Autograph letter signed, regarding her scandalous affair with Paul Langevin.

Paris: ca. 1911.

A fascinating and deeply personal letter from Marie Curie (signed with interlaced initials ‘MC’) to her friend Henriette Perrin (wife of Nobel Prize winner Jean Perrin), expressing her anguish over her well-publicized affair with physicist Paul Langevin, considered a great scandal at the time. “I’m living in a kind of nightmare,” an emotional Curie opens her heart to Henriette Perrin. Curie opens, ‘Thank you with all my heart for your affection and for your letters. In my hurry, I sent you this morning something resembling a business letter. Madame B[orel]. also offered her opinion. The best thing is to make peace with Paul, who should now have returned from his travels. Keep him close to you, if he consents, for as long as you can. He can do this without an official separation, and without giving the impression that he’s in the process of realising the separation – this will add more authority and peace to the discussion and show firmness. Why can’t I listen to your good advice and become more calm? … I’m living in a kind of nightmare from which I’m only distracted by my children and by the care of the Borels – and I will again find myself more isolated after they’ve gone. However, I may be able by then to force myself to work, what I have not been able to do so far. Despite everything, my health is rather better than previously, but it is far from good.’ She closes, ‘I assure you of my best wishes and all my affection, M.C.’ In 1911 it was revealed that Curie was involved in a year-long affair with physicist Paul Langevin, a former student of Pierre Curie’s, a married man who was estranged from his wife. This resulted in a press scandal that was exploited by her academic opponents. Curie (then in her mid-40s) was five years older than Langevin and was misrepresented in the tabloids as a foreign Jewish home-wrecker. These slurs severely affected her health, and came close to depriving her of her second Nobel Prize.

Mes chers amis 

Je vous remercie de tout mon cœur pour votre affection et pour vos lettres. Je vous ai envoyé ce matin quelque chose qui ressemblait à une lettre d’affaires et une dépêche. Mme B. a aussi donné son opinion. 

Faites pour le mieux d’accord avec Paul qui maintenant doit être rentré de voyage. Gardez le avec vous s’il y consent, et cela le plus longtemps possible. Il peut faire cela sans séparation officielle et sans laisser croire qu’il s’agit actuellement de réaliser la séparation, - uniquement pour avoir plus d’autorité et plus de paix dans la discussion et pour faire preuve de fermeté. 

Que ne puis je écouter vos bons conseils et avoir plus de calme ! Hélas, je ne songe guère à faire des paysages ni même à en regarder. Je suis dans une sorte de cauchemar dont je suis distraite par mes enfants et par la sollicitude des Borel, - et je me trouverai encore plus isolée quand ils seront partis. En revanche je pourrai peut être d’ici là me contraindre à travailler, ce que je n’ai encore pu faire jusqu’ici. Malgré tout, ma santé est plutôt meilleure qu’au départ, mais elle est loin d’être bonne 

Je vous envoie mes meilleures amitiés avec l’assurance de toute mon affection 

MC

In April 1906, Marie Curie’s husband Pierre died in a freak road accident in Paris, after he tripped and fell beneath the wheels of a horse-drawn carriage, suffering a fatal skull fracture. Marie was devastated by the loss, as was Pierre’s former student Paul Langevin. She became a different woman, even with her closest friends; she lost her gaiety and warmth and became distant. Her one thought was to continue: to raise her daughters, and to go on in the laboratory as if Pierre were still there.

“Although she professed to have no social life, Marie did have a small coterie of loyal friends consisting mostly of those who understood her work. There were the dedicated André Debierne and Jean Perrin, an expert in cathode rays, the disintegration of radium, and the composition of heat and light. Jean’s wife, Henriette, was a calming presence and addressed Marie with the intimate tu. Then there were the Borels: Émile, who had been named dean of the École Normale Superieure, and Marguerite, the daughter of Paul Appell, dean of the school of sciences at the Sorbonne … All of these friends were to be involved in what was soon to be called the ‘Great Scandal’.

“Paul Langevin had long being a dear friend of the Curie’s and he was Pierre’s chosen successor at the École Municipale de Physique et Chimie Industrielles. Five years younger than Marie, he was a tall man with military bearing, penetrating eyes, a severe brush haircut, and a fashionable handlebar moustache. Langevin was both a physicist and a brilliant mathematician …

“Mary Curie wrote to Henriette Perrin that she ‘greatly appreciated [Langevin’s] wonderful intelligence.’ He helped her prepare her course lectures at the Sorbonne and refined her presentation. She found him a sympathetic friend who was soon asking her for advice on what he termed his ‘disastrous mistake of a marriage’ to Jeanne Desfosses, the daughter of a working-class ceramicist, who he felt held him back from great discoveries through her violent nature and constant demands for money. Langevin wrote that he was drawn to Marie ‘as to a light … and I began to seek from her a little of the tenderness which I missed at home.’ Jeanne Desfosses Langevin welcomed Marie into their household, where Marie met the Langevin’s four children. In the spring of 1910, Jeanne complained to Marie about Paul’s cruelty towards her and Marie chastised him. In return, he showed Marie a half-healed gash where Jeanne had broken a bottle over his head.

“Most of what we know of the Curie-Langevin relationship comes from friends’ accounts, and most significantly from letters Marie wrote to Paul which a detective in his wife’s employ purloined from the desk at the small apartment near the Sorbonne that Langevin had rented. By July of 1910, these letters suggest that Marie and Paul had become lovers. Here was a friend, soul mate, and potential partner in science who might replace Pierre. It would be a chance for Marie to repeat the best days she had known …

“Although she had tolerated her husband’s past infidelities, upon for suspecting his relationship with the famous Madame Curie, [Jeanne Desfosses] flew into a rage threatening to kill Marie. Perrin momentarily calmed Jeanne but she and her sister waited in a dark street near Marie’s apartment. As Marie walked by, Jeanne accosted her and ordered her to leave France immediately or die. Afraid to return to her house, Marie fled to the Perrins. Jean Perrin noted: ‘This illustrious woman had been reduced to wandering like a beast being tracked.’ Paul Langevin advised Marie that his wife was entirely capable of murder and advised her to leave France. She refused. Finally, it was decided that temporarily the two would no longer see each other. But when Langevin and Curie left Paris for the International Congress of Radiology and Electricity, Jeanne Langevin told her sister that the trip was only a subterfuge to hide their affair. She renewed her threats against Marie and threatened to expose them. When Marie arrived at the conference, Rutherford was the first to notice her condition. He wrote: ‘Madame Curie looked very worn and tired and much older than her age. She works much too hard for her health. Altogether she is a very pathetic figure’ …

“After the conference Marie and Paul returned to Paris, and then she joined her children in l’Arcouëst, on the northern coast of Brittany, a preferred gathering place for scientists and professors. The Borels and Perrins were in residence. Marguerite Borel had become Marie’s close friend and confidante. One night Marie grabbed Marguerite’s hands and poured out her fear that, though she would walk through fire for Paul Langevin, he might yield to Jeanne’s pressure, desert science for a more lucrative profession, or sink into despair …

“Langevin, however, seems to have been ambivalent. Once before he had separated from his tempestuous wife only to beg her to return. Langevin did not leave his wife nor did he stop seeing Marie. The usually quiet André Debierne had a loud argument with Paul Langevin, blaming him for Marie’s increasingly bad health and emotional outbursts. She seemed distracted at work and paid little attention to her daughters …

“By the spring of 1911, Marie and Paul, unable to separate, were once again secretly meeting in Langevin’s rented Paris apartment, but Marie was worried that Jeanne was having her husband followed, and even that his eldest son might be spying on them. It was at Easter that the intimate letters stored in a desk drawer disappeared. A week later Jeanne Langevin’s brother-in-law paid a visit to Madame Curie and told her these letters were now in Madame Langevin’s possession and she was prepared to make them public. Paul Langevin, in a rage over the stolen letters, left home for two weeks but returned. On July 26, after another fight with his wife, Paul left again, and Jeanne filed charges of abandonment.

“Marie, worn down and frightened, … left for Brussels and the 1911 Solvay conference. These conferences, which attracted the greatest scientific minds, were underwritten by Ernest Solvay, an affluent Brussels chemist and philanthropist who had developed a new process for manufacturing sodium carbonate. Once again Paul Langevin was there, as were Jean Perrin, Albert Einstein, H. A. Lorentz, Max Planck, and Ernest Rutherford, among others. In a thrilling moment while at the conference, Madame Curie received a telegram from the Nobel committee announcing that she was the sole winner of a second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry … Almost simultaneously a second telegram informed her that Jeanne Langevin had released her letters to the press. Marie left abruptly …

“Marie return to France to venomous publicity … Mary Curie’s house was surrounded by people who threw stones at her windows. She fled with her children to the Borels. The press printed her explicit instructions to Paul Langevin on how to get rid of his wife and accused her of being a home wrecker, a dissolute woman, a Polish temptress, a Jew … The whole affair had by now taken on an opéra bouffe tone. The right-wing journalist Gustave Téry wrote that Langevin was ‘a boor and a coward’. Langevin challenged him to a duel … Madame Langevin, having succeeded in wounding Marie more than she had hoped, finally signed a separation agreement that did not mention her. Three years thereafter the Langevins reconciled and Paul took another mistress, an anonymous secretary. Several years later, after having an illegitimate child with one of his former students, he asked Marie to find her a position in her laboratory, and she did.

“Paul Langevin weathered the storm. Marie Curie did not. Shortly after the scandal broke upon this fragile woman, a member of the Nobel Committee wrote her on behalf of the committee asking her to refrain from coming to Sweden to accept the prize. He cited her published love letters and ‘the ridiculous duel of M. Langevin’ and added the stinging rebuke, ‘If the Academy had believed the letters … might be authentic it would not, in all probability, have given you the prize’” (Goldsmith, pp. 165-177).

In the end, Marie Curie did attend the Stockholm ceremony, having received a letter from Einstein urging her to go.

Goldsmith, Obsessive Genius. The Inner World of Marie Curie, 2005.



Two pages written on a single sheet (203 x 135 mm). In fine condition.

Item #5835

Price: $15,000.00

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