Of a Mind to Marry

updated 08/07/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/07/1995 AT 01:00 AM EDT

THE MASTER OF CEREMONIES HAD arrived, sending a round of applause through an audience of 1,500 assembled on July 8 for a special performance at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado. Under a white tent covering the outdoor stage, Stephen William Hawking announced the first number, an orchestral piece by Richard Wagner. Dwarfed by his wheelchair, his body withered and all but stilled by a more than 30-year war with motor-neuron disease, the world's most famous living physicist slowly pressed a button with his right hand, cuing his voice synthesizer, an automated speech device that Hawking has relied on since surgery in 1985 destroyed his larynx.

"This is the Siegfried Idyll, which Wagner wrote in 1870 to be performed on Christmas morning outside the bedroom of his new wife," said the 53-year-old Englishman in the flat, American-accented tones of his virtual voice. "I am here with my fiancée, Elaine, and we will get married in September, so I think this piece is rather appropriate."

Wheeled off to more loud applause, Hawking later joined Elaine Mason, 45, his private nurse and full-time companion since the mid-1980s, who tenderly touched his shoulder. This was his first public acknowledgment of their betrothal, at a benefit for both the Aspen Music Festival and School and the Aspen Center for Physics, a think tank that Hawking, a Cambridge don, was visiting.

Even without the Wagnerian score, it would have been a powerful and poignant scene. In spite of his devastating disease—normally fatal within several years but with which Hawking has lived nearly all his adult life—the physicist has continued to probe the deepest mysteries of the cosmos, notably black holes. His 1988 book A Brief History of Time, which endeavored to explain the workings of the universe to a popular readership, sold 8.5 million copies and made him a cultural icon, not to mention a multimillionaire. In 1993, Hawking even guest starred on Star Trek: The Next Generation—appropriately, perhaps, for with his wizened form and robotic speech, he now seems almost a character of science fiction, a disembodied intellect above and beyond the flesh.

And yet here he was, high in the Rockies, a starry romantic. "There is a warmth—a caring expression in Stephen's eyes when he looks at Elaine," says physicist David Schramm, Hawking's friend and chairman of the board of the Aspen Center for Physics. "There is a special relationship between them."

Of course the same was often said of Hawking and Jane, the woman to whom he was married for more than 25 years. A language teacher, she tended constantly to her husband and, in spite of the daunting obstacles posed by his illness, conceived three children with him: Robert, 28, Lucy, 24, and Tim, 16. "I have a beautiful family," Hawking said in a 1989 BBC profile. "I am successful in my work, and I have written a bestseller. One really can't ask for more."

But by then, of course, he already had. On Christmas Day of that year, Hawking left Jane for Elaine—who happened to be the wife of David Mason, the engineer who refined and adapted Hawking's speech apparatus. "It destroyed my family," says Mason, 45, who has two children with Elaine. "Everything just fell apart." Said Jane bitterly, in a 1992 interview: "I felt the rug was being pulled out." Divorced this year from Hawking, and now happily sharing a house with new lover Jonathan Hellyer-Jones, a classical keyboard player, she looks askance on Hawking's engagement to a woman she believes is manipulative. "He has been caught up," she says, "in forces beyond his control."

It's no secret, at least to his friends, that Hawking can be passionate. Schramm describes the physicist—whose Cambridge office boasts a poster of Marilyn Monroe—as an incorrigible flirt: "He's a party animal. He likes to dance in his wheelchair." The conveyance, in fact, is a favorite means of expression for Hawking—especially when he's in one of his frequent snits. His biographers Michael White and John Gribbin, in Stephen Hawking: A Life in Science, have noted, "His favorite move when he is annoyed by something someone has said is to drive over their toes."

This from the scientific heir to Einstein, Newton—and Galileo, on the 300th anniversary of whose death, Jan. 8, 1942, Hawking was born. The son of an Oxford research biologist and his wife, a secretary, Hawking was a gifted but less than diligent undergraduate at Oxford University. Some have suggested that the onset of his illness, while he was a graduate student at Cambridge in 1963, helped Hawking focus his mind on physics. Perhaps, but his successes might not have been possible without Jane Wilde, whom he met at a New Year's Eve party in 1962 and married in 1965. "When my mother fell in love with him," daughter Lucy, a journalist, wrote recently in London's Daily Telegraph, "it gave him the impetus to fight on."

As Hawking's paralysis became nearly total, Jane's life hardened into a grueling routine. After packing her children off for school, she would lift her husband from his bed, bathe him and give him breakfast. "Each mouthful had to be diced into minute pieces and fed to him, which took hours," Lucy recalled, adding that Hawking found ways to break the monotony. "As a special treat, my father could sometimes be persuaded to wiggle one of his ears." She said he was sustained by an indomitable resolve, a refusal to accept that there was anything he could not do—or, it seems, make others do for him. "He has," Lucy wrote, "an amazing capacity to push those around him to the very edge of physical and mental collapse, while smiling cheekily to himself."

The Masons entered Hawking's life in 1985. That year, he contracted pneumonia, requiring a delicate series of operations that rendered him comatose and consigned to a life-support apparatus. Ultimately he regained consciousness, but a tracheotomy robbed him of his slow, garbled speech. By then he needed a team of professional nurses—one of whom was Elaine Mason. At her behest, her husband, David, set to work on the voice machine. Says Mason, who admits he once "worshipped" Hawking: "If he raised an eyebrow, you would run a mile. He uses people."

Over the next four years it became clear that Hawking and Elaine had become more than patient and nurse. Eventually the lovers devised a plan to spend one last Christmas with their families, then meet at a Cambridge hotel to start their new life together. A melodramatic conceit, it devolved into farce. "When Stephen left his house, his wheelchair promptly got stuck in a flower bed," says Mason, whose conduct was remarkably sporting. "I ended up driving Elaine to Stephen's house, where she extricated him."

Jane Hawking retains civil relations with her former husband. "You don't just write off 20-odd years," she said. "But Elaine is very hostile to me and doesn't like me talking to Stephen." Naturally questions have been raised about the future Mrs. Hawking's motivation. Are Hawking's mind and magnetism enticement enough? Is she after the more than $6 million he has made, mostly from the blockbuster book?

Her ex-husband thinks not. "Elaine described it to me as 'a need to be needed,' " he says. "There is a notion that if we get married, all our problems will disappear—whereas in fact it does nothing of the sort. So who knows what the future will hold for them?"

VICKIE BANE in Colorado and TERRY SMITH in London

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