For over a century, biographers of both Alfred Nobel and Bertha von Suttner have searched far and wide for the initial catalyst that drew them together: his newspaper advertisement in a Viennese newspaper for a secretary/housekeeper at his home in Paris. The only available clue for historians was Bertha’s account of the job posting in her memoirs: “A very wealthy, cultured, elderly gentleman, living in Paris, desires to find a lady also of mature years, familiar with languages, as secretary and manager of his household.”
At the time of the advertisement’s publication, Bertha’s secret affair with Artur Suttner, the son of her employer, had just been discovered by his disapproving parents. Having been asked to relinquish her position as governess to Arthur’s younger sisters, the job posting provided a rare opportunity for a woman of her talents. It would also keep Bertha and Artur far apart, which would have pleased his parents immensely.
A few years ago, I sat down for coffee at the Nobelmuseet in Stockholm with curator Ulf Larsson, whose fascinating book Alfred Nobel: Networks of Innovation provides a wealth of information and images from an exhibit of the same name. When I asked him about the sought-after advertisement, he replied that someone might have found it after all, but that it remained both unverified and inconclusive. Most scholars agreed that it had probably appeared in the Neue Freie Presse, but searches through that paper’s archives (my own included) had turned up nothing. Having unsuccessfully chased down many such ambiguous leads during my own research, I moved on to other topics.
My recent conversations with peace studies scholar Peter van den Dungen reignited my curiosity about this purported secretarial advertisement. In 2019, the Swedish journalist Ingrid Carlberg published a new biography of Alfred Nobel, Nobel: Den gåtfulle Alfred, hans värld och hans priser (Nobel: The Enigmatic Alfred, His World and His Prizes). The book features new and in-depth research from her travels across multiple countries. Over the course of several pages, she documents her own unsuccessful efforts to find the advertisement that Bertha had described. By process of elimination, however, she settles instead on something from the Illustriertes Wiener Extrablatt more closely resembling a personal ad: “A wealthy elderly gentleman in need of spiritual stimulation seeks acquaintance with an educated beautiful girl or widow, whom he is willing to support with advice and deeds. A marriage may not be excluded. Reply under ‘Good luck’” Carlberg concludes, “This ad is more likely than the one Bertha von Suttner reproduced. … So while awaiting the critical review that is the basis of all truth-seeking activity, not just science, I venture the claim that (this) ad may actually be the right one.”
This ad, on an intuitive level at least, didn’t sound to me at all like Alfred. Likewise, it didn’t sound like anything that Bertha might have considered worthy of a response. She was madly in love with Artur and had demonstrated on numerous past occasions a strong and stubborn sense of self in matters of the heart. What she wanted was work, not romance.
Knowing that the world’s information databases have been growing almost exponentially day by day, I decided to hop down the proverbial rabbit hole once again. I reconnected with Ulf Larsson and reminded him of our conversation years ago. In his reply, he sent along a digital file of what might—or might not—be the advertisement in question. “A historian in Oslo received it from someone in Sweden some 15 years ago,” he wrote, “but no one remembers the source anymore. So I am not sure which newspaper it was and have not been able to check it.”
Here is the transcription of the German ad followed by a translation into English:
Vermögender, hoch gebildeter äl-
terer Herr, in Paris wohnhaf,
such, wegen Anstellung einer
mit einer sprachkundigen Dame
im reifen Alter Kontakt.
Wealthy, well-educated elderly gentleman, living in Paris, seeks contact with a language-proficient lady of mature age for employment as a secretary-head of household.
[NOTE: While the original advertisement contains two errors (wohnhaf should be wohnhaft, and such should be sucht), my friend and professional translator Patricia Paige-Pfennig notes that the composition of the ad demonstrates a high level of sophistication and linguistic accuracy. Because of that, she believes that the errors are, in fact, typos. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Alfred purposefully introduced the errors himself in the hopes that any successful applicant would be both bold and confident enough to point them out. I once worked for someone who did things like that all the time. That, to me, sounds a lot more like Alfred than the ad mentioned by Carlberg above!]
This advertisement matches Bertha’s description so accurately that at first I worried someone had mocked it up as an illustration. This had been done previously with the apocryphal newspaper headline “The Merchant of Death is Dead,” a premature death announcement claimed by many biographical sources to have motivated Alfred to establish the Peace Prize.
Equipped with this physical specimen, however, the task of locating the original source—and thereby providing proper authentication—became much easier. Diving back into Vienna’s newspaper archives, I found that the style of the post matches the typeface and set-up of classified advertisements in the popular newspaper, Neues Wiener Tagblatt. It most likely appeared within the “Kleine Anzeigen” (small advertisements) section under the category “Dienst und Arbeit” (Services and Work). The number in the lower-right-hand corner also matches the newspaper’s tracking system for similar postings.
Via his own independent path of inquiry, Peter van den Dungen had come to some of the same conclusions. As with proper scientific experimentation, we were able to produce the same results under different conditions, thereby moving closer and closer toward proving a hypothesis and providing final authentication.
Unfortunately, as of this writing, the online archives for Neues Wiener Tagblatt are incomplete. Fearing that the issues I’ve been searching for had been lost or destroyed, I contacted the research department at the Oesterreichische Nationalbibliothek. A few days later, librarian Daniela Köck responded that the particular volumes I was seeking had simply been overlooked in the digitization process. In fact, she now had the physical copies right there on her desk for my perusal and would request that they be scanned and properly archived.
I’m eager to complete this last step of authentication so that historians (and historical novelists such as myself) will at last have a more definitive time line for these important initial interactions between Alfred and Bertha. If only we could find the letters that she and he exchanged between Vienna and Paris as a result of this ad… For now at least, fiction (or, as some might call it, narrative nonfiction) will have to suffice to bridge the remaining gaps in their stories.