Stephen Hawking is not only a bona fide genius, but also one of the most resilient men on the planet. Diagnosed with ALS at 21 and given just two years to live, he’s survived for 51 years with the debilitating disease and achieved numerous breakthroughs in the field of theoretical physics pertaining to black holes and the origins of the universe. Since ALS has left him almost entirely paralyzed, to speak, he has an infrared sensor mounted on his eyeglasses that picks up twitches from a muscle in his cheek and transmits them to a screen with scrolling letters, stopping at each desired letter. He averages about a word a minute.
In James Marsh’s biopic The Theory of Everything, in theaters Nov. 7, Eddie Redmayne delivers an awe-inspiring performance as Hawking, from his days courting Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones), an English student whom he met (and later married) whilst at Cambridge just prior to his diagnosis, through to his physical decline, subsequent marital struggles, and staggering scientific achievements. It is, by and large, a hagiography painting an overwhelmingly positive picture of a truly complex figure, and is based on Jane Hawking’s revised memoir, Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, which was released in 2007.
Eight years prior, Jane Hawking had released a decidedly less harmonious memoir, Music to Move the Stars. It was 610 pages to Infinity’s abridged 450, and recounts in grim detail her miserable marriage to the “Master of the Universe,” and her determination to stay married to him even as his disease—and ego—began to consume him in equal measure. She details how he, for many years, wanted no one but her to wash, clothe, and feed him. How he was so reluctant to use a wheelchair that she’d be balancing him on one arm and a toddler with the other. How her role became more “maternal rather than marital,” and branding Hawking an “all-powerful emperor” and “masterly puppeteer.” Later, she wrote, “It was becoming very difficult—unnatural, even—to feel desire for someone with the body of a Holocaust victim and the undeniable needs of an infant.”
In a fun aside, during this period, Hawking would enjoy running over the toes of people he didn’t like with his wheelchair. So in 1976, when Hawking was invited to attend Prince Charles’s induction into the Royal Society, he gave him the business. “The prince was intrigued by Hawking’s wheelchair, and Hawking, twirling it around to demonstrate its capabilities, carelessly ran over Prince Charles’s toes,” according to the biography Stephen Hawking: An Unfettered Mind. “One of Hawking’s regrets in life was not having an opportunity to run over Margaret Thatcher’s toes.”
But in society and scientific circles, Jane felt like a second-class citizen, often forced into the wives’ corner while the male “geniuses” talked shop, rendering her “little more than a drudge, effectively reduced to that role which in Cambridge academic circles epitomized a woman’s place.” She began to suffer from huge bouts of depression and was reduced to "a brittle, empty shell, alone and vulnerable, restrained only by the thought of my children from throwing myself into the river, drowning in a slough of despond, I prayed for help with the desperate insistency of a potential suicide.” She was effectively trapped in the marriage. “I couldn’t go off and leave Stephen,” she wrote in Music to Move the Stars. “Coals of fire would have been heaped on my head if I had.” In the mid-1980s, Jane met an organist, Jonathan Hellyer Jones, and—with Hawking’s permission—began an affair, but continued to love Hawking and stayed married.
In the late 1980s, Hawking began to grow close to his redheaded, controlling nurse, Elaine Mason. By Feb. 1990, he left the family home to be with Mason, officially divorced Jane in the spring of 1995, and married Mason that September. The following year, Jane married Jones.
Despite Jane’s assertion to Vanity Fair that “in 25 years of living with me, he had not one unexplained bruise,” shortly after his marriage to Mason, the professor began suffering a series of mysterious injuries. A fractured wrist. A broken arm. A split lip. A broken femur. Three slash marks on his face. The media, Hawking’s two children, and Jane all blamed Mason. Several nurses even came forward with testimony of Mason’s rages, including one incident where Hawking typed, “I CANNOT BE LEFT ALONE WITH HER. PLEASE DON'T GO. GET SOMEONE TO COVER THE SHIFT.” Hawking’s former assistant, Sue Masey, claims that Mason’s behavior drove her to quit. “I left Stephen because I couldn’t stand it,” she told Vanity Fair. “Elaine is a monster.” The injuries, she says, only happened when Hawking and Mason were alone.
Things came to a head in Aug. 2003, when one of Hawking’s nurses called his daughter, Lucy, to report that he’d been badly burned after being left out in the scorching sun in his garden all day. Police opened an investigation, interviewing 10 of the scientist’s current and former nurses, but due to a lack of concrete evidence, couldn’t press charges without Hawking’s testimony. “I firmly and wholeheartedly reject the allegations,” Hawking said from a Cambridge Hospital. “My wife and I love each other very much, and it is only because of her that I am alive today.” According to the London Times, Mason was at one point asked to leave that very hospital during a visit because she was “throwing things around the room.”
Up until 2004, when she granted a rare interview to The Guardian, Jane and her two children with Hawking weren’t on speaking terms with the genius.
“I used to see him. I never set foot in his house, of course—that is very much forbidden territory,” she said. “But I used to go and see him in his office, and we used to have a good time, talking about the children and then about William, our grandchild. But I don't even know now whether he is in hospital or back at home. The children don't know either. So that,” she says sadly, “is where we are.”
Then, in 2006, Hawking and Elaine divorced, and neither of them spoke about the marriage. After that, Hawking became closer with Jane and their two children, and then the abridged memoir was released.
Hawking also harbors some controversial views, including supporting an academic boycott of Israel—a position he reaffirmed last May after dropping out of the President’s Conference in Jerusalem. He also believes in aliens, which he divulged on the Discovery Channel special Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking. “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn't turn out well for the Native Americans,” he said on the program. “Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach. To my mathematical brain, the numbers alone make thinking about aliens perfectly rational. The real challenge is to work out what aliens might actually be like.” Hawking also believes that we may create a virus that destroys us, and that creating space colonies will be our only hope.
“In the long term, I am more worried about biology,” he told The Telegraph. “Nuclear weapons need large facilities, but genetic engineering can be done in a small lab. You can’t regulate every lab in the world. The danger is that either by accident or design, we create a virus that destroys us. I don’t think the human race will survive the next thousand years, unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. But I’m an optimist. We will reach out to the stars.”
On a lighter note, Hawking is also said to be a big fan of strip clubs. “He’s a man who lives within his brain and still manages to feel the overwhelming power of sex,” his pal Peter Stringfellow, who runs Stringfellows strip clubs, told The Independent. “Isn’t he the answer to people who attack the sexual side of our human-ness? They’re all charging at windmills, you know. It’s there.”
Hawking became a regular at Stringfellows strip club in London, and the proprietor recalls a hilarious run-in with the professor one night.
“I went and introduced myself and said, ‘Mr. Hawking, it’s an honor to meet you. If you could spare a minute or two, I’d love to chat with you about the universe,’” Stringfellow recalled.
“Then I paused for a bit and joked, ‘Or would you rather look at the girls?’
“There was silence for a moment, and then he answered, ‘The Girls.’”
“I have seen Stephen Hawking at the club more than a handful of times,” a member said, according to the Huffington Post. “He arrives with an entourage of nurses and assistants. Last time I saw him, he was in the back ‘play area’ lying on a bed fully clothed with two naked women gyrating all over him.”
Tim Holt, University of Cambridge press officer, later confirmed that Hawking had frequented the swinger’s club, but claimed that he wasn’t a regular. “This report is greatly exaggerated. He visited once a few years ago with friends while on a visit to California,” Holt told the Cambridge News.
They don't call him the "Master of the Universe" for nothing.