Stephen Hawking: how love saved him, and his work

Marriage to his first wife Jane gave the young scientist something to live for, and the need to concentrate on his doctorate so he could get a job

Adam Lusher
Wednesday 14 March 2018 23:34
Stephen Hawking in quotes

To look at Professor Stephen Hawking was to realise he transcended mere genius.

Cursed by physical frailty, he was blessed with almost superhuman intellect. Confined to a wheelchair, he roamed the cosmos with his mind.

As one of Isaac Newton’s successors as Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, Hawking sought, not plodding advances in scientific knowledge, but a “theory of everything” that would let humankind “know the mind of God”.

Perhaps then, it would be naive to expect the personal life of such a man to have been easy or ordinary. It was neither.

The life and loves of Stephen Hawking encompassed beauty and inspirational tenderness, but also emotional pain to match the physical suffering caused by the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis that caused doctors to give him two years to live – in 1963.

It could, though, also be said that if he found the will to outlive the doctors’ prediction, that might have had something to with a love that came to him when he was about to give up, before any of his scientific discoveries could ever be made.

After the doctors’ doom-laden prognosis of 1963, Hawking was said to have taken to his room at Cambridge, listening to Wagner, reading science fiction, drinking and doing very little research work.

By 1964 his personality, according to one observer, “was overshadowed by a deep depression … Harsh black cynicism, aided and abetted by long hours of Wagnerian opera at full volume.”

When he drove his car, the observer noted, he drove furiously, not looking at the road, as if he didn’t care about the danger of losing his life.

That observer was a young undergraduate called Jane Wilde, who had known him since meeting him at a party in their home town of St Albans in 1962.

There had been meetings, laughter, a May Ball, where he had to apologise for the fact he could not dance.

But then in 1964, in the midst of his depression he had offered to teach her to play croquet on the lawn of his Cambridge college, Trinity Hall, and subjected her to a crushing defeat.

“He scarcely bothered,” she remembered, “To veil his hostility and frustration, as if he were deliberately trying to deter me from further association with him.”

But by then, as Jane also wrote in her autobiography Travelling to Infinity, “It was too late… I was completely under his spell, bewitched by his clear blue-grey eyes and the broad dimpled smile.”

Stephen Hawking in quotes

Their marriage was blessed in the chapel of Trinity Hall in July 1965. He was 23, his bride 21.

Perhaps it just added to the romance, that his parents – the distinguished medical researcher Frank and the Oxford graduate mother Isobel - didn’t seem to approve.

Jane would later tell an interviewer how her mother-in-law one told her: “We don’t like you because you don’t fit into our family.”

Her father-in-law, meanwhile, advised her to have children quickly. Stephen’s life, he told the young woman, would be short.

But, Jane wrote: “I did not see much point in having whatever natural optimism I could muster destroyed by a litany of doom-laden prophecies. I replied that I loved Stephen so much that nothing could deter me from wanting to marry him.”

Marriage, Hawking would later admit, would give him “something to live for”. It also gave him a family to support, and the need for a job. He started to take his doctorate work seriously again.

Robert and Lucy arrived quite quickly in 1967 and 1970. Timothy, born 14 years into the marriage in 1979, triumphantly disproved his grandfather’s advice about needing to reproduce quickly.

“With all the innocence of my 21 years,” Jane remembered of her wedding day, “I trusted that Stephen would cherish me and encourage me to fulfil my own interests.”

But of course, life isn’t always like the movies.

Many years later, when she came to discuss The Theory of Everything, the film that was inevitably made of Hawking’s life, Jane had to admit that the filmmakers "had to minimise the strains and struggles, because in our real life the difficulties of dealing with Stephen’s disease were much greater than they appear in the film”.

Jane wrote of having to balance a toddler on one arm, and on the other, a husband who refused to submit to his condition and use a wheelchair.

Having to wash, clothe and feed her husband, her relationship with him became “maternal rather than marital”.

“His heroic stoicism,” she wrote, “Increased my sense of guilt at even giving voice to the slightest misgivings.”

And so she was left alone with “the crushing responsibility, the emotional strain, the aching fatigue of bringing up two small children unaided at the same time as caring for a seriously disabled person who was wasting away before one’s very eyes.”

Her loneliness endured until she went carol singing with her young daughter in the Christmas of 1977. She found a kindred spirit in the choirmaster Jonathan Hellyer Jones. He too was lonely, having been widowed a couple of years earlier. He too shared her love of music.

It was a long time before they allowed their relationship to become physical but when they did a rather remarkable thing happened. Hawking still allowed Hellyer Jones to become part of the family, helping to care for him and to bring up the three children.

Hawking, Jane wrote, “Generously accepted my relationship with Jonathan – provided it was discreet and posed no threat to our family, to our children, to our home or to the running of the nursing rota.”

She loved Hellyer Jones, but she still loved Hawking “with a deeply caring compassion”.

She would later tell The Guardian: “There was no alternative to just carrying on. I felt very committed to Stephen, and I didn’t think he could manage without me.

“I wanted him to carry on doing his amazing work, and I wanted the children to have a stable family behind them – so we just carried on.

“We all lived in such harmony, and for so long.”

But then in the late 1980s, along with – and possibly connected to - the fame generated by Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time came first disruption, and then divorce.

The controversy around what happened endures to this day. All that can be said with certainty is that by February 1990, Hawking had left his first wife for Elaine Mason, one of his nurses.

Described as both “a churchgoing mother of two” and “an exuberant redhead”, she had been married to the man who had attached Hawking’s speech synthesiser to his wheelchair.

“Someone had come along who was prepared to worship at his feet,” wrote Jane later. “Day after day, the truth forced itself remorselessly on me that his smiles and interest were reserved for Elaine.”

After divorcing Jane, Hawking married Elaine in 1995. Jane would marry Hellyer Jones in 1997.

Stephen Hawking and Elaine Mason pose for pictures after their wedding

As for what happened in Hawking’s marriage to Elaine, there exist two irreconcilable versions of events.

They were widely publicised, but unproven allegations of abuse.

Professor Hawking denied, in the strongest possible terms, that he had been the victim of anything.

In January 2004, speaking from Addenbrookes Hospital, Cambridge, where he was being treated for pneumonia, he said: “My wife and I love each other very much, and it is only because of her that I am alive today.

"I am profoundly disappointed by the circulation of such personal and inaccurate information. I firmly and wholeheartedly reject the allegations that I have been assaulted."

And in March 2004, Cambridge police concluded what they insisted had been an “extremely thorough” investigation. No charges were brought. No-one was accused by the police of any wrongdoing at all.

Doubtless the whole controversy had been extremely painful for Hawking. A rift had apparently developed between him, his first wife and his children.

In April 2004 Jane admitted to The Observer: “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.”

But peace returned. By the time the 2014 film The Theory of Everything came out, Hawking was living round the corner from the Cambridge house of his first wife and her second husband. Jane, Stephen, and Jonathan Hellyer Jones were meeting regularly, enjoying Sunday lunches with the Hawking children.

By that time, of course, Hawking was newly single.

The divorce from Elaine was announced in 2006. The reasons were not made clear, although “a source close to the family” had to deny as “complete and utter libellous rubbish” a tabloid claim that Hawking had enjoyed an affair.

Hawking did seem to enjoy being single, though.

He was reported to have been spotted, aged 70 in 2012, inside a Southern California swinger’s club.

“Last time I saw him he was in the back ‘play area’ laying on a bed fully clothed with two naked women gyrating all over him,” was the quote from one source to Radar Online.

Stephen Hawking roasts John Oliver

Given Hawking’s defiant will to live way beyond the two years allotted to him in 1963, it’s hard to begrudge him his fun – if it happened.

The Cambridge University press officer insisted the “lurid statements” were “greatly exaggerated”.

The professor had, apparently, merely visited the swinger’s club “once a few years ago with friends while on a visit to California."

There do seem, though, to have been other clubs involving women in a state of undress.

Peter Stringfellow appears to have acted on the suggestion, made by an interviewer from The Independent in 1994, that if he admired Hawking so much he should invite him to one of his clubs.

The two men were photographed together in 2008. Stringfellow later recalled: “I said, ‘Mr. Hawking, it’s an honour to meet you. If you could spare a minute or two, I’d love to chat with you about the universe.

“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.’”

Perhaps it was proof, again, that the late, great Professor Stephen Hawking was both supremely intelligent, and very human.

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