your sources,” he offers.
This does not sound like a good plan. There has been no shortage of people willing to risk everything by talking to the authorities.
“A couple of people asked me that question,” says the spokesman. “Because I understand two nurses have just lost their jobs at Professor Hawking’s.”
Actually, four employees suddenly find themselves no longer working for Hawking. One of these, I’m told, has lately been getting menacing phone calls, a muffled male voice warning, “Keep your mouth shut.”
“That’s what they’ve got us by, the short and curlies,” says one former employee who feels muzzled.
Elaine Hawking tells the London press she is “delighted” with the investigation. But who knows what the future will bring? One nurse reports, “The police phoned each of us up after the investigation ended, and said specifically they are not throwing anything they have away, which I found significant. None of the statements will be thrown out … They said, ‘Just don’t give up on it.’ ” Jane received a similar message: “They told me they are keeping that red book.”
Will Elaine inherit all his money? “Well, it’s a worry,” Lucy concedes. But it’s not one that often invades her thoughts. “I mean, at some point you ask yourself, Is it really worth it? I mean, the pain and the struggle we’ve been through, if this all turns out to be about money, well, then—she can keep it and I hope she chokes on it!”
As for the British newspapers, their ardor for pursuing this case has been effectively dampened. Instead, stories revolve around the Theory of Everything, Hawking’s longtime dream. The cosmologist has, it turns out, abandoned his quest. “Some people will be very disappointed,” he acknowledges. “But I have changed my mind.”
This is a particular blow. What has been proven? his rivals wonder. Look at how he retracts!
“All this time they said he was the world’s greatest intellect,” Lucy muses. “And now they say he’s not.”
“Like a recanting heretic,” suggests The Sunday Times Magazine. It contains a particularly hurtful passage about the scientist and his “not appetizing” lack of “lip control” while he eats dinner. From his hospital bed, Hawking listens as a friend reads this passage out loud to him.